Growing up in central New Jersey meant spending summer tracing the shoreline. We went to Point Pleasant, mostly, because it was for families. We usually left before it got too dark, when the mood changed. When I was a teen, driving down the parkway at perilous speeds, I began to see the shore as a mix of romance and threat. A het threat, I realize now: men ready to fight if someone flirted with their girl, women ready to scratch out each other’s eyes for the same reason, bodies bronzed and waxed to attract one another. You’ve heard of the reality show, I don’t need to go into it.
So the shore was for families, or for the rituals that lead to families, even if for a time, they sought out fun with the determination of a cannonball.
I didn’t grow up going to Asbury Park, even though it was the nearest shore town to me, but I grew up hearing about it from my parents who spent the 70’s in clubs there. My vague understanding was that it used to be beautiful but it had been down on its luck for years. I’ve been hearing about it more these past few years, but not so much from people in Jersey as people in New York. Like Coney Island and the Rockaways, Asbury Park has been redeveloped to attract city folks drawn to run-down, gritty glamour. And as with Coney Island and the Rockaways, to get an understanding of the town, we need to think beyond the daytrippers and their golden hour ‘grams.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned about Asbury Park’s queer history. I’ve always been curious about queer communities outside large cities, mostly because I grew up without one. The only place I knew to look was the New York (think Chasing Amy). But what would I have known about myself if I knew I could find community close to home?
So I set out to write an essay about what has changed for the historically gay seaside spot as the city has been “rehabilitated.” I was going to use the lesbian-owned former Key West Hotel as a test case for showing how cities in ruin can be a home for queer people, and what happens when developers start picking over what was left behind—and who benefits from that exploitation.
But as I researched this story, I surprised myself with my own longing. This essay wasn’t supposed to be about me, because I don’t live in Asbury and I don’t know anyone who does. It’s not my story to tell. I found myself wanting to tell an alternate history, an imagined coming of age tale where I spent my summers down the shore, learning how to be myself, learning how to trust myself and how to trust my community. I’ve been feeling a sort of speculative nostalgia, since what I’m longing for isn’t a return home, but a restoration of the home queer kids like me could have had.
Thanks to rail lines along the shore, Asbury Park flourished as a well-to-do resort town from the 1870’s through the 1940s. In the postwar era, the Jersey suburbs began to build up, further atomizing the nuclear family with their split levels and their Oldsmobiles. The opening of the Garden State Parkway in 1947 made other destinations further down the shore accessible, and with fewer people taking the train to their vacation, the boardwalk’s popularity started to wane. The first major mall in the area opened in 1960, and Asbury Park became less of a shopping destination as well.
But the measure of a town is not in how it invites outsiders, but how it takes care of its own communities. By the late 1950’s, Asbury’s low-income housing was full, with long waiting lists. The city declined federal money for redeveloping the disadvantaged low-income settlements west of the train tracks, where mostly African Americans lived, because the white men who owned the real estate (who were, of course, also in government), could charge more and do less than if they were managing federally subsidized housing. In 1970, many of the city’s now decrepit buildings were casualties to racial uprisings in response to racist employment practices and inhumane housing conditions with safety codes dating back to the early 1900s. If Asbury had become a run down town, it is because the city left it to die.
But it was the city’s economic depression that made it a safe haven for all working class queer people, east and west of the tracks. Since it was a resort town equidistant from New York and Philadelphia, there had always been a gay scene in Asbury, with bars dating back to the 1930’s. Ocean Avenue alone boasted more gay bars than the rest of the state, and the city had its first Pride parade in 1970. If the rest of the state was leaving Asbury behind, then queers could not only take refuge, but also let loose, away from straight gazes.
