April 1, 2001, Sunday


DOWN THE SHORE; Life Intrudes on Ocean Grove, Long a Well-Kept Shore Secret

By CAREN CHESLER (NYT) 1419 words


OCEAN GROVE -- It is 7:30 Sunday morning and the regulars have already gathered on a bench outside Ocean Grove Stationery on Main Avenue. They hold cigarettes between dirty fingernails and have nicknames like Jimbo, Boogie and the Professor.

Inside, Kevin Neal greets his customers by name. Mayor Joseph Krimko hovers near the counter, holding court. The latest controversy involves the Ocean Grove Homeowners Association, which is trying to block local developers from converting the old Chopin Hotel into luxury condominiums.

''If you replace all the old large buildings with neo-Victorians, you'll end up with a fancy Levittown,'' Mayor Krimko says. ''The whole business is ridiculous. It's about wanting to have it their way.''

Mr. Neal listens and then turns to his next customer, who tells him she is going to get an EKG on Wednesday.

''I hope you pass,'' he says.

Welcome to small town America, or more specifically, a small town on the Jersey Shore. Mr. Neal's newspaper store is in the heart of it. It is where all things meet, where information is exchanged, where arguments are started or finished. He hears about all of the domestic fights, bodies washing up on shore, even murders -- sometimes before the police are notified.

But life is changing in this town wedged between Asbury Park to the north and Bradley Beach to the south. Ocean Grove was one of the Jersey Shore's best-kept secrets before young professionals from North Jersey and New York City began snapping up homes. Housing prices have nearly doubled in the last couple of years, and agents have run out of listings. Some have even sent notices to homeowners enticing them to sell.

Even Mr. Neal, who has owned his store for 21 years, wants to cash in on the boom. He has already found a potential buyer.

''Five years ago, we might see the same client three or four weekends in a row and show them 5 to 10 houses and they still might not buy anything,'' said Judy Keller, an agent for James J. Pentz Realtors here. ''Now we say, 'I'll call you when something comes in.' ''

A one-bedroom bungalow about six blocks from the ocean sold in August 1996 for $76,000. Last summer, it was resold for $109,000 and is now under contract for $135,000. A two-family home four blocks from the ocean sold for $190,000 last month after being on the market only three days -- and even then there were five offers that went to sealed bid, with the owner receiving $5,000 more than the asking price.

Ms. Keller said that least year she had $5.7 million in sales in Ocean Grove alone, twice the usual average. ''People had all this cash from the stock market and didn't know what to do with it,'' she said.

People are drawn to the charm of Ocean Grove's gingerbread-encrusted Victorian houses. Downtown, there is a post office, bakery, cleaner, hardware store, hair salon, laundromat, florist, three banks, three lawyers and a dentist. The clock above the post office still chimes, and flyers for a pancake breakfast at St. Paul's Church are posted in store windows.

At the foot of Main Avenue is the ocean, giving the sense that the town is perched on the edge of the earth.

Founded in 1869 as a Methodist retreat, the church has always had a strong influence on municipal affairs. The Camp Meeting Association, an arm of the Methodist Church, still owns the land, and property owners receive a 99-year perpetual lease.

The Camp Meeting Association is an imposing force, most readily seen from Ocean Pathway, a grand boulevard lined with brightly painted Victorian houses that runs from the beachfront to the Great Auditorium, a 6,000-seat structure as large as a football field. A 20-foot cross -- a gift from Woody Allen, who used the building in his film ''Stardust Memories'' -- hangs from the auditorium steeple and is illuminated at night.

In the summer, church services are held in the auditorium, which is surrounded by 116 miniature houses that are half wood and half canvas. During July and August, the houses are dripping with petunias, lobelia and ferns. The tent houses are used by seasonal congregants, some of whom have had the leases in their families for four generations.

Until as recently as 1980, chains were strung across the two roads leading into town to keep cars from entering during the Sabbath. Even local residents had to move their vehicles to neighboring Asbury Park or Bradley Beach. It was not until Mr. Krimko, who was a police officer at the time, challenged the ordinance and prevailed.

''I still have the hate mail at home,'' said Mr. Krimko, a Jewish man who settled here after leaving Brooklyn and spending several years in Asbury Park, where his family owned a pharmacy. ''They ran the gamut of 'God bless you for doing this to God will punish you for doing this.' ''

When the case went to court, supporters of the law blocked the gates in protest, banging on windshields and spitting on cars that drove through during the Sabbath.

''These were the good Christian folks of Ocean Grove,'' Mr. Krimko lamented.

At that time, tourism in Ocean Grove was already waning. After racial disturbances in Asbury Park in 1970 and a subsequent middle-class exodus to the suburbs, tourists began traveling farther south, leaving hotels and boarding homes here empty.

Rents were so low that the state began placing former mental patients in Ocean Grove and Asbury Park. At one point, about 800 of Ocean Grove's 6,000 to 7,000 year-round residents suffered some form of mental illness. The crime rate was also rising.

''As the rooming houses started taking in the mental patients and the more transient people, it just fell apart,'' said Tom Pritchard, 47, who has lived in Ocean Grove since 1972. ''You would go to park your car out of town and people would charge you a toll to cross the bridge from Asbury Park. It was just out of hand.''

Much has changed since those uncertain times. The state relocated many of the mentally ill, and several of the boarding houses were razed. Gates were erected on the pedestrian bridges connecting Ocean Grove to Asbury Park and its predominantly black population, a move that drew howls of protest from people complaining of racism.

Mr. Pritchard, who came here from Jersey City, says people are buying second homes here now because it is quaint, cheap and only an hour from Manhattan. The way he sees it, there are not a lot of places left where the rug-and-floor store is open only three days a week, where you drop off a key and some measurements, and you come home a couple of days later to a new wood floor and a bill.

The church's influence still hangs over the town like the morning fog. Anyone who wants to buy property must be approved by the Camp Meeting Association, which asks about the prospective buyer's religious affiliation, though David Shotwell, who heads the Camp Meeting Association, said people can leave the question blank.

''It's not a question we care about,'' Mr. Shotwell said.

Nor does the association seem to care about Ocean Grove's sizable and growing gay population. In fact Randy Bishop, who bought the Melrose Inn in 1996 with his partner, says Ocean Grove is one of the warmest, most comfortable places in which he has lived, which he attributes in part to the church's influence.

''It doesn't hurt that the houses are so close together,'' Mr. Bishop said.

The way he sees it, ''You have the benefit of being in that community and reaping the benefits, but you don't have the judgments. Ocean Grove to me is the perfect case study of what a community is.''

If there any losers in the town's renaissance, they are the dozens of mentally ill who are still here. Rents are rising and the remaining boarding houses and cheap hotels are now prime real estate, waiting to be snatched up by developers.

In fact, said Mr. Neal, he had to fight just to keep the bench outside his newspaper store.

''They don't like the look of the people who sit on them,'' he offered. ''You need an appearance rating.''


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