Ocean Grove/Asbury Park, N.J.

A honky-tonk Jersey Shore gem gets rediscovered by bargain-hunting Fire Island exiles.
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Down by the sea: The Ocean Grove Beach


Holy smokes! What happened here? Thought domenic Santana when he returned to Asbury Park for the first time in twenty years in 1998. Still reeling from seventies race riots, subsequent redevelopment disasters, and a history of shady politics (the FBI raided City Hall this January), this community of 17,000 sometimes seems more like a banana republic than the fabled seaside resort of Santana's youth. But a growing influx of entrepreneurs and New York professionals -- especially gays and lesbians -- is rediscovering the town, attracted by its diamond-in-the-rough boardwalk, edgy diversity, and spacious fixer-upper houses. "I used to never cross a bridge or tunnel except to go to the Hamptons," says Barbara Butcher, who, with partner MaryAnn Vitiello and Vitiello's son, moved here last year. "I love the diversity, the houses, the character. It's fabulous." And with the Victorian charm of Ocean Grove -- an immaculate enclave first built as a Methodist retreat -- just next door, it's no wonder that the area is booming again. "Asbury's development madness is turning into a real gold rush," continues Santana, who moved his family here from Jersey City in 2000 to reopen the Stone Pony club, which Bruce Springsteen made famous. "The place is really coming up."

Things To Do: "Our lives revolve around house renovations and decorating–faux pas gossip," jokes Vitiello, referring to her circle of fellow newcomers. But music and nightlife still reign in Asbury Park. The waterfront Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre host regular concerts, while summer music festivals and local bars and lounges cater to everyone from club kids and jazz lovers to the rocker-and-biker set. New York nightlife impresario John Dorian, of Rebar and Suite 16, is opening two restaurants, Harry's Roadhouse and 660 Cookman, next month. By day, downtown's antique shops and galleries are buzzing with shoppers. Ocean Grove offers quaint strolls and restaurants, and the beaches are clean and uncrowded. "I prefer it here because you can have the time of your life," says Gary Thomas, half of a gay Manhattan couple who traded in their Fire Island weekend share for a home of their own in Asbury. "Or you can just relax."

Sightings: Russell Crowe, James Gandolfini, Jon Bon Jovi, and the Boss himself have all been spotted at the reopened Stone Pony. And Paradise -- a sprawling gay club owned by former Madonna producer Shep Pettibone -- books the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Taylor Dane. (Still no sign of Madonna, "but you never know," Pettibone says coyly.)

Tale of Two Beach Towns: "The psychological barrier between us is definitely diminishing," insists Malcolm Navias, a New York expat who moved from Ocean Grove to Asbury Park this year. It wasn't so long ago that Ocean Grove was gated off from Asbury at night. On Sundays, Ocean Grove's beach is still closed until 12:30 p.m. and you can't buy alcohol no matter what day of the week it is. "It's nice for brunch, but I would never live there," declares Asbury newcomer Bernard Figueroa, who now commutes to Manhattan from the house he shares with his partner, Ted, and their 6-year-old son. "It's too uptight."

Buying in Asbury: "Prices have increased dramatically in just three years, but when you compare us to the surrounding towns, we're still a very good buy," explains longtime Asbury Realtor Bruce Donaldson. Houses in varying conditions -- from bungalows and Victorians to Neo-Colonials and Tudors -- go for between $125,000 and $500,000 (averaging about $225,000). Values decline as you move from the more affluent north end to the somewhat seedier southwest. Rentals are scarce, though a market is developing.

Renting in Ocean Grove: "There's not much left to buy here," says 30-year Ocean Grove real-estate veteran Arlene Fox. But rentals are more plentiful. The average three-bedroom house ranges from $750 to $2,000 per week, or $8,000 to $20,000 for the season.

Recommended Realtors: In Asbury Park, Bruce Donaldson (732-775-0655), John C. Conover (732-531-2500). In Ocean Grove, James J. Pentz (732-988-7271), Arlene Fox at Diane Turton (732-775-2774).

Weekend Visits: The best overnight options are in Ocean Grove, with its many bed-and-breakfasts (check for listings). The newly relocated Moonstruck restaurant (opening June 2; 732-988-0123), offering Continental fare, is the place to eat out.

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Photo Courtesy of Ocean Grove Chamber of Commerce.
From the June 3, 2002 issue of New York Magazine.