The Shore: Central Jersey

Jesse Fried • Aug 05, 2017

The shore is a major topic in any study of New Jersey. One might reasonably argue that this densely-populated, heavily visited, much-celebrated stretch of Atlantic coastline contains the key to Jerseyness, but it really would only be a certain kid of Jerseyness. Indeed many New Jersey residents find pride, pleasure, refreshment, entertainment, and spiritual succor in this region. The cities and towns of the shore are also rather similar to the rest of NJ's urban core and suburban reaches. However not all elements of NJ society have made the trip, or made it equally, down the shore.

Culturally speaking, an Italian flag is planted firmly in the sandy ground of NJ's coastal communities. While some areas are exceptions - Long Branch is a relatively diverse city, Spring Lake remains largely Irish, Deal Jewish - the shore in general represents a great celebratory flowering of New Jersey Italian-American culture. Some of the region's culinary institutions that express this ethnic culture are absolutely stunning. I almost feel guilty admitting that eating an expertly prepared, top-quality Italian sub under the hot sun at the shore affords a satisfaction both physical and spiritual to me of unparalleled depth. I have no Italian blood, but food like that at the Jersey Shore just feels viscerally right. While much of the state has some degree of Italian-American character, the shore feels like the place where Italian ownership is most complete and indomitable.

Located so close to major population centers, the Jersey Shore has been a vacation destination for centuries, especially its northern reaches. In fact the glory days of such old towns like Long Branch and Spring Lake may have even been during the 19th century, before Florida, the Outer Banks, or even Atlantic City were accessible.

In Southern NJ, the shore is pretty simply resort towns, dominated by tourism, and once you go inland, there are only sparsely populated rural areas. On the other hand, Central NJ as far south as Toms River is a complicated and dense region. Going to the beach here is only "getting away" to a very limited degree. To visit our shore towns requires penetrating some of the more tangled, multi-layered areas of NJ-style development. On a nice summer weekend it can take hours of sitting in traffic to get there, all part of the experience of course.

The folks on the beach in the wealthiest, most suburban shore towns - the ones, like Spring Lake, that I grew up going to - are pretty much 100% white. Since these are wealthy suburban towns (regardless of their proximity to the shore), it's safe to assume that harassment by the police and by private citizens keeps people of color from enjoying the beach there (I admit I haven't heard any specific stories). However, the beaches at towns such as Asbury Park and Long Branch, which are home to a greater diversity of residents, don't tend to be as suspiciously monochromatic. Also Seaside Heights, which is more exclusively a resort rather than a real NJ town, plus is one of the trashiest places I have ever been personally, seems to be hospitable enough to all. South of here, we are really in South Jersey, and out of the scope of this article.