A little travel guide providing preparation for the young (at heart) Springsteen’s fan who wants to make the pilgrimage in New Jersey once in a lifetime.
I hope I have not missed essential places. In any case, if you note errors I apologize in advance, and please write me, I’ll correct it.
First of all.
To visit the places I’m pointing out in this post, you’ll need a car. Of course there are trains and buses from New York City to Asbury Park, NJ, you’ll find schedules and ticket prices easily enough online. But if you just do this, you’ll be stuck in Asbury Park, and there are many more things to visit nearby. So I’ll explain the plan travel assuming that you have a car, and/or a driver.
If you are going to New Jersey to see some shows, of course things will be different; this is an itinerary for someone who happens to be in America, New York City or Philly area, and wants to spend almost a day visiting the Springsteen’s places in New Jersey.
The mininum ideal time to see the really important things and to have time to actually relax and enjoy the ride without frantically pacing everywhere it’s a day and a half, the perfect period being two days and a half, or even three. I know 3 days are a lot of time, in a normal vacation, without shows and always keeping a look on money, and I’m not even considering that for most of the people New York is better. But “most of the people” is not you, if you are an hardcore Bruce’s fan. In any case, let’s try to manage a compromise: leaving on a morning from New York City, traveling and sleeping in New Jersey (I’ll explain further on where to stay the night), spending the next morning and part of the afternoon to finish the visit on the way back to NY.
I’ll explain the short but essential itinerary, but I’ll also talk of the less important things to see, and you’ll decide what to do, based on your time.
For your short stay, the best choice is the Asbury Park area. This is a personal suggestion (because each time I’m here I’m so happy that I’d really like for everyone to be this serene), but it’s also an objective positive point: it’s a small town from which you can reach almost every important Bruce’s location in NJ, and it’s also the place that has the most copious Bruce’s landmarks to see, so if for any reason you have a delay in your travel you are already there, you dont’ have to waist any other precious time to reach it. Plus, it’s an area full of nice places just on the shore, and you’ll have some good views of the Atlantic coast.
Personally, I’ve stayed almost everywhere in NJ, and my suggestion for an accomodation lays on Ocean Grove, a very small community at about 3 miles from Asbury Park, with plenty of choice for guest houses, and beautiful examples of Victorian buildings.
I’m not recommending to stay in Asbury Park itself, it has not much variety for hotels, and all the motels are really shabby buildings in depressing areas of the town. Remember that Asbury Park does indeed has a lot of Bruce’s landmarks, but almost only along the beachfront, and in that area there are just two working hotels (at this time, at least) the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel and the Empress Hotel. The Berkeley is just in front of the Convention Hall, and ok, it’s really nice to wake up in the morning looking at the GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK sign, but to see it (and the Ocean) you have to pay extra. Plus, during summertime and on the Light of Day week end they apply an increasing excalation of prices. For me, it’s overpriced for what it has to offer, and in any case consider you’re staying here for one- maybe two nights: you can spend your money better. This is just a suggestion, though. I’ve never stayed at the Empress, I hear it has been recently renovated.
So, let’s say you share my thinking, and you have booked a nice B&B, or motel, or guest house in Ocean Grove for one or two nights. Ready, steady, go!
Leaving New York Downtown, put on your GPS: 101 Asbury Avenue, Asbury Park NJ, it’s about 60 miles, an hour or so of travel. But you have to consider traffic communting (from NJ to NY area, busy in the morning, from 7.00 am to 9.00; and then back home, from NY to NJ, 5.00 pm to 7.00 pm), and take all these timetables with some elasticity and above all serenity: we are on vacation after all, let’s enjoy the travel and leave the stress, we’re not on a race. Just to be sure, don’t leave too early, or you’ll be stuck just outside your rental office, and consider a two hours travel.
The first thing you have to do when entering New Jersey is stopping at the first big service area you find on the Turnpike (or Garden State Parkway): yeah, I know, you are here since about 40 minutes, and I’m telling you to stop. But be kind, indulge me: in all the main service areas there are souvenirs shops: New Jersey key chains, mugs, t-shirts, baseball caps, sweaters, even car plates. And there’s always a little section of the news shop dedicated to little girls gadgets, where you can find everything you need with the writing Jersey Girl (amazing ah?). Are you happy now that you stopped right there at that service area? Told you so.
Now, when you are approaching the destination set on the GPS, you’ll be on a bend of the road, with the Empress on the left and on your right a big parking lot with the Casino (and lots of seagulls and marsh birds): enter the parking, leave the car and start taking pictures at the Casino and everything. You are actually standing on the spot where the Palace raised bold and stark. Do not make the entire Boardwalk distance, just stay in the area of the Casino, when you have finished with your photos come back to the car and go on Ocean Avenue until you see on your left the Stone Pony. Then park again and let the fun begin.
At the end of the Boardwalk you’ll have the Convention Hall, the Paramount Theatre, and the Wonder Bar. Just on the beachfront more or less level with the Stone Pony you’ll find the Madam Marie (not the original lady, passed away I’m afraid) shop. Depending on which season you’re visiting you’ll find open shops with souvenirs and food if it’s summer, probably not to so much in winter. But you’ll always find bars and something to eat, and maybe one or two souvenirs shops open.
You’ll have to consider for this little trip on the boardwalk one to two hours, not more.
Stone Pony: that’s a music live venue, the ideal thing to do is to spend an evening here (there are many events in schedule, but not every evening), have a beer, enjoy the atmosphere, imagining yourself a fan in the 80es (as you probably were, but not here) and Bruce showing up to have a drink. So, if you can manage in your trip to stay one night in the area, ot in any case you think you’ll be able to come back, go directly to the “Nab again your car” section.
If your programs for the evening are not so certain and in any case you don’t want to risk losing an opportunity, then take this suggestion: if you see someone of the staff outside or at the ticket boot, just tap on the door and very politely ask for a permission to have a look inside. Say that you’re tourists and you don’t have a lot of time, but you’d like to buy some merchandising. If it’s morning there’ll probably be nobody around, but if it’s the afternoon or early evening someone of the staff should be. If the security man or the cashier lady tells you that they are closed and they won’t be able to serve you any drinks, say that it’s ok, that you are coming from Italy, or Spain, or Ireland, England or whatever, and that you just want to take some pictures (PLEASE) and buy some shirts and stuff.
So, always looking at the timetable, take pictures, buy something (since in any case she has been kind to let you enter with this premise), kiss the lady cashier good bye and off we go to: Nab again your car.
Make a left on Kingsley Avenue (well I’m riding down on Kingsley, figuring I’ll get a drink), take a photo at the road sign, and go to The Student Prince site –911 Kingsley Street, (the club where Bruce met Clarence for the first time), and then go to Cookman Avenue (you can set on your GPS Sonny’s Southern Cuisine – 574 Cookman AVenue, it’s a place where apparently sometimes Bruce