Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz’ reflections on the iconic American boardwalk of Asbury Park, New Jersey greet visitors as they stroll the city’s revitalized boardwalk. (Photo/Sandra Lilley )

Latinos help bring back an iconic American boardwalk

Pulitzer-prize author Junot Diaz has made me smile almost every weekend summer day for the past few years.  As you “enter” the start of the boardwalk of iconic Asbury Park, New Jersey, in an old wall built during the years when this beach resort was a top American destination – there is a mural of a line written by Diaz.

“The boardwalk was where all of NJ came together, where NJ for better or worse, met itself.”

I always thought it was cool that a Dominican-American writer so perfectly captured the essence of the diversity and “life” you see on an American boardwalk. When you walk in a quintessential seaside place like Asbury Park, or Atlantic City, you do see all kinds of Americans, young and old, gay and straight, and of course, a growing number of Latino families.  Many of us came from countries with very different beaches and summer experiences.  But now, this is home.

Asbury Park was built at the turn of the last century, and it is part of the American landscape. Music fans around the world know it. So seeing the words of a Dominican-American New Jerseyan photographed by families walking along the beach, as I have repeatedly seen, makes me smile.

But here’s where it gets better. I had always marveled at the slow but steady improvement in the area, even during the recent downturn.  After a little reading, I stumble upon the name of the man credited with being one of the main folks that “brought back” Asbury Park by buying the abandoned “Stone Pony” music club, where  legendary rocker Bruce Springsteen got his start.  Well, it turns out he is a Cuban-American, Domenic Santana, and he talked to me via phone from Costa Rica.

“A friend had told me to go down to Asbury Park with him since some developers were thinking of investing in this place,” says Santana, who at the time had become successful as a restaurateur and events promoter.  “So we step out of the car, and it’s like Beirut on the shore, which is what it was called. It was foggy, there’s the crumbling old casino, it’s completely desolate, and out of the fog an old man comes out,” he recalls.  “I jumped and said Holy Sh##$!, but I fell in love. Seeing the man was like seeing a resurrection.  There was just something magical about that lonely, sad place.”

Santana saw the sign on the iconic – but shuttered – Stone Pony. He called his wife, who told him she remembered going there to see music acts.  He decided to pull the trigger and buy it.

“At the time, no bank would lend me money to invest in Asbury Park,” recalls Santana. His Cuban family thought he was a bit crazy – but they all backed him up.  “I put all my family’s savings on the line; it had to be all cash.”  A year later, on Memorial Day of 2000, tv trucks and journalists came to cover the re-opening of the Stone Pony.

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The Stone Pony, known by music fans around the world, was “rescued” by Cuban-American Dominic Santana. (Photo/Sandra Lilley )

A year after that, when great bands were coming to play at the now re-established club, Santana recalls asking Bruce Springsteen, “So how does it feel that a Cuban who is not even into rock-n-roll, but a disco kid who is not a “blanquito” resurrected rock and roll in Asbury Park?”

“It’s because you Cubans are crazy, that’s why!” said a laughing Bruce Springsteen, according to Santana.

Actually, why did he risk investing in a city many had written off?  “When we got here from Cuba, my father bought property in places that were not considered “safe” at the time, like Jersey City,” he recalls.  “But my Dad did it anyway, it’s what he could afford,” Santana adds.  “My Dad always told me, keep your surroundings clean, and then everything you own will be better too,” Santana recalls.  “Listen, America was built by immigrants like us.”

Fast forward a few years.  Santana sold the club to developers who continued to invest a lot of money in the city.  The boardwalk got cleaned up, businesses and restaurants opened, and just last month the Bamboozle music concert (Santana was involved in that too) had tens of thousands of music fans attending.  At night, bars and restaurants are filled to the brim.

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Anayeli Javier and her family are among the Latinos living and working in Asbury Park, N.J. and contributing to its revitalization. (Photo/Sandra Lilley)

“This used to be so dirty, and now it is so clean and nice,” says Anayeli Javier, a Mexican-American resident who was taking her daughter and rest of her family out to the pristine, well-kept beach.

As we surveyed the very popular restaurants and fancy bars, Javier says, “You go into any of these places, and every single person cooking or serving is Mexican.”  Like in other cities around the country, Mexican-Americans are now an integral part of the city’s workforce. Almost 16 percent of the city’s population is Latino.

A young Dominican, Alex Soto, was walking along the boardwalk with Colombian-American Domino Garzon.  They had come from Paterson, New Jersey, immortalized in Junot Diaz’ book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”  I smiled at the coincidence.

How did they like the boardwalk?  “We’re definitely coming back,” says Garzon.  “It wasn’t what I expected; it is so nice.”

The young Dominican, Alex Soto, was more reflective.  “Todavia me siento raro a veces,” (“I still feel different sometimes”) he said, as he talked about his immigrant experience; he came to the U.S. when he was 10.  But discussing the success of writer Junot Diaz, and the vision of Latinos like Domenic Santana, who invested in a “has been” place and helped bring back jobs and revitalize a city,  made Soto add, “They make me very proud, though.”

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