Asbury Park: Rutgers Course Charts Seaside City’s Ups and Downs

Asbury Park: Rutgers Course Charts Seaside City’s Ups and Downs

Students gain perspective on community’s history and culture through walking tours, speakers and independent projects

Instructor Christine Zemla, fourth from left, and the students in her course take a break on a walking tour of Asbury Park.  
Nick Romanenko

'What I try to do is give them a backdrop, how we got from there to here – from the city’s glory days, through the decline of the ‘80s and ‘90s, to today’s gentrification – with particular focus on the role music has played throughout.'
– Christine Zemla

“Greetings from Asbury Park,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 debut album, helped put this unique oceanfront New Jersey community on the map for a generation of rock ‘n rollers.

But along with its music, Asbury Park is a historian’s treasure trove with a rich and fascinating past that has a lot to teach us about the American city and how cities evolve over time, says Christine Zemla, who teaches “The History and Culture of Asbury Park,” a three-credit American Studies course, offered by Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s Summer Session as part of its “RU at the Shore” series.

 “I find that students know about Asbury Park music, where they like to eat; for some, it is their hangout,” says Zemla, who is teaching the course for the second year. “But they have little sense of the past. What I try to do is give them a backdrop, how we got from there to here – from the city’s glory days, through the decline of the ‘80s and ‘90s, to today’s gentrification – with particular focus on the role that music has played throughout."

In this class you’ll take a walking tour on the city’s wide-open streets and feel the ocean breezes. You will come upon the now-shuttered building that housed the Upstage Club, where Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt and Southside Johnny came of age, and the Byram Building, in which Woodrow Wilson had his 1916 campaign headquarters. You might engage in conversation with the Asbury Park mayor or a former member of the E-Street band. You’ll chat with Asbury old-timers about the days when men and women strolled the Boardwalk in tuxedos and evening gowns and the city’s west side was filled with music clubs, big-name jazz musicians and department stores on Springwood Avenue.

The four-week course, which is part of Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies, is a hybrid, combining time online with in-person classes at shore venues. Students work with archival newspaper footage that illuminates the cultural conditions – racial unrest, the state’s deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the influence of organized crime and competition from other tourist destinations – that have contributed to Asbury Park’s cycle of booms and recessions. Students also develop independent projects, which range this year from a food blog about Asbury Park cuisine to an oral history of the Stone Pony, the legendary music venue. 

“It’s one of the most interesting courses I’ve taken at Rutgers,” Mary Conklin, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies at Rutgers-Camden. Conklin, who lives in Highlands, spent her 20s at the Jersey shore working in clubs and attending shows at the Stone Pony and the Fast Lane (which closed in 2013) but had little knowledge of the city’s history. She is working on a short documentary which focuses on a senior citizen who lived through decades of change, including the 1970 race riots that altered the economic, political, social and cultural landscape of the city.

For Theresa Pringle, a junior in Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, enrolling in the course is part of an ongoing healing process. Pringle, who lives in Belmar, attended Asbury Park High School from 1981-1985, a time of racial tension and economic decline. “I want to love and appreciate Asbury, but my introduction was very rocky,” says Pringle, who is interviewing several generations of Asbury residents for her class project and exploring her own story. “The course has helped illuminate the forces that shaped my experience. For years, I didn’t want to go to Asbury. Now I bring my teenagers here for ice cream and bike-ride along the beachfront with my husband. ”   

Jeff Fontaina, of Millburn, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, liked the way Zemla –  a Monmouth County resident and longtime member of the Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation – interwove the city's history with the music in the course. “What surprised me was how with all the changes that have gone down in Asbury Park, the music has remained a constant,” says Fontaina, who is focusing his project on the Stone Pony, which opened in 1973 and became a launch pad for musical legends, like  Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Jon Bon Jovi and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

The class has made him think about at least minoring in American studies. "I can't remember when learning has been this much fun," he said.  

For media inquiries, contact Carla Cantor at or 848-932-0555.