Asbury Park has been experiencing a rebirth. It’s rebounding from decades of stalled economic growth and is once again the place for nightlife, beach-goers, entertainment and a whole artisanal movement for food and dining. The problem is development is being concentrated on what locals call the east side of town. The oceanfront and Central Business District. The renaissance is creating an even deeper racial and economic divide with residents on the east and with those on the west side, a historically black area. All the interest downtown is driving up home prices and a lot of longtime residents are being priced out. It’s a problem we’re seeing in Jersey City, Newark and in a lot of places around the state. Asbury Park has one of the highest levels of income inequality in New Jersey. And as you can imagine, there are a lot of conflicting views on how to go about addressing the economic gap.
“We have to stop talking around the elephant in the room. Because you cannot talk about health, quality of life and economic disparity in Asbury Park and Monmouth County, unless you talk about the racism. Racism is a major stress factor and known to cause and assist in health disparities,” said Teretha Jones, a former business owner and Asbury Park resident. “If we talk about really addressing disparities, we have to treat the root of the issue, so what I would suggest is understand gentrification.”
“One of the biggest issues is housing, being able to afford to live here in a decent stable place. As I said, people when you can’t afford to live and you don’t have a living wage and the place where you live is substandard, that creates a mental frenzy and I consider everyone to be in post-traumatic stress,” said Felicia Simmons, a community activist.
“We’ve got public officials in this room that know exactly what’s going on but they stand by and put their head in the sand because it’s all about social issues, but we’re not dealing with all of our issues. And until the least of those get helped, then we’ll still have this,” said West Side Community Center Executive Director Lori Ross.
We heard from community members about the disappearance of affordable housing. It was seized through eminent domain and turned into parking areas for tourists and visitors along the oceanfront. Local business owners and workers say they can’t even get contracts to work on the development happening in their own backyard.
“All of these problems that you see before us can be solved, which is simple economic opportunity for everyone. If I got the economic opportunity now, I can feed myself, I own a car, I own the tools I can do work. And what we see happening right here in Asbury Park this didn’t just happen by coincidence, this happened through policy,” said Asbury Park resident Duanne Small.
“There needs to be penalties and enforcement of penalties on business owners who are required to hire a certain percentage of locals and don’t, because the requirement is on the books but not being enforced,” offered Alicia Williams of South Jersey Legal Services.
“There are efforts underway by many interested, passionate, dedicated folks from the non-profits that are here as well as people in the city who are interested to really promote health and improve the health and lives of residents,” said Project Director for Alliance for a Healthier Asbury Park Lisa Lee. “We’re going to see improvements in the roads in lighting and signing, we’re waiting for the state and county to repave the roads, the bike share program was just put in in Springwood Park.”
This is decades of what residents call oppression and neglect, and it’ll likely take decades to really reverse those affects. But, a lot of people made connections and there was a real vibe of working together to move forward.