Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: This snapshot popped up on Instagram for sale recently. Ocean Grove, New Jersey, is about a forty minute drive from where I grew up in Monmouth County and it immediately took me back to my childhood. Written on the back of the snapshot is Asbury Park 7-4-35. I thought this photo was earlier than 1935, and I am a bit tickled that it is July 4. I am also surprised by the coats for a July 4 at the seashore however. I don’t think I remember a chilly Fourth.
The Ocean Grove community abuts onto Asbury Park so this declaration of location is not surprising – a town called Bradley Beach surrounds Ocean Grove on the south end. For those of you who may not be acquainted with it, Ocean Grove was founded in 1869 as Methodist summer camp community. Known for its enormous wooden Great Auditorium, an extraordinary survivor of Victorian architecture, it has hosted concert performers from Enrico Caruso and John Sousa to Kenny Rogers.
Another notable aspect of Ocean Grove are the more than 100 tent-homes that are erected annually, these attached to wooden sheds providing a kitchen and bathroom and making them more substantial. There is a more than ten year waiting list for tent rental. (I would put myself down now for a summer tent for retirement, however Wikipedia notes that dogs, cats and barbecuing are prohibited, as is subletting of tents. A cat-less summer would be no fun. It is also noted that while you do not need to be a Methodist you do need to support their spiritual mission.) Ocean Grove is the longest active spiritual camp site in the country.
As a child, the concept of the tent-houses fascinated me and I longed to see what they were like inside. The idea of a whole summer spent enjoying ocean breezes and sun dabbled days in one was fantastic.
Meanwhile, the law prohibiting cars on Sunday was equally exotic to my childhood mind. It seemed impossible – how could you close roads to cars every Sunday? Was there a place where people parked them and walked in? The fact that additionally the beach was closed on Sunday meant that this was never really a destination for weekenders from Manhattan, unless they were there for the day, attending one of the many concerts (musicians from New York and Philadelphia regularly grace the stage) or lectures held there.
Although neighboring Asbury Park was also founded by Methodists, soon after Ocean Grove, it was more like the Jersey shore’s answer to Coney Island. While Atlantic City reined for boardwalk pleasures further to the south, Asbury was the turn of the century amusement park boardwalk gem of Central Jersey and therefore a fairly easy day trip from New York City. The Convention Center and Casino offered largely the opposite sort of appeal of its religiously observant neighbor to the south. The difference struck me even as I understood it as a kid.
During my childhood both towns were largely in steep decline and neglect. The Victorian hotels were turned into SRO’s and, it seems to stick in my mind, nursing or retirement home type facilities. (Maybe we knew someone who lived in one?) During the late 1960’s Asbury was the site of race riots, documented by my father in his role as news cameraman. All this to say, I rarely went to Ocean Grove or Asbury Park growing up unless there was a specific reason. As these things do, it therefore fascinated me all the more. The architecture of the somewhat deserted Convention Center and the dilapidated boardwalk (and not to mention a really great if dilapidated carousel) always beckoned for more exploration than I was allowed.
In young adulthood I discovered that a series of summer flea markets are offered in Ocean Grove, which I have only had the pleasure of attending once, many years ago with my father. It was perfectly splendid and I have always wanted to go back. Starting in the late 1980’s, both towns but especially Ocean Grove, enjoyed an immense renaissance and renewal. Despite knowing this my parents could never quite get over their dislike of the area and were always reluctant to go. (My mother is the same person who still sees Central Park through the lens of 1970’s urban decay and was appalled when I announced that I was going to work for the Central Park Conservancy years ago. In fact, I think she can barely accept that my whole life in Manhattan – and that of my brother – isn’t taking place in the neglected city of her memory.)
The area is not ideally accessible by public transportation (some Pictorama readers may already know that neither Kim nor I drive) so alas, it remains somewhat unexplored for me – one of those things that nags and glitters just out of reach. Summer always tugs me back to my childhood at the shore. I miss the ocean and the beach, but busy times mean that trips to Jersey are more about spending time with my mom, and less about lazy days of ocean and sand. Meanwhile, this Covid summer has deprived me of all summer Jersey shore visiting pleasures. But perhaps this means that next year I will plan a real vacation at the shore – one with trashy novels and a little too much sun – and of course well-timed around some flea markets at Ocean Grove.