How Asbury Park, New Jersey, Reclaimed its Musical Heart - Rolling Stone
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How Asbury Park, New Jersey, Reclaimed its Musical Heart

Once a city of ruins, the beach town is thriving again, with sleek new hotels and multiple festivals

Queuing up for a show at the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, NJ, July 10, 2015.  (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Queuing up for a show at the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, New Jersey, July 10th, 2015.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times/Redux

In our new series, we look at eight cities where live music has exploded — from legendary hubs like Chicago and Nashville, to rising hot spots like Tulsa, Oklahoma,and Portland, Maine. The latest is Asbury Park, which is returning to its roots as an exciting a beachside rock & roll breeding ground.

In December 2000, Bruce Springsteen stood onstage at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and debuted “My City of Ruins.” It was an elegy for his adopted hometown, where he learned to perform by playing nightly near the oceanfront boardwalk and saw acts like the Who and Janis Joplin as a teenager. But in the decades following the city’s race riots of 1970, Asbury Park had become a shell of itself due to neglect and political corruption. “Young men on the corner like scattered leaves,” Springsteen sang. “The boarded up windows, the empty streets.”

Two decades later, Asbury Park has staged an incredible comeback, reclaiming its longstanding status as a go-to resort town with a musical heart. Joining classic Springsteen haunts like the Stone Pony and Wonder Bar are a host of sleek new spaces like House of Independents and the Asbury Hotel, located next to Asbury Lanes, which was a key punk venue in the 1980s that now hosts bands like Black Lips and Jukebox Criminals. “I think the most rapid growth period in Asbury Park has maybe happened over the past five years,” says Asbury Lanes-Asbury Hotel proprietor David Bowd, one of the key investors in the revitalized town. “I think there’s a lot of growth still to happen, but maybe it won’t be as fast and that will allow it to keep its authenticity and grit that is has right now and its always had.”

Music festivals are springing up, too. The Asbury Park Music + Film Fest, which benefits underserved kids in the area, featured separate screenings of unseen material from the Springsteen and Bob Dylan vaults last year (both of those events will be reprised in 2020, and there will be a new retrospective celebrating The Sopranos creator David Chase). There’s also the epic Sea.Hear.Now, one of the most successful U.S. fests to spring up in recent years. The event — which Dave Matthews Band and the Lumineers played last year — is co-produced by veteran music photographer Danny Clinch, who opened a gallery of his work in Asbury Park in 2016. Clinch, who grew up in nearby Toms River, spent his teenage years seeing shows at the Stone Pony. “I used to come to Asbury Park and think to myself, ‘How could a place like this, right on the seashore with such beautiful architecture, not come back?’” says Clinch. “It was this diamond in the rough. I’ve heard that now there are more music venues per square mile than any town in the country, even Nashville. It’s incredible.”

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