On day of nation’s birth, signs of rebirth at shore

Grace Sabbagh, from Washington Twp. and Jose Ortiz, from Philidelphia, enjoy relaxing on the Belmar Beach Thursday afternoon. People enjoy the nice weather on the 4th of July holiday. (Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger)
Grace Sabbagh, from Washington Township, and Jose Ortiz, from Philadelphia, enjoy the beach on the 4th of July holiday. (Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger)

The line for the women’s restroom stretched more than 30 deep, spilling across the boardwalk. On the sand, colorful beach umbrellas sprouted like mushrooms on an untreated lawn.

The barkers shouted to kids and couples, drawing them in to the water-gun challenge, the football throw, the fake frog toss.

In Seaside Heights, on an Independence Day that served as part summer celebration and part barometer of recovery, the hopeful signs could be seen across the reconstructed oceanfront.

Thousands of people converged on tiny Seaside today, and if the crowds weren’t as thick as they were before Hurricane Sandy sundered the borough last October, they were a signal that the community — and perhaps the greater Jersey Shore — was on its way back.

“It’s been a long time since you saw full parking lots in this town,” Art Ascoli, the boardwalk’s unofficial mayor, said as he gingerly threaded a golf cart through the crowds, greeting dozens of people by name and directing others to bathrooms.

Ascoli is director of Seaside’s ambassador program, created the year before Sandy hit to smooth the town’s image as a haven for drunken revelers. Today, he marvels at the progress Seaside Heights has made: 3,700 feet of new boardwalk, refinished or rebuilt shops, new benches, new lighting, replenished beaches and steady progress on the reconstruction of Casino Pier.

“We started from nothing,” Ascoli said. “And today you see people eating, drinking, spending money.”

Michael Loundy has been instrumental in the rebuilding effort as director of community improvements for Seaside Heights. As he surveyed the beach and boardwalk this afternoon, he acknowledged that visitors and summer rentals are behind last year’s pace, but he saw glimmers of hope everywhere.

“We took a direct hit from a hurricane,” Loundy said. “No one knows what the new normal will be, but I feel optimistic and encouraged.”

Tourism accounts for about 65 percent of Seaside Heights’ income, Loundy said. During a typical summer, about 25,000 people visit per day.

July 4th is always a big draw, and this year, it became even more significant after a sodden Memorial Day weekend kept many away.

Mike Johnston
Mike Johnston, right, kisses girlfriend Patty Rogers a kiss on the Seaside Heights boardwalk on July 4. (Mark Mueller/NJ Advance Media)

Carlos Ortiz, 33, came down from Passaic with his family and a friend. He spent last July 4th at Seaside, too, recalling it as shoulder-to-shoulder with people.

“It’s definitely not as crowded this year,” Ortiz said. “You could barely even walk last year, but it’s looking pretty good. I expected the damage was going to be a lot worse.”

Reminders of Sandy are most evident from Casino Pier to the blocks north. The Jet Star rollercoaster — an iconic image in Sandy’s wake — has been removed from the ocean, but part of the damaged pier remains closed. Towering cranes loom over the pier’s edge. Some rides are expected to open within a week or two.

A handful of shops, along with the Ocean Terrace Motel, had severe structural damage and have not reopened. On the boardwalk’s northern tip, an oceanfront house looks just as it did after Sandy struck, its facade ripped open, revealing a piano and pictures on the walls. Passers-by repeatedly stopped to snap pictures of it.

But the eyesores are few and far between.

Mike Johnston, a retired Spring Lake Heights police sergeant who has been coming to Seaside for decades, was so certain the community wouldn’t be rebuilt by summer he bet a prime rib dinner with his girlfriend, Patty Rogers.

Johnston, 60, gladly lost.

“I thought, ‘No way will they get it done,’” Johnston said. “But it looks great.”

Both Johnston and Rogers, a high school teacher, said they were greeted by another welcome surprise. There appeared to be far more families than in years past and far fewer trouble-makers, the kind that drink too much and look for fights.

“There seems to be more security now,” he said. “I think the police are doing a great job of making you feel welcome.”

Read the story a NJ.com (July 4, 2013)

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