The Key West Hotel opened in 1982 as a gathering place for lesbians tired of feeling unwelcome in cis male dominated gay spaces. Renovated by three industrious dykes who left the outside in ill repair to ward off straight couples, the space offered dancing as well as quiet lounges and rooms for anyone in no shape to drive home. In a 2011 Curve Magazine article, founder Carol Torre explained how she would look out for “deer in headlights” baby gays and offer places for people to live in the hotel. There’s a slideshow you can watch of pictures from the hotel set to Donna Summers’ “Last Dance,” showcasing smiling dykes with their gay pals having the time of their lives.
As local historian Kathy Kelly explained, in a logic only a queer heart could take, “its devastation protected you.” Queer communities thrive in ruins because we know how to rebuild a communities there. But the queer community had no protection from the devastation of the HIV-AIDS epidemic. With people getting skittish about sharing glasses and swimming in pools together, Asbury Park’s queer scene was decimated by the late 80’s. The Key West closed with the decade on New Year’s Day, 1990. The lot was subsequently paved over by the new development that came in the late 90’s and continues apace.
By the year 2000, the New York Times was selling Asbury Park as “the next gay enclave,” but not for local queers — for urban professional ones. The queer community could see the beauty in its blighted waterfront, and the real estate market wasn’t picky about gay couples with children. After decades of “white flight,” white gays were moving in to the predominantly black neighborhoods west of the train tracks to renovate and flip houses. And hiring their neighbors as day laborers, of course.
But as is often the case with gentrification, this generation of queer homesteaders made the neighborhood more appealing for speculators and state-controlled renovation. After two decades of renovation, Asbury Park is hipper than ever. It may still be queer at heart, but like so many former ruins turned riches, the town has also fallen prey to rainbow capitalism that sells its working class siblings short. Urban renewal makes affordable housing scarce and ups property values, and so middle class and low income queers get priced out. Along the turnpike, you can see advertisements for luxury, glass box condos at the Asbury Ocean Club. Five new high-end hotels opened up this summer. Asbury’s unemployment rate, however, is at 5.7%, compared to 3.3% statewide. And segregation is still a scourge: most of the city’s Black and Latinx (47 and 30% of the population, respectively) communities are still west of the train tracks, away from the redevelopment on the shore.
In this current political climate, the stakes for Asbury’s queer community’s ongoing radical engagement against hate are higher than ever. Just last year in Asbury Park, a MAGA enthusiast pepper sprayed a trans person making signs for a Stand Against Hate rally in response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville.
It’s not for me to make assessments about the state of Asbury Park’s queer community today, whether or not it’s thriving. I don’t write for the New York Times, after all.
So instead, I want to take some space to imagine what I missed. I was born in 1987, the year ACT UP was founded. I want to imagine a Key West that didn’t close down from closed mindedness about swimming in the same pool as people with HIV/AIDS. I want to imagine being a 90’s kid who had a vague sense that there was something to these tough looking women down the shore, something to the way they sat and smoked on the boardwalk together, like they didn’t need anyone else in the world.
I want to imagine that I drive the black ‘91 Jeep Cherokee down the shore every weekend in the early aughts, because my parents never sold it. I imagine the lifeguard who drives a cherry red Cherokee, and I will use this as a line to start chatting her up. I want to taste the Sun-In in her short hair when I bite her ear, back against the wall in the bathroom.
I’ll lose at Space Invaders to a couple of old queens who never let me forget it.
The first time a straight girl treats my heart like the ocean treats my body, a dyke with forty years of Newports in her voice will let me cry on her shoulder.
The party will last from Sukkot to Diwali to Juneteenth, because the 4th of July won’t be the only holiday in town.
When I do hear Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park,” I won’t long for something I never had because I was born too late. I’ll let the song wash over me gently, wistful for all the people I knew who made the best of bad luck down the shore.
Hip delights designed for straight consumption will never foster a queer community. I want what I could have had in the 80’s at the Key West: an intergenerational community, as racially and ethnically diverse as the working class itself. What I want is for young queers to dress like a star in one of those cheap little seaside bars, and know they have somewhere safe to go in a place close to home.🗺️