Jesse Fried • May 05, 2019
Ocean County is the fastest growing county in NJ. It is not especially close to NYC, requiring a minimum of a 65 mile trip each way, but it has recently started to become part of the metro area. The fact that people commute that far is insane to me, but I think a lot of people consider North Jersey completely picked over at this point. Some of the communities down in Ocean County seem really nice. Spacious homes, new infrastructure, and a small-town, borderline rural, feel come at reasonable property values.
There’s also Lakewood, where I’ve never been, but which seems to have become positively urban, in a sprawling way, after two decades of rapid development and population growth. It has the urban characteristic of diversity, playing host to some immigrant communities and notably a Hasidic Jewish community. All in what was 20 years ago a small town on the edge of the pine barrens.
Toms River, where I’ve also never been, seems like a more typical, historical small town that is developing outwards.
Jackson, home of Six Flags Great Adventure, is a sprawling inland township that seems to have an older distinctly working class community, perhaps similar to the gritty past of Bruce Springsteen’s native Freehold in neighboring Monmouth County.
For contrast, Monmouth county is another example of an area recently given over to sprawl. It’s a little closer to NYC and with a longer history of agriculture and growth. Perhaps for these reasons it has developed in a more “normal” way, into more typical outer-ring suburbs.
Historically, Ocean County has older shore resorts on its eastern flank, including the famous pit-of-bro-hell Seaside Heights, and miles of undeveloped Pine Barrens in its southern and eastern reaches. The Pinelands never developed much agriculture, other than cranberry bogs and blueberries, and have remained forest. They are known to have an ancient, distinct, insular rural culture. How much of that way of life remains today, I’m not sure, but the rural vibe here is definitely strong. By “rural vibe,” I mean hunting, ATVs, teenagers doing drugs in the middle of the woods, and that kind of thing.
The county is not all developed yet, in part because the Pinelands are largely state and federally protected, thanks to former governor Brendan Byrne. Earlier development was focused around the beach and Barnaget Bay, for second homes, rental homes and things like that. Now the fast-growing towns are a little inland, off of the Parkway. A few more miles inland is the unbroken forest of the Pinelands, which may remain undeveloped.
A series of small rivers drain the Pinelands and empty into Barnaget Bay. Some of these rivers are pretty clean, but Barnaget Bay is fairly polluted. The rivers are home to beautiful cedar swamps.
Jersey gems abound. On a recent kayak trip with my family on Cedar Creek in Lacey Township, we were driven to and from the river by a knowledgeable local resident. Seeing a huge, older apartment building in the middle of a very sprawling suburban neighborhood, I asked him what it was, and he responded something about Al Capone and buried treasure that I didn’t understand. A little research identified the building as the Royal Pines Hotel, now a home for seniors, but in its prohibition era heyday a fancy resort in the middle of nowhere, partway between NYC and Atlantic City. Al Capone may have been involved in the management of the place somehow.