Inside the grassroots effort that turned Asbury Park into a public art destination

“Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.” — Andrei Tarkovsky, Russian filmmaker

Consider the world of Asbury Park. Designed as a seaside resort, up to 200,000 people would ride the railway every summer in the early 20th century to vacation there. Stunning buildings went up, including a carousel house and casino, beachgoers retired to posh hotels or Victorian-style homes. The Yankees held spring training there. 

Then the Parkway got built. More people got cars and started to vacation elsewhere. The city’s infrastructure slowly grew dilapidated. They started selling or demolishing some of the structures along the boardwalk, a symbol that better times were in the past.

Ill-designed? Not technically, but broadly: A town concentrated on one thing—tourism—reliant on one mode of transportation—the train, surely wasn’t designed to withstand the momentum of invention.

But in this world, in the ’60s and ’70s, in this Asbury Park-in-flux, art appeared. Doo wop, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. Bruce Springsteen, The Stone Pony, as if you need to be told. Art attracts, and so bigger and bigger artists added Asbury Park to their tour lists. Even as the nuts and bolts of Asbury Park continued to corrode in the following decades, its reputation as a music hub grew.

Today, Asbury Park is in the midst of a renovation. The boardwalk is now sleek, luxury condos tower high behind it, and downtown is revitalized. And in the midst of all this change, the perception, the calling card, of Asbury Park is changing, too. 

“If music has such a home here,” says Jenn Hampton of Asbury Park’s Wooden Walls public art project, “why can’t art?”

‘Love is Paradise,’ Indie 184

Walk around Asbury Park today, along the boardwalk from the northern Sunset Pavilion, through the Convention Hall, down to the carousel and casino, and public art, mostly in the form of murals, will surround you. Though you may be in town for the beach, or for an event, or for dinner, or maybe even for music, so stunning and abundant are the murals that art is the thing you take with you when you leave. 

And art is a big part of what’s driving the ongoing revitalization of Asbury Park.

“I noticed living here since 2004 people would walk by [the Sunset Pavilion] and say, ‘That’s so sad. why aren’t they doing anything?’” Hampton says. “It’s interesting how art has changed the energy of the northern end. It’s become this activated thing. I never thought … brides would wait in line to take pictures in front of murals. That was not my intention. I was just like, ‘I want people to love art.’”

‘Bombix Mori,’ Lauren YS

The seeds for what would become the Wooden Walls project began sprouting before 2010, in that still-ill-designed world. Hampton was working on Asbury Lanes, being used as a DIY creator space, where artists, she says, “would end up painting on buildings because no one was around and you could do these things.” 

She said, rhetorically, “It would be cool—if there were empty spaces in Asbury Park—if we could do a cohesive mural program.”

‘Ruthie & Andre,’ Pork Chop.

That’s proved possible. Obviously. The effort, though, was bolstered by a visit from Shepard Fairey during a music festival, who completed a work on the Sunset Pavillion. The response was good, and also quiet, which was also… good.

“No developers complained and no one got hurt. These are the things developers care about,” Hampton deadpans.

Madison Marquette, which owns the Boardwalk, was amenable to more public art, and provided early funding (and ongoing funding, too). Then, the ill design of our world reared its head in the form of Hurricane Sandy (the design done ill in this instance by, I dunno, god?). Funding dried up, and wooden walls were erected around the old historic buildings on the boardwalk.

Shepard Fairey

Yet out of this destruction came opportunity. Came art. Hampton won approval and some funding to paint the walls (hence the name of the project). She reached out to a handful of artists with connections to either herself or Asbury Park. People who would care about doing it. 

R.C. Hagans

Instead of looking like a boarded up epicenter of decay, the point, Hampton says, was to make the area look like it was on its way to improvement. It was going somewhere. Forward. That idea helped sell developer-funders to move the project forward.

“I​​t was so important to have them understand our boardwalk is a work in progress and is always going to be,” she says. “There’s a responsibility, when you have these historical properties, to develop them in a sensitive way, and that might take years. … If the mural project can lead to the use of these buildings, I think that resonated with them.”

Too, it provided an opportunity to expose more people to art, Hampton says.

“I also wanted to ensure there was a free experience for people who might not have money and access to art. There is a trepidation of going into a gallery if you don’t have money. People understand museums and don’t necessarily understand galleries. You can walk into a gallery and look, and people don’t necessarily understand that,” Hampton says. “It is sad to see people looking from the outside in and not taking the step in the door, so public art fixes that problem because no one’s going to ask you what you think of it.”

‘One Last Moment Under the Sky,’ hoTTea

The ongoing artification of Asbury Park has resulted in murals throughout the boardwalk—black-and-white portraits of musicians on the Sunset Pavilion; interesting and sometimes challenging (and sometimes humorous) murals on the carousel; now portraits of everyday people in the place of models of famous portraits on a new set of walls. And, hoTTea donated a massive hanging installation with thousands of pieces of yarn that hang from the rafters of the casino. Inside the carousel, traveling artists have a home to complete works (COVID (there’s another ill design) pending).

Because much of the art is on temporary structures or on buildings that may undergo redevelopment in the future, Hampton is focused on ensuring public art remains in Asbury Park.

“Just to see that it’s become such a part of [the Asbury Park] experience, my goals for the project are to have it more a permanent part of the experience,” Hampton says. “When you think of Asbury Park, everyone thinks of music. I’m hopeful people also think of the art.”