Sandy the aurora’s rising behind us, the pier lights our carnival life forever
Oh love me tonight and I promise I’ll love you forever
~ Springsteen, 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).
In 1956, Asbury Park NJ experienced its first ever rock ‘n’ roll riot. The unlikely band at the centre of the storm were Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers out of New York, who’d had a recent chart-topping record with the song Why Do Fools Fall in Love? (later a top 20 hit for Diana Ross). Lymon, the lead singer, was a boy of just thirteen. The show took place in the Convention Hall to a mixed audience of both black and white teenagers.
The night was hot, with the Fourth of July just days away. Two thousand seven hundred teens; eager for their (in many cases) first taste of live rock ‘n’ roll, were packed into the hall, but it was eleven o’clock before the band actually took the stage and by then, tensions had begun to flare. Before the third number, a boy in the audience had already been stabbed. This appears to have been an unspoken signal for fights to break out all over the hall.
Soon the violence had spilled out onto the boardwalk and police were being summoned from neighbouring townships to help quell the rapidly growing riot. It took several hours for the ensuing chaos to be quashed (the show had eventually been resumed in the hall – presumably even as the running fights continued up and down Cookman Ave).
In the end there were few serious injuries (even the initial stabbing that had sparked all the trouble was fairly minor) and little real property damage, but the response from the City Council was to try to ban all rock ‘n’ roll shows from Asbury* – ironic when you consider what the future had in store for the town.
Fourteen years (and four days) later, Asbury Park would again erupt into senseless violence, but this time, the consequences were to be far more disastrous for the little resort town. In 1970 the black youths of Asbury were feeling understandably disenfranchised. Young local blacks counted on boardwalk businesses like the waterfront concessions, restaurants and hotels to provide (quite lucrative) summer employment. However, many of these businesses had begun to hire white kids from towns farther afield, rather than let the jobs go to local blacks.
On the 4th July, as the mercury climbed into the high nineties, barely contained resentments flared into violence. The riots quickly sparked off and the resultant flames of frustration and anger raged on for seven whole nights.
The rioting began when a group of young people smashed some windows after leaving a local youth dance at a West Side Community Center and quickly escalated. Running battles soon developed between the overheated youths and police.
It was mostly, the amusement and retail districts on and around Springwood Avenue that took the brunt of the onslaught. By the time police had regained control of the situation, more than four million (1970) dollars in property damage had been inflicted and one hundred and sixty-five people had been injured. A staggering forty-six people were treated for gunshot wounds, including a fourteen-year-old boy and a senior citizen.
By the morning of Wednesday, July 8th (the fourth day of the riot), the West Side had been almost entirely burned down. And what the fires didn’t destroy had been completely looted. The police – some fifteen of whom had sustained injuries – arrested one hundred and sixty-five rioters and one unfortunate newsman (ABC’s Dell Wade) whom they accused of inciting the blacks to riot. An excessive number of families were also made homeless by the fires that had burned down their neighbourhoods.
Things were bad enough that William Cahill (the then governor of New Jersey), after touring the West Side chaos, requested that President Nixon declare Asbury Park a major disaster area. The rioting, however, dragged on for two more days and so it wasn’t until the evening of Friday that West Side leaders and the city council finally came to terms.
This event served only to accelerate what had been a long, slow decline for Asbury Park. The once grand summer resort, with her unique architectural splendour, dissolved quickly into a dangerously run-down shadow of her former glory. People no longer felt safe walking the streets or the boardwalk and businesses began to close down.
By the nineties, Asbury was a well-known dive with a reputation for sleaze and gang violence. Drugs had become a real and constant problem and decent people stayed away in droves. The town began to take on a sad, deserted feel, becoming the inspiration for the Bruce Springsteen song My City of Ruins, a far cry from the place that some thirty years earlier had inspired him to write 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).
Today, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Springsteen (one of those rock ‘n’ roll types the City Fathers would like to have banned back in ’56), Asbury Park is rising from the degradations of her past and becoming, if not quite what she was in her glory days, at least a city with good reason to feel optimistic about the future.
*And, indeed, there were none held at the Convention Hall again until 1963.