01 December 2014

This Ride: A Long Branch Of A Memory

I ended another ride by the sea as the sun set.  But this time I wasn't on Coney Island or Long Island. I rode to someplace I hadn't been in twenty years.

No, I wasn't in Cap Ferret or anyplace else on la Cote d'Argent.  In fact, I was on this side of the Atlantic.

Now, how is that possible? you might ask.  Well, at the point I reached the ocean, the coast curves inward, to the southwest.  So, from there, it's actually possible to look south and see the sun setting on the ocean.

Where was I?  The city is one that you may have heard of; if not, you've heard of at least one very close to it.  Said neighbor is Asbury Park; the burg in question is none other than Long Branch, New Jersey.

Incongruously, the neighborhood containing that part of the coast is called "the West End."  Almost everything in Long Branch that isn't north of it is to its west; only the charming village of Elberon is to its south.

I got there via a route I hadn't quite intended.  Once again, I took the PATH train to Newark and started riding there, through the industrial necropoli of Essex and northern Union counties that were as deserted on Sunday morning as, well, most churches during the rest of the week.  I continued, as I did a week earlier, down State Route 27, a.k.a. St.George's Avenue, past Rahway and down to Route 35 to the bridge over the Raritan River.  I saw almost no traffic up to that point, which probably isn't so unusual for a Sunday.

But after the crossing, the road takes some sharp turns and narrows. And it loses its shoulder.  And, suddenly, cars and trucks multiplied.  As I did last week, I took some roads that paralleled 35 until they didn't.  After making a "wrong" turn, the chemical tanks gave way to gravel yards, then to bare trees and brown fields.  On the last day of November, they weren't beautiful so much as they offered an austere sort of calm.

That austerity soon turned into barns and houses just a little too fancy to be farm houses.  I had wandered into the horse country of western Monmouth County, in the communities of Holmdel, Colts Neck and Lincroft.  None of it seemed to have changed at all since I last saw it, at least two decades ago.

Time seemed to stand still, as well, along Newman Springs Road, which I rode from Lincroft to the part of Red Bank away from the main shopping district.  From there, I was back on 35, though it was wider and less trafficked than before, in spite of the mall and stores along the way.  Then, after passing the former Fort Monmouth, I turned onto  Route 36, which is drab (the highlight being the Motor Vehicle Inspection station) until you pass the campus of Monmouth University in West Long Branch. 

I knew I had arrived in Long Branch without seeing the sign that welcomes visitors.  This told me where I was:

The central district, West End and Elberon are full of such architectural delights.  Some are basic, charming gingerbread houses, but others have their own unique characters.  

At one time, the city was one of the most fashionable resorts in the area, if not the whole United States.  Seven Presidents--Chester A. Arthur, James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson--made summer visits there.  Monmouth Race Track is nearby, and during those heady days in the second half of the 19th Century and the first two decades of the twentieth, the city's casinos brought in flocks of gamblers. And, the city's vibrant theatre and nightlife scene made it a kind of proto-Hollywood where celebrities performed as well as lived and vacationed. 

But, along with Prohibition came laws that severely restricted gaming, so Long Branch's casinos closed.  And, with the ascendancy of Hollywood, Long Branch lost much of its allure and went into a slow but steady decline.  This downward slope steepened in the 1950s, when the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike (which is part of I-95) opened and offered easy access to beaches further south.  Panicky white residents fled after the 1970 riots (on Independence Day weekend) in nearby Asbury Park.  By the late 1980's, much of the city was like a piece of driftwood that grew more and more battered with each wave, with each passing storm, but somehow survived like the inhabitants of the island in Gulliver's Travels.

One area that had become seedy has been redeveloped into Pier Village.  It's pretty but a bit too twee, lined with stores that don't have much of anything I'd ever buy even if I could afford them.  Thankfully, my favorite parts of the city were spared such a fate.  And you can still see the sunset on the ocean without crossing the Atlantic or the continent!

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