Rachael Warmington Professor Lothian ENGL 985 Synthesis 17 June 2013
Gentrification and Heteronormativity in Asbury Park New Jersey
The debris from the flood waters of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath stopped before the doorsteps of the iconic rock venue The Stone Pony. The Stone Pony is a monument to another time and place. Despite natural and economic disasters, the Pony still stands. Stone Pony Stands Up The Stone Pony, for many people, is the heart of the music culture that flourishes in Asbury Park. Numerous bands that are famous today played on the stage at the Pony but the history of Asbury Park includes more than launching the careers of bands. Those that over packed cars to see up and coming bands for cheap had to compete with carloads of gays, lesbians, drag queens and others for parking spots. The destination for the carloads of gays, lesbians and drag queens was the bar Down The Street. Like The Stone Pony, Down The Street survived natural and economic disasters. During the eighties when many of the gay and lesbian bars closed down during hard economic times, Down The Street managed to stay open. But unlike The Stone Pony, Down The Street did not survive the gentrification of Asbury Park.
Asbury Park looked like a war zone in the mid 1990’s. Half built buildings, abandoned businesses and a dilapidated boardwalk created a menacing landscape. Yet, there was something about the atmosphere that made you feel a part something special. I have many memories of hanging in Asbury Park. Hardcore, rock and dance music echoed as one in the moist sea air. It was either at the Pony, Saint or Fastlanes that I bruised my ribs in a mash pit. A few years later I was dancing with friends at Down the Street. I moved from one carload to the next. This was now the late 90’s and property values in Asbury Park were very low. The city began to implement redevelopment strategies and the landscape slowly started to change (Willis). One of the biggest changes occurred in 1999.
In the late 1990’s Shep Pettibone bought the decaying Empress hotel and began to remodel it. Prior to completing the renovations of the hotel, Pettibone opened the club connected to it. Club Paradise became one of the best clubs in New Jersey. I was excited at first because driving or taking the train into New York City was expensive and took a long time. The only other dance spot in New Jersey was The Coliseum but it was becoming more of a straight scene. I did not realize how much this club was going to change the atmosphere of Asbury Park. Shortly after Paradise opened, Down The Street closed. The club that survived the economic disasters of the eighties could not compete with the glamour and sound system of Paradise. Paradise Pics It did not take long for me to despise Paradise. The space for women began to dwindle and the crowd was filled with tweaked out botoxed party boys. Paradise removed the “we are family” atmosphere of the Asbury queer scene and turned it into a “take your shorts off” but “not everybody should take their shirts off” crowd. I had an email interview with the former owner of Down The Street, John Hitchcock, and he echoed my opinion of the changes to the Asbury queer scene. Hitchcock stated, “people left for the glamor of a newer club but realized later it was just that, glamor. I have had many of my old friends comment they wish I would come back and re-create the atmosphere that Down The Street had” (Hitchcock). These types of changes often occur after a community has gone through gentrification.
Club Paradise was just the beginning of the gentrification that would take place in Asbury Park. David P. Willis reports in his article, Asbury Park Gay Community Has Helped The City’s Resurgence that “In 2000, the median sale price for a single-family home in Asbury Park was $72,511. It was not uncommon to be able to pick up a six-bedroom Victorian for $100,000 to $200,000” and that “Gays from urban areas, such as New York City and Philadelphia, began to buy and renovate these relatively cheap properties” (Willis). The local population changed as more and more affluent queers from urban areas bought homes and businesses in Asbury Park. Several positive changes occurred due to this migration but important attributes of the community were also lost. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany states:
in a democratic society that values social movement, social opportunity, and class flexibility, interclass contact is the most rewarding, productive, and thus privileged kind of contact. There is no way people can move comfortably between classes if the classes themselves do not have repeated, pleasant social interactions with one another, class war or not. (Location 2949)
Asbury Park has been predominately a Black, Hispanic and queer working class community since the eighties. While the white population is still the lowest, the lower middle and working classes are being pushed to the exteriors of the city. It is expensive to live near downtown and the boardwalk. Despite the diverse population of Asbury Park, most of the establishments downtown and on the boardwalk cater to white upper middle class. The advertising videos on the town website barely illustrate the diversity of the community. Asbury Advertisement Videos In addition, from 2000-2004 the queer community was the largest demographic in Asbury Park “but it is more of a mix now” (Willis). Black, Latino and queer working class communities in Asbury Park are an integral part of the town’s history, culture and success. It is important that these communities do not get pushed out of Asbury Park.
There is hope that Asbury Park will maintain its cultural and class diversity. There are establishments that cater to working class queers, Blacks and Latinos. These spaces will help prevent Asbury from becoming completely heteronormative and white washed. In Relocations: Queer Suburban Imageries, Tongson argues that the way that the performance trio Butchlalis de Panochtitlan “choose to extract themselves from the languid, if not explicitly hostile, takeover of their social spaces, however, does not necessarily take the form of movement, of leaving these places behind or relinquishing ownership of the social environment” (Location 4942). Performers, business owners and residents of Asbury Park are involved in similar relationships with their social environment. Proof of this is found in an Asbury Pulp article written in response to comments about the town after Hurricane Sandy. The writer penned as Pulp Press states, “here’s a newsflash: Asbury Park is still gay, black and Hispanic and beyond the beaten path or even this close to it the streets are alive and jumping” (Asbury Pulp).
Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999. Kindle Edition.
Pulp Press. After Sandy
Tongson, Karen. Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Kindle Edition.
Willis, David P. Asbury Park Gay Community