What happened to Asbury Park? Bruce Springsteen goes back home to a gentrified New Jersey

Bruce Springsteen on stage at Asbury Lanes
Bruce Springsteen on stage at Asbury Lanes Credit: getty

A little over a week ago, he won a Tony award for his sell-out Broadway show, and, over the course of his 45-year career, has packed out stadiums the world over. But Bruce Springsteen is a man who remains resolutely true to his roots. Last night (June 18), he played a free homecoming gig for just 700 people to celebrate the reopening of The Lanes, an iconic bowling alley and music venue in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

The working-class seaside town, which lent its name to Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, is undergoing a rapid and dramatic revitalisation after decades of abandonment and decay, thanks to a $300 million injection from development company IStar.

‘In the 1970s and 1980s, speaking as an old homebody, we didn’t know if we’d see Asbury come back or not in our lifetime,’ said Springsteen, who grew up in nearby Freehold, and still lives locally, on a horse farm in Colts Neck, Monmouth County. ‘So it’s been a joy to watch what has been happening in town over the past 10, 15, 20 years.’

‘I walk down the Boardwalk now, and I feel like the ghost of Christmas past. But that’s okay, because it’s fun to watch Asbury’s future unfold,’ he said.

The Boss, whose lyrics have long told of the gritty realities of New Jersey life, took up his guitar to join The Tangiers Blues Band - whose members include local musician and photographer Danny Clinch – for a 30-minute, four-song, jam-filled set.

Jay Sugarman, Bruce Springsteen, Hugh Jackman and Danny Clinch attend the Grand reopening of Asbury Lanes, New Jersey Credit: Getty

Opening with Huey Smith’s Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, he followed by I Just Wanna Make Love to You, by Muddy Waters, Down the Road Apiece, by the Rolling Stones, and the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout, Springsteen demonstrated the energy and enthusiasm for which he is renowned, joyfully bounding about the stage with a vigour that belied his 68 years.

The equally enthusiastic audience included New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and Hollywood star Hugh Jackman, along with local residents, who had won tickets via a lottery, and many of whom were seeing the new-look Lanes for the first time.  

The slick, high-spec but retro Lanes, featuring six old-style bowling lanes plus the performance space, is the second phase of IStar’s redevelopment, following the opening two years ago of the Asbury Hotel, a 110-room boutique property in an old Salvation Army hostel, attached to The Lanes.

Next summer will see the launch of the waterfront Asbury Ocean Club, a 54-room high-end hotel, billed as ‘the Mercer by the sea’, and a 16-storey luxury residential apartment complex, expected to sell for $1 million-plus. Meanwhile, the town’s culinary scene is flourishing too, with Asbury Park dubbed ‘the Jersey Shore’s hottest dining destination’ by US online food magazine Eater.

Bruce Springsteen on stage Credit: getty

A demand for such high-end properties and gastronomic fare could barely have been imagined a decade ago, when Asbury Park was a derelict, crime-ridden ghost town, beleaguered by drugs and gang violence. ‘The state was sending $10 million a year just to keep the town going,’ said Jay Sugarman, CEO of IStar. ‘A lot of people were dismissing Asbury Park as a town of faded glory and failed projects.’

Once a thriving Victorian seaside resort, Asbury Park’s fortunes were first hit by the boom in air travel in the 1960s, tempting east coast holidaymakers further afield. Race riots in 1970, in which business were looted and burnt, propelled the town further into decline. Before The Asbury, a new hotel had not been built in the town for over 50 years.     

Though artists and the LGBT community had begun to return to the town over the past 20 years, lured by inexpensive Victorian housing stock, the wide, well-kept beach and kitsch boardwalk, plus its close proximity to New York City, less than 90 minutes drive north, previous developers had attempted projects in the town, but had failed, gone bankrupt and left.

The Asbury Hotel, New Jersey Credit:  asburyhotel.com

‘We’re not the first company to have tried to redevelop this town,’ said Brian Cheripka, IStar’s SVP of Land and Development, who oversees the company’s Asbury Park projects. ‘But others weren’t willing to go all in. It was very important to us to go big, to make a significant commitment to the community.’

It is that very commitment which brought The Boss to town last night, performing as a thank you for the efforts in helping to reverse the fortunes of the community.

Salt Hotels, which operates The Asbury in partnership with IStar, has created 200 jobs so far via its annual Salt School, a free hospitality training programme. With no limits on age or experience, Salt School trains local residents and finds them jobs within the Salt Hotel group, which has three other properties on the east coast, and more in development. When the Ocean Club opens next year, it will create a further 300 jobs in Asbury Park. ‘Bruce heard about Salt School and wanted to play because of it,’ said Cheripka.

Springsteen performed for free, with IStar donating a $125,000 fee to local youth project The Boys & Girls Club of Monmouth County.

But progress, of course, is rarely achieved without some pushback. In the run-up to the reopening, some locals, including one local newspaper, criticised what they viewed as gentrification by out-of-town blow-ins.

‘Emotions ran higher with this project than with anything we've undertaken,’ said David Bowd, CEO of Salt Hotels, which also operates The Lanes. But breathing new life into the iconic 1960s building has been a passion project. ‘The Lanes is about making memories,’ he said. ‘I can vividly remember the first concert I went to when I was nine years old [Abba, Stafford County Showground], and every live performance I’ve been to since.

"People will remember seeing Bruce Springsteen play here, and bands will remember playing on the stage where Springsteen played.’