Part 2 of the gay community’s role in the renaissance of Asbury Park.
The summer of 2000 an article ran in the NY Times about the growing gay community in Asbury Park, citing “urban gays lead the way.” And as Barbara Corcoran will tell you, “If you want to know what the next ‘up and coming’ area is, just ask your gay friends.” The gay community has a long history of spearheading the revitalization of neglected areas. It starts with a few people with vision and resources moving into an area past its heyday but full of character. They buy distressed properties and restore the old homes, reinventing them to be as beautiful and magnificent as they once were. This group of visionaries — smart, creative people who pave the way for economic resurgence — made Asbury Park their Jewel by the Sea, an alternative to Fire Island, the Hamptons, and Provincetown. [Move Over Fire Island, Here Comes Asbury Park].
As I mentioned in my previous blog, The Rainbow Room, Asbury Park has been known for its gay night life as far back as the 1970’s, but that’s only one small part of it. Many people came to put down roots and they chose Asbury Park because they knew someone who lived here. They would come to visit friends, go to local events, and attend parties. They fell in love with Asbury Park, as many do, and wanted to make a life here, even if it was part time at first.
Bruce Donaldson, a well-known realtor in Asbury Park, had an office at the old Asbury Train Station. According to Bruce, who was interviewed in the 2000 article, “80% of buyers in Asbury Park were gay.” He wanted to capture the niche market and did much of his advertising in several New York publications. In that article Asbury Park was referred to as, “Cheaper than the Hamptons, more relaxed then Fire Island and easier to get to then Provincetown, and the latter two as well, with being only 90 minutes from New York City.”
Shortly after that article ran in the NY Times, the gay community began to pay attention to Asbury Park in earnest. Then in 2002, something wonderful happened and it became the most significant occurrence to foster the pilgrimage of LGBTQ people to Asbury Park: an event called ‘Road Trip.’ Road Trip was conceived and birthed by a handful of people who wanted to share the greatness of Asbury Park with others: Tom Oprea, Daniel Baum, Jill Potter, and David Norris. They wanted to tell all their friends about Asbury Park and for their friends to tell their friends. So they would buy homes, start businesses, and bring Asbury Park back to the rich jewel it once was. Here are their stories:
Jill Potter worked for the state. She moved to Asbury Park in 1999, buying a house on Sunset Ave where she has lived ever since. She grew up in Toms River, but her grandmother lived in Phillips Seaview Tower on 1st Avenue and she would come visit her as a kid. When she got older she came for the night life. When she was ready to buy a home, Asbury Park was what she knew — where she felt the most comfortable. Jill loved Asbury for its edginess and its diversity. “It was very community oriented, and not just gays, it was inclusive of everyone.”
Daniel Baum, originally from Omaha, lived in New York City for over 20 years. He was a professional actor for a number of years and then went back to school for advertising and marketing. After the September 11 World Trade Center Attack he decided it was time to make a life change. His friend, Michael “Libby” Liberatore, who worked in magazine publishing, had made it his personal quest to make Asbury Park the next LGBTQ destination and suggested Daniel have a look. Libby had bought a home and set up a deli shop in Asbury Park years before and knew all the ins and outs. Dan made an appointment with Jay Bernstein, a local real estate agent, and was shown three listings. That same day he made an offer — and in no time he secured the NJ First Time Homeowners grant and Monmouth County Homeowners Grant. He still lives in that Third Ave home and runs his marketing business b2creative with his husband Songan.
Then there are the weekenders, like David Norris and Greg Rills. David, a high level executive for Chubb, wanted a second home where they could unwind and get away from it all. They still have a home on the upper west side, where they spend half of their time. The other half is spent in the house they bought in 2003 on Fifth Avenue, (also on the upper west side) in Asbury Park. Built in 1915, the home was exquisitely detailed and beautifully renovated, mostly by David and Greg. One weekend in the middle of winter, they came to visit their friend Tom Oprea. That Saturday, their evening activity was gay bowling at Asbury Lanes. The next day they were given a tour of Asbury Park. Every weekend they would come to look at houses, and they kept coming back to the same house. Eventually, they returned to New York as new homeowners.
Considering where they both worked, they felt Asbury Park was the perfect alternative to Fire Island or the Hamptons. Back then you might see tumbleweeds blowing down Cookman Ave. There were only a few businesses in town, but they looked at houses and would see “great space and great architecture at a great price” and they knew they could make it beautiful. For David and Greg, Asbury Park was a fun place to be.
The first Road Trip was held on a Saturday in June. It was a one night gig held at Paradise Nightclub with Cyndi Lauper as the headline entertainment. The main objective: fill your house with guests so they come and see how great Asbury Park is.
The following year Road Trip expanded into a 3 day event, and was held on the last weekend in July. That’s when Jill got involved. They opened the weekend on Friday night with an oceanside kickoff party at the Beach Bar in Convention Hall. Jill was in charge of creating the women’s events. Suzanne Westenhoefer, a comedian well known in Provincetown where she performed frequently, came to Asbury Park that summer. And a women’s dance party was held at The Circuit, called the ‘Black Bra Party’ – in 2009 she started the ‘Crush’ party through Aww Mamma Productions.
By Road Trip #3 they got more organized and formed a non-profit called the ‘Asbury Park Marketing Fund.’ Dan designed all the marketing materials and David came on board as the treasurer and wrote grants to the state. They received several thousand dollars from the State Department of Tourism, up to $35,000 in some years. As Road Trip began to build, real estate agencies got involved. There was a Trolley Tour that brought people to all the open houses. Co-led by author Helen Pike and long-time resident and local real estate agent Mark McDonald. The tours spotlighted Asbury’s LGBTQ history and the then-current revitalization projects.
The weekend was packed full of events. A kick-off meet & greet and late night dance party on Friday, a sand castle building workshop on Saturday and Sunday mornings on the beach hosted by famous sculptors, downtown shopping and cocktails on Saturday afternoon followed by the Trolley Tour, with an evening of entertainment and parties on Saturday night. On Sunday, a beach party known as ‘Sand Blast‘ culminated the festivities. They wanted people to hang out on the beach and experience the true gem of Asbury Park, hoping that in the process they would put Asbury Park on the Tri-State map.
I’m told that on the first trolley tour there were close to 30 houses sold. Each year the event got bigger and bigger. As word got out about Asbury Park the gay community mushroomed, and more volunteers were available to help bring it to fruition each year: Brad Hurtado, Bruce Artib, Chad Caranto, and Joe Zarro, along with many others. It was an exciting event; as if the entire town was having a big weekend-long party – even if you weren’t a participant, it was fun to be here and feel the energy. Road Trip was created as a ‘not for profit’ event and was strictly a labor of love for most. To those people who worked hard each year producing this event and helping to bring Asbury Park back to life, THANK YOU… Mission Accomplished!
Road Trip continued to be a major event in Asbury Park for 8 years. Sadly, in 2008 the grant money was no longer available due to a crumbling economy. The production had become so big it was nearly impossible to run the event without the granted funds. The volunteer team tried to keep going but eventually closed up shop, ending Road Trip’s run in 2009.
I wrote this article as an outsider of this rich and flourishing community. I appreciate all the people who took the time to speak with me and help make this story come to life. If you’re looking to buy a second home, a first home, or a place for your next vacation, you may want to consider Asbury Park. Or maybe you love just hanging out here – Whatever it is that draws you in, be mindful and respectful of the people who helped make Asbury Park what it is today: a jewel by the sea, designed with acceptance of diversity.
Phyllis Maffucci is a realtor in Asbury Park at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. This post was originally titled “The Emerald City.” It was edited on June 6, 2018.