Madam Marie's Temple of Knowledge is a small, 10-foot-square fortunetelling booth on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, its hand-painted outer façade promising tarot card readings and crystal ball insights with a mystical eye. But on a recent June day, along with the mostly empty storefronts lining the boardwalk, it stands closed, and its inactivity is ominous. No one, it would seem, can see exactly what the future holds in store for this once-booming resort town called Asbury Park, N.J., home to the romanticized teenage memories of its favorite hometown hero, Bruce Springsteen.
That Springsteen has culled routinely from this city for inspiration is a celebrated fact, most directly in the distant world of the richest poetic ode to this area, "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," from his 1973 album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The scene is classic, scary, salacious: boys dance along the shore with switchblades; tilt-a-whirl rides never stop; and girls promise to unsnap their jeans. It captures what every teenager feels--or wants to feel--when they first start going out on the town, and along with its clever line about Madame Marie telling fortunes better than the cops, it has inspired countless pilgrimages, like mine, to Asbury Park.
Times have changed since 1973, and most Springsteen fans and amusement-park enthusiasts are profoundly aware of the city's gradual deterioration. The last time I was here, in 1995, the Asbury Park that once impelled Springsteen's muse was a decidedly hopeless case. Boarded-up buildings reigned along the oceanfront. One building in the middle seemed to define it all: a faded blue amusement hall called Palace Amusements, its crumbling murals of bumper cars and decaying promises of fun a poignant sight for those who, like me, tend to subscribe to the notion that everything used to be better a long time ago.
Springsteen did his part to preserve the Palace, not only by enshrining it in his famous anthem "Born to Run," but by donating proceeds from concerts in 2003 to a group called Save Tillie, who worked to protect the 115-year-old building from the wrecking ball. ("Tillie" is the name of the welcoming mascot painted on the Palace walls.) The group tried every approach imaginable, but even the endorsement of Bruce came up short. The Palace was razed in 2004.
But times are changing again in Asbury Park. Today, there are construction crews and tractors on the old Palace site, clearing the land for a future building. In fact, Asbury Park's waterfront is currently a mile-long tableau of noisy trucks, hardhats and jackhammers, workers toiling in orange vests with a hopeful determination to restore the area to its former stature. As a banner hung from the recently refurbished Paramount Theater declares--invoking the Boss--"The Glory Days Are Back!"
Are they really? The neon signs hanging from remaining landmarks, like Asbury Lanes or the Baronet Theater, lie in a tangled mess, as useless as the area's mostly smashed parking meters into which nobody can have realistically dropped any change in years. And despite a redevelopment zone dumping fortunes along the waterfront, the only completed projects so far seem to be a swath of lawn in the asphalt surrounding the Stone Pony (Springsteen's old strumming ground, still hosting live music six nights a week) and a genuinely out-of-place luxury condominium complex nearby.
The rest of the construction falls into a category called speculative building, a risk that almost all redevelopment takes, especially in areas that are virtually abandoned. The idea that each project will feed off adjoining projects to attract people to the waterfront is a dicey one. The number of people here walking the planks of the actual boardwalk itself can be counted on a six-string telecaster, while across the street, the construction crews labor on, under the new mantra of Asbury Park: build it, and hope they will come.
It's hard to imagine the new Asbury Park, luxury condos and all, retaining much of the flavor of Springsteen's young pier life, no matter how many replica images of Tillie get painted onto the signs of frontage road dive bars. Maybe, as they say, nostalgia ain't what it used to be.
As for Madame Marie? She's probably the only one who can really predict if this whole cockamamie rebirth of Asbury Park, this brash upscaling of an American classic, is actually going to work. And the fact that she left town years ago to tell fortunes in nearby Ocean Township might be saying something.