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It's Time For Asbury Park To Create An Arts District

By Gary Wien

This is a critical time for the arts in Asbury Park. The city has always attracted artists from around the world, but as redevelopment moves forward, the city is in the unique situation of breaking the perpetual urban pattern of revitalization.

The story goes like this. Artists move into an area, fix it up and make it look attractive to the outside world. Soon the outside world moves in and push the rents so high that the artists are forced out to move to a new area and start the pattern all over.

But it doesn't have to happen to Asbury Park and artists are banding together in the recently formed Asbury Park Arts Coalition to ensure the future of the arts in the city.

"I think the arts in Asbury Park really has to be the moving force to make Asbury be successful," said David De Boerof David Alan Enterprises, a multimedia arts design firm. "It's what this town has always thrived upon - the music heritage, the art heritage. It has to be addressed so that the artists aren't forced out for either rent issues or the inability to work and create a living environment. I think the people who are here in Asbury in the creative field have to really bond together. We're going to need to work together to be one voice instead of a lot of little separate voices."

One of the primary goals of the Asbury Park Arts Coalition is the creation of an arts district. This is not only a great idea, but it could be the idea to fully bring the city back to its glory years. Just look at Red Bank.

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For decades, people entering Red Bank saw this monsterous ugly, abandoned building located before the antique district. It gave you with a particularly depressing outlook on the town before you even reached the main downtown area. The town largely turned things around the minute that ugly building was transformed into the Galleria. That building so inspired a resurgence in that side of town that the Two River Theatre decided to build their theatre there. A theatre which opened earlier this year and proves just how much the arts can help brand a town.

The Asbury Park Arts Coalition believes the arts district should be comprised on one central hub with satellites spread throughout the town. The city has three main buildings which play similar roles to the Galleria and any one of the three could make a perfect central hub for an arts district. Each of these buildings has long been abandoned and is in a state of decay. Each also emits a sense of dread and despair in a location which should inspire.

The two buildings that we suggest should be strongly looked at as possible sites for the Arts District hub are the Charms Building and the Metropolitan Hotel. Both would be perfect locations that would serve well as centers for the arts.

"I think that there should be a zone where there would be cheap enough rents or some sort of a combination of housing for artists or studio and working space for artists," said Kriz Oehme, the Poet Laureate winner at the 2004 Asbury Music awards. "I think the Metropolitan would be perfect. It would serve a retail store for the arts itself plus working space for artists and showcase spaces for poetry, and workshops for kids. All of it run in one central location."

John Brown, the owner of the El Lobo Negro Art Gallery believes that the arts district could be blended in a very unique way through the fiber of the newly emerging city. "I've always maintained that the arts is as much of a resource in the city as the brick and mortar. Yes it has interesting buildings and vistas of the ocean, but the history of the arts in the Asbury Park region and the existence of the arts here has much to add to the mentality as well as the actual functioning part of the city."

Part of the reason why the timing of the Arts Council is so crucial is that major progress is happening in Asbury Park each day. The city you see now will look very different in a year or two. The time to ensure the future of arts in Asbury Park is now because it may very well be too late in a short period of time.

"I think the plans are still early enough that whatever plans the city has can be changed or altered for the better," said David De Boer.

Who better to help change the plans for the town than the group that initially spurred on the interest in the first place? Here's where Asbury Park has a chance to be different. Most towns simply use artists as a way to get the ball rolling and then force them to leave down the line. Asbury Park doesn't have to follow that path. This is the town which inspired artists from Stephen Crane to modern storytellers like Bruce Springsteen. Isn't it time for artists to get their chance to ensure their future here?

Christina Elioupoulis certainly thinks so. She is an Asbury Park native and independent filmmaker currently wrapping up a feature-length documentary on the city's history entitled, "Greetings From Asbury Park". When asked how artists may play a role in the revitalization of Asbury Park she replied,"They're the only way this town will come back. The real leadership comes from artists; real humanity comes from artists; the real enterprise comes from artists. We are the ones who are most concerned with where we live and how we relate to each other. And that's what makes a successful community, living and relating to each other."

"One of the themes I have in the film is that its really not the role of government to be creative, it's the role of its people to be creative - to come up with these incredible schemes, these wide-eyed kind of ideas for a place," adds Elioupoulis. "Government is government. They're going to take the standardized cookie-cutter approach. It's up to the residents and artists to say "let's propose something really wild" and then have the government sort of rein us back in. But start at a place that's really creative, don't start with a cookie-cutter compromise."

Yet the arts doesn't have to be a wide-eyed scheme. In fact, a recent study released by the Rand Corporation points to a new way of looking at the benefits of the arts. The study, entitled "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts" looks at how the arts helps shape the quality of life for a city's residents. It proves that there are some benefits that can't be simply tallied up in a cash register. Somethings are harder to judge yet they play as large of a role as anything else. It provides a sense of pride, revenue, and prestige for the area.

Tony Tedesco, an Asbury Park based poet, believes that the creation of the Arts Coalition is an important step for the city. "It's important to keep the artists in town and I think the Arts Coalition has a good plan that focuses not so much on the artists but on the community. Let's face it, there is a lot of talent out here in Asbury. You have so many different cultures that are mixed together - Hispanic, Creole, African-American, gay & lesbian, etc. Everybody has their own cultural identity in this town. Geographically it's not a very big city but there is a big city inside of it.

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"I think that if the Arts Coalition can fulfill their intention to give back to the community then all of a sudden you're going to see art popping up all over the place and people will want to come here as opposed to trying to keep them in town."

In addition to the Arts Coalition there are several other things going on in town to help bring artists together. Dennis Carroll of the APeXgallery set up a meeting with the seven galleries in town to discuss common interests and discover ways they could work together for the greater goal. It is ideas like this that will help the galleries succeed where others failed. Even though it may seem like the arts is flourishing in town, previous high profile galleries like Asbury Art and the Be Gallery have closed in recent years. Even the El Lobo Negro Art Gallery, which is about to celebrate its sixth year of continuous operation, originally shut down for a while before returning.

Another interesting idea is the creation of the Muther poetry shows. There will be several small shows (including one at Maxine's on June 13th) leading up to the big show after the summer.

"The reason I'm doing the Muther poetry shows is because the art community gets scattered at times," explained Kriz Oehme. "People in poetry sometimes exclude people that they don't really know about. Muther will be set up in Asbury but it's going to have poetry groups from Red Bank, New Brunswick, and Trenton."

Bringing artists from across the state to Asbury Park may help inspire a movement in the area. That is one of the underlying missions of artists getting together. Asbury Park is already known throughout the world for its musical heritage, if an arts explosion took place it would bring artists from around the globe to the city and inspire a greatness that no downtown shopping area could ever achieve.

"One of the things that attracted us is that there's a lot of energy now and there's still a level of edginess about it, an urban edginess," said Dennis Carroll. "It sort of gives rise to the idea that it's a place where you find the arts."

"Movements are all about being together geographically," added Tony Tedesco. "Scenes are all about people coming together and being like-minded and growing and challenging each other. Most artists have that inner desire and competitive edge to rise to the occasion."

"For some mystical reason, Asbury Park has always been a vortex of immeasurable creativity," adds Colie Brice of AERIA Entertainment LLC. "It's been a fertile spawning ground for many generations of artists and will continue to be so in the future. The question is, will the current powers that be who are attempting to revitalize the city economically, embrace the depth and diversity of AP's artistic community, or try to franchise a watered down, generic representation of limited scope and purpose.

"Good times or bad, there will always be great artists coming from this region - the art will survive and flourish no matter what.," continued Brice. "It behooves the economic power brokers to pay heed to and work with what is already great about Asbury culture. Any attempt to homogenize or tame this vital artistic culture will ultimately back fire. I don't think AP could ever be yuppie utopia, but it already is somewhat of a Nutopia - a place without creative boundaries! In an era of Walmarts and strip malls, humanity needs Asbury Park's depth, soul, and its unparalleled artistry."

Can Asbury Park become one of the centers of the art world? Certainly. It's got a long road ahead of it to achieve such a lofty goal, but it also has history on its side. Few towns as small as Asbury Park (1 1/4 miles, under 17,000 residents) are known throughout the world; yet if you go anywhere and mention the city people will undoubtedly know the beach, the boardwalk, and that Bruce Springsteen got his start there. That's a form of branding that no city could ever buy. If you're lucky enough to have it you should use it. And Asbury Park can watch its musical heritage bring its arts heritage to the fold as well through the creation of a world-class arts district.

"Towns don't owe an existence to the cookie cutter, there are too many conflicting demands, competing interests, geographic problems, opportunities and anomalies for one design to ever cope with," said Skip Bernstein, JerseyShoreToday.com. "This supports the rise in individuality and uniqueness, which in turn supports a different branding decision; who, why and what are we as a community to be about?

"Locally we have interesting examples of community choice. Belmar has thrown its hat into the ring of tranquil upper middle class resort with a minimum of fuss and bother; Red Bank seems to me a sort of Saturday Night Fever meets Disneyland; Long Branch a higher density, lower economic strata version of Belmar, spit and protected from the wrong side of the tracks by Ocean Avenue; Bradley Beach an ever increasingly important culinary town with a mix of economic classes. None of the foregoing have the natural identity of entertainment and music heritage, none has as pleasing an urban plan with exquisite architecture; anyone of them would sell their soul for what Asbury is choosing to throw away."

The idea of an arts district doesn't have to mean a hand-out. The arts will not only help bring people to the city to live (whether in the new condos or apartments, or in a restored house) but it will lure people to the shops downtown and to the restaurants and to the clubs. We strongly encourage the city to think about designating the Charms Building for an arts district and creating a large parking garage alongside it. Since the building is located close enough to both the downtown shopping area, the beach, and new condominums being built alongside the lake, the revenue from the parking garage will easily work to subsidize the creation of the Arts District hub. It would serve as the perfect example of art and commerce working alongside each other.

The Charms Building has been vacant for many years and the structure alongside it is one of the many reminders of how far Asbury Park has to go. As the condominums start being built what could be better than to fix the surrounding area with something like an arts district to further attract people to the area?

The bolder Asbury Park thinks the better they will get a return for their investment. So think big, be bold, and bring back Asbury Park. It's a city built on dreams, let's make some of the dreams turn into reality.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 06/01/2005



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