When I begin to contemplate the subject of my next blog I think, “Who are the people who have helped shape Asbury Park, or who has a great story to tell? Of course, there’s iStar Financial, the master developer and Madison Marquette, the conglomerate that redeveloped the boardwalk, both of whom have made significant contributions to Asbury Park along with providing visibility on a national and international level.
And then there are other investor/developers like Carter Sackman who transformed the downtown. But I want to write about the lesser known personalities; those individuals who have been here for years making their mark on this cool little city by the sea. You can read some of my past profiles on this website.
A few months back I mentioned that new topics, as well as new writers, would soon be presented. Well, this month is the introduction of both. The story you are about to read was co-written with my good friend and writing inspiration, Sheila Daly.
The Angel Investor
You’ll recognize her by her wings.
She’s Jenn Hampton, Asbury Park’s resident angel investor; donating her time and talent to making sure there are arts in our “vibrant arts community.”
Chances are you already know her, if not personally, then by sight. She’s the radiant live wire with pink braids and wing tattoos, curating the Wooden Walls Project, or welcoming you to GIFT on the boardwalk, or installing a new art show in her art gallery. And even if you don’t know her, you’ve probably heard about her, especially if you are a young talent looking for a creative outlet.
Wooden Walls has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Asbury Park. On any given day you will see people taking pictures in front of their choice of several murals that have transformed the boarded up Sunset Avenue Pavilion into an Asbury Park icon. Jenn Hampton is not only the curator; she is the creator and visionary of this initiative.
“If you want to be a vibrant arts community, then you need to have art.”
The sentiment seems fairly obvious. But for Jenn Hampton, co-owner of the Parlor Gallery on Cookman and curator of the boardwalk mural project, it is easier said than done. Especially in the current climate in Asbury Park where there is a delicate balance between gentrification of the boardwalk and keeping the unique sense of a beach town.
“Asbury Park is a beach community.
Jenn knows more than a little about the role of a local art scene in creating healthy communities. As the former general manager of the Asbury
“I came to Asbury Park when there was no one here,” Jenn remembers. Originally from Puxatawney, Pennsylvania, she had spent many years in South Beach, Florida before moving to Long Beach Island. “I was working as an actress and waiting tables in an Italian restaurant on LBI when I visited Asbury Park the first time. It reminded me of South Beach, which I loved, and I had the same love affair with Asbury Park.”
It was 2002. She wasn’t living here yet, but it felt like home the minute she arrived. Jenn is a progressive thinker, much like her parents: her father is a chiropractor and her mother is a massage therapist. “It’s hard to be progressive in a place like Puxatawney. They were hippies. I was raised vegan and feel grateful for that experience.”
Reviving the Lanes
When she moved to Asbury Park a year later she found the city was not entirely empty. There were other intrepid creative types just like her who loved the freedom of living where you could essentially do whatever you wanted.
At the time, the Lanes was in a bit of limbo as part of the waterfront development plan that made it subject to seizure by eminent domain. With nothing to lose, the Ayles gave the nod to the first concert which was performed on a little platform placed over the lanes, and then to the idea of hosting acts on a regular basis.
“Mel was a genius at roping people in,” Jenn laughs. He encouraged a group of 13 other creatives to work with nothing to transform the Lanes into a local attraction. “Seven months later it was turned into a venue. The first year we had to move the stage in and out for performances.”
Had it not been for the vision, the dedication, the risk-taking and the love of what Jenn and the other creatives were doing, the Asbury Lanes could very well have become a boarded-up shell, like many other landmark buildings that were eventually razed.
The bowling alley and bar would remain over the next decade, as the venue evolved. There would be two other stages and thousands of acts, including punk bands, burlesque shows, dancers, artists,
It was the
Even without a business background, Jenn took naturally to knowing what was needed and how to get it done. “Really it wouldn’t have worked as well if we had planned it. We used our networks and bartered with each other. There was a real sense of community, of investing in making this a great place for creatives to work and live.”
Her vision included purchasing the building and providing hostel style housing above for bands playing at the venue and needed a place to stay, along with a work-share program for bands passing through.
To keep the business alive they had bowling leagues for the locals — family bowling on Sunday, gay bowling on Saturday night — craft nights, and would let new chef’s experiment in their café. “Creatives would go there first. They started on nothing and made it into something. It worked! It was inspirational.” And in the process, a history was being created for the Asbury Lanes.
Their edgy movement helped fuel the ongoing renaissance of Asbury Park as a tourist destination but ironically means the arts is in danger of becoming a casualty of its own success with less affordable housing and workspace available for local artists. Jenn is at the forefront of an effort to preserve the city’s artistic soul in the midst of ongoing development. The public art initiative called Sea Change she originated, with the help of Madison Marquette and the “Wooden Walls Project” is the most visible manifestation.
Her instincts, as usual, are ahead of the curve. Urban planners have only recently begun to seriously study what Jenn has been doing naturally for most of her life. “When I told my mother about the Wooden Walls project, she reminded me that when I was in seventh grade I had convinced the school to let us paint the hallways too.”
What Jenn considers “a no-brainer” is being dubbed Creative Placemaking. It recognizes how communities are more vital, resilient, and cohesive when arts and culture are integral components. In order for this to happen, space for artists and creatives is needed, as well as inclusion in local budgets… and not just after creative, edgy ideas have proven successful.
“We didn’t get a budget for Wooden Walls until 2015 when Madison Marquette agreed to sponsor us, although wall murals dated back to 2010 with “All Tomorrow’s Parties Art & Music Festival” when Shepard Fairey painted public art on the street side of the building and Porkchop, (a well-known artist and one of the original 13) was painting walls since 2008.”
Jenn and others had spent years advocating for public art as a way to provide continuity, and local color, as the boardwalk developed. Once a project garnered international attention, “Then, it was like ‘Great! Why didn’t we do this sooner?’” Jenn laughs.
When Madison Marquette wanted to imprint the murals onto merchandise Jenn collaborated with local fabric printers, Gene and Scott of Shelter Home in order to maintain the integrity of the art. Their first item was a limited edition beach towel line. Jill Ricci, Jenn’s business partner and co-director of Parlor Gallery, helped to curate the gift shop and managed the artist work-space that was part of “Gift.”
The gift shop and artist studio were originally located in the 4th Avenue pavilion. When Madison Marquette began the building renovation it was moved to the Grand Arcade in Convention Hall, now known as “Cultivart” and next door to “Fun House” a souvenir shop also owned by Shelter Home. There are other items with the imprinted murals from Wood Walls for sale as well, but the most popular are the beach towels and nylon tote bags. “It’s a great way to remember Asbury Park.”
One of the newest murals was recently completed by Lauren Napolitano and Thomas Porter. Lauren met Jenn several years ago when she was working at a gallery in San Francisco. Jenn showcases artists both nationally and internationally. Lauren painted her first Wood Walls mural, “Beach Boy” in 2016, but the elements had taken their toll and she wanted to give it a fresh look.
Lauren and Thomas followed each other on Instagram and liked each other’s art. Over time they got to know one another and when Lauren decided to redo the mural, she used the opportunity to collaborate with Thomas on the project.
It took them two days, which began on Labor Day, and after a total of twelve hours – six each day – it was completed on Tuesday evening. “We’re finished!” Lauren said
To assure that money is available for artistic experimentation, Jenn has proposed 1% of real estate development transactions be earmarked to make sure local art continues to prosper. She has lots of ideas on how it could be used to support local art and artists: affordable housing, a good sculpture, a “Conceptual Carousel,” a museum on the boardwalk featuring local artists, just for starters.
When it comes to the future direction of Asbury Park, and working out a delicate balance between retaining its unique character and attracting needed capital, Jenn has the best advice:
“Say yes. It’s infectious.”
Sea Change is a not-for-profit initiative to bring public art to Asbury Park. Their mission is to enrich our community and add beauty to the town. One of their most recent projects is the Carousel building where a temporary museum is presently being installed and on display for public view during the “Sea. Hear. Now Festival” taking place September 29-30, in Asbury Park.
Look for the upcoming series Sheila will be writing for Asbury Insider called “Meet the A
Sheila Daly has been a writer, editor, and writing coach for more than 30 years. She specializes in grant writing and portraits of people making a difference in the world. In her spare time she writes flash fiction and is currently working on a novel.