By Tommy DeSeno
The hot local issue is the 25-year-old practice of Ocean Grove (a section of Neptune Township) locking two footbridges over Wesley Lake that connect to Asbury Park, every night between midnight and 5 am. Asbury Park, led by councilwoman Eileen Chapman and activist Dani Boglivi Fiori, want Neptune to leave the gates open. Let’s explore the history for context.
For more than a century the area was owned and controlled by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group with a charter from the state to act like a government.
Ocean Grove wanted a bucolic quality of life and had blue laws, such as no cars entering on Sunday and a 2-cent toll to walk over the Wesley Lake footbridges. To old-time Ocean Grovers, these practices were quaint. To the modern activist, they have an exclusionary feel. A generational clash of cultures.
After a series of lawsuits in the 1970s the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association lost the blue laws and eventually lost the right to act like a government. Governance was transferred to Neptune Township.
The 1980s were a dismal time in Ocean Grove, affording it the nickname “Ocean Grave.” Then a favorable tide came in and Ocean Grove became a hot destination in the 1990s. At the same time, Asbury Park was about as low as she had ever been, garnering the nickname “Beirut by the Sea.”
In 1993 the Camp Meeting Association sold their side of the lake and the footbridges to Neptune for $1. Circa 1996, Neptune began locking the footbridges at night; the reason given was the prevention of crime. Whether it was necessary is a debate not worth having – they did it and that’s where we are.
Today the script has flipped on tourism. Asbury Park is busy being named the hottest tourist destination in travel magazines around the country while Ocean Grove is reverting to “Ocean Grave” again. Many there prefer the quiet anyway.
Asbury Park now has paid parking, which even its detractors must admit has raised enough revenue to get the City budget off State assistance. Ocean Grove complains that people are parking there to avoid the Asbury parking fees and then walking over the footbridges, taking all the locals’ parking. They are coming back to their cars when the bars close at 2 am, and you know how respectful of neighbors people coming back from bars at 2 am can be. So, Neptune says they have good reason to lock the gates at night. Of course, a resident permit parking plan would work just as well, but they aren’t doing it, so let’s not get distracted.
On the other side, today’s Asbury Park activist is the “woke” variety. They see everything through the dual prism of racism and classism. To them, a locked gate is a Trumpian artifact ranging from bad neighbor etiquette to a civil rights abuse.
Councilwoman Chapman and activist Dani Fiori started the push to talk Neptune into opening the gates. They wanted the two governing Councils to “negotiate” to leave the gates open. I warned against this. To negotiate, one must have one of two things – either something the other side wants, or the ability to do something the other side doesn’t want done. If you don’t have that, you are standing at the negotiating table naked hoping the other side doesn’t notice. I warned that Neptune wouldn’t even listen to Asbury, much less negotiate. We were bringing nothing they wanted to the table.
Asbury tried negotiation anyway. Here is the part where I might say, “I hate to say I told you so,” but everyone in Asbury knows I love to say I told you so. In response to Asbury Park’s entreaty, Neptune Mayor Carol Rizzo was dismal in communicating, started a one-sided petition to keep the gates locked and misled the Asbury Park Mayor on when Neptune would vote on it. Neptune voted to keep the gates locked without telling Asbury (nor apparently telling Neptune residents, perhaps in violation of the Sunshine Laws).
Hey Asbury Park – I told you so. I don’t blame Neptune. Asbury Park was starry-eyed enough to negotiate with nothing Neptune wanted. If I were Neptune, I’d have acted the same way.
You can’t move government with a pretty-please. Not even with sugar on top from a donut shop. How about an appeal to right and wrong, or morality? That rarely works. People generally see themselves as having pinned their moral compass to the North Star and are hard to convince that their morality is off even a degree.
One way to solve this is through the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, who despite selling the south side of the footbridges to Neptune in 1993, retained in the deed the ability to pass rules about their use, forever, and Neptune must follow those rules. Unfortunately, the 411 on the street is that the CMA doesn’t want to get involved.
Some are suggesting a lawsuit, based upon public access and waterways. Might work. The problem with a lawsuit is the money. As the plaintiff, Asbury will have the burden of proof and must fund the investigation into ownership and control of the footbridges, legal issues surrounding waterways, etc. As the defendant, Neptune can spend nothing while waiting to see what we find.
Here is the only power Asbury Park has now: Lock our side of the footbridges. 24/7. Those who are parking in Ocean Grove and walking the footbridges to Asbury are costing us parking revenue. We can solve that problem and Ocean Grove’s parking problem if we keep our side locked.
Stand at the footbridges today and you’ll see the traffic is nearly one way. Far more Ocean Grovers are crossing those bridges to shop, eat and party in Asbury Park than Asbury Parkers are going the other way. Locking the Asbury side will inconvenience them far more than us. Let Ocean Grovers complain to their Mayor about the gates being locked. Let’s see how Mayor Rizzo responds when the political wind hitting her in the face is coming from her own voters. Don’t pity her; they’ve been locking us out for 25 years. It’s a necessary counterpunch.
Yet I know there will be an objection by the pacifist Asbury Park activists, who abhor any punching, even a counterpunch. They don’t want the aesthetic of a border wall in this border-driven political environment. It is imperative then to convince Asbury Parkers that self-defense is moral. Gandhi understood there was a time to fight. Even Jesus tossed a few tables to make a point. Ocean Grovers aren’t asylum-seeking migrants.
Lock the Asbury Park side of the gates. If we don’t, we can declare defeat and move on to the next issue, because we have nothing Neptune wants. No self-respecting Blue Bishop would go down like that without a fight.