In the spirit of John Green’s book of the same title, our theme for the month of October is “the Anthropocene reviewed.” Writers were asked to review and rate some facet of human experience on a five-star scale.
I’ve taken to calling New Jersey “the Florida of the Northeast.” Partly it’s the humidity. There were at least a half-dozen days this summer when the soupy, stagnant air pushed the heat index above 100 degrees. Sure, it’s not as bad as Orlando in July, but the twelve degrees of latitude we have on them don’t seem to be doing us that much good.
But it’s also the shore. I’ve only been to the shore a handful of times, so this is going to be one of those reviews that’s really just vibes. But there are vibes aplenty at the Jersey Shore, let me tell you.
First is Asbury Park, the shore town directly west of us. It’s a great place: there’s a boardwalk, a fairly affordable Korean taco stand between all the overpriced restaurants, and a public art exhibit in the ruins of some old factories. But it’s also stress.ful. There are planes flying advertising banners over the ocean: sometimes for beer brands, sometimes for Broadway shows, sometimes for the deserved humiliation of particular Senate candidates in particular neighboring states. There are parking lots that charge a flat $50 fee. And there are the least relaxed people you’ve ever seen on a beach: finance executives “getting away” for a few hours, no doubt, or middle-aged moms trying to wrangle a family reunion into submission. No chill to be found.
Walking south from Asbury Park, though, you cross some magical magnetic field line (but no, it’s just a property boundary) and enter Ocean Grove. If New Jersey is Florida, then this might be its Disney World: blocks and blocks of beautiful Victorian houses, perfect landscaping, perfect lighting. Less traffic, clean beaches, no plane banners to be seen. Here’s the catch: the whole town is owned by the United Methodists’ Camp Meeting Association, who have declared it “God’s Square Mile on the Jersey Shore.” It hosts Christian music festivals, youth conferences, church retreats, you name it—all under the Great Auditorium’s gigantic light-up cross. (And soon the pier will be cross-shaped again too!)
Further south, there are the barrier island towns like Seaside Heights and Seaside Park. On your way here, you pass one of my favorite (because least favorite) Jersey Shore sights: the Point Pleasant Beach water tower. Ah, Point Pleasant, surely it’s as scenic as its name is charming, right? But no. This water tower is something straight out of a post-apocalyptic survival movie. Rusty antennae form a kind of industrial crown of thorns, and the typeface doesn’t say “beach day” as much as “we interrupt this program to bring you a SEVERE WEATHER ALERT.” Horrifying.
The two Seaside towns themselves display a milder form of this dystopian aesthetic. Everything—the arcades, the amusement park rides, the ice cream stands—looks like it had its heyday about fifty years ago. The homes are nice, but not opulent, and you just might spot a Confederate flag while counting the Thin Blue Line ones.
(Also I’ve never been to Atlantic City or Cape May, so pardon me as I leave the Shore’s most famous spots out of this review. [I’ve been to the Cape May Café at Disney World’s Boardwalk Resort, but let’s not make this too meta.] Remember, vibes.)
Back up north, closest to New York City, is Sandy Hook (no, not that one). This is a fascinating strip of land: it boasts an old military post with two massive artillery guns still on display; a half-run-down, half-restored yellow brick complex that used to house military personnel; and a currently active Coast Guard base. From the beaches, you can see the New York skyline. The place feels haunted somehow, the way most retired warzones do.
None of this is that much like Florida, come to think of it. But the Shore feels Floridian in its weirdness, in its oddities that you have to embrace in order to enjoy. Two weeks ago, I spent a beach weekend 150 miles further south on the Delaware coast. That place, I was surprised to find, felt completely normal—a perfectly respectable coastal vacation spot, not that much different from a northern Michigan lake town. Nothing like the Shore.
The Shore feels especially lived-in, I guess, and lived-in places are both unpleasant and comforting. They’re worn out, but only because thousands of other people have found them hospitable. They’re falling apart, but only because they’ve seen a lot of shit.
I give the Jersey Shore three stars.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with majors in English and music, and he has since earned master’s degrees from Western Michigan University and Princeton Theological Seminary. This fall, he’s starting a PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia (so his plans to be in school forever are working well). When not writing, he can be found learning the alto recorder, watching obscure Disney movies, and making excruciating puns.