In a city working to transform itself, The Asbury Hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey signals a bright future. Funded by lender-developer iStar and operated by Salt Hotels, The Asbury is the first hotel to open in the city in over 50 years. Inhabiting an old Salvation Army apartment building, the unique, community-focused hotel epitomizes Asbury Park’s revitalization.
For much of the 20th century, Asbury Park was a popular beach resort city. Economic troubles began in the 1950s, culminating in race riots in 1970 that accelerated the city’s decline. In 2000, the community kicked off a revitalization effort with a fundraiser headlined by Bruce Springsteen, who got his start performing in the city’s music venues.
In 2002, Asbury Park began implementing it’s ambitious redevelopment plan focused on preserving the city’s character and history. After years of failed attempts, developers like iStar, are finally making good on the plan.
A Little Bit Rock and Roll
The seaside city of Asbury Park is famous for the Stone Pony, the live music venue that launched Springsteen’s career. While the music scene stayed alive during the city’s decline, the tourist scene did not. Asbury Park is only about an hour’s drive from New York City, but nobody wanted to hang out at a beach surrounded by dilapidated buildings and vacant lots. Revitalization efforts and The Asbury Hotel are finally luring visitors back to the city.
The Asbury Hotel has a fun vibe that combines vintage and modern elements with a little bit of rock and roll. In the lobby bar, Soundbooth, guests can play vinyl records and cassette tapes. In the rooms, old black and white photos appear above the beds. Song lyrics adorn the walls outside the elevators.
The hotel offers a variety of lodging options, from spacious suites to dorm style rooms perfect for groups. Our double room was large and comfortable with a beachy feel – blonde wood, white linens, and touches of color here and there.
The bathroom’s late Art Deco aesthetic is a nod to Asbury Park’s heyday. I loved the eco-friendly Malin and Goetz soap and shampoo dispensers and reusable enamel cups. And unlike many modern hotels, I loved that we could open the windows to let in the salt air.
Eat, Drink, and Play
I awoke from a nap to a room filled with late-afternoon sun. I headed to the lobby for coffee from the hotel’s grab-and-go counter. Open 24 hours a day, The Counter offers light fare – sandwiches, pizza, pastries, and non-alcoholic beverages.
Ready for a night out, we ascended to Salvation, the hotel’s classy rooftop bar. The place was packed with guests attending a wedding in the hotel’s event space. The bartender impressed us with his perfect combination of knowledge, skill, and hospitality.
Not yet ready for dinner, we headed to the hotel’s beer garden. We grabbed a small bite from the food truck and a beer from the teal VW bus repurposed as a kegerator.
The Counter and food truck are the only dining options at The Asbury Hotel, but that’s a good thing. Otherwise, guests might never leave. By day, you can swim in the pool and play indoor and outdoor games. By night, you can take in a rooftop movie or listen to live music at Soundbooth. A large sign in the lobby lists the day’s entertainment schedule.
After an embarrassing attempt at ping pong in the beer garden, we walked to Porta, a nearby restaurant that doubles as a dance club after 9 pm. The night was warm and the place was packed. We ate risotto and pizza at the bar and watched the hard-working staff fly around the room.
The Asbury Park Vibe
We spent the next day taking in the city’s retro vibe. We browsed the stands at a shopping bazaar inside the convention hall, then toured the boardwalk, where merchants sell art, clothing, and vintage goods. We peaked inside the Silverball Museum where pinball aficionados can play 600 vintage machines for a half hour or a full day.
Asbury Park has a thriving art scene, and local artists are participating in the city’s revitalization. Through the Sea Change AP (Asbury Park) project, artists beautify the exteriors of city buildings with paintings. Many of the images harken back to Asbury Park’s heyday of the 1920s and 30s.
At the end of the boardwalk sits the partially restored casino. The window panes are gone, but the floor tiles remain, giving the place a haunted air. I imagined the casino as it might have looked and sounded in the 1920s and 30s: Men in brogues and bowties. Women in elegant hats and silk stockings. A raucous blend of music and cheering.
A Transformation in Progress
During our stay at The Asbury Hotel, we found an eclectic mix of clientele. Two young women jumped ahead of me in line at The Counter, their voices and sidelong looks hinting at barely contained contempt. A man at swanky Salvation wore flip flops and an ill-fitting t-shirt while another customer butchered the pronunciation of Sauvignon Blanc.
Like the mixed clientele at the hotel, the still-struggling city is both rough and refined. The Asbury Hotel is giving the local economy a boost. Some staff got their job through the Salt School, a hospitality training program for community members. In addition, because the hotel does not have a restaurant, guests venture out to local dining establishments.
The city has years to go before its redevelopment is complete, but progress continues. iStar is working on other projects, including a hotel and condo complex. If the city’s redevelopment remains rooted in nostalgia and history, and places like The Asbury Hotel stay true to the community, the completed transformation will rock – and roll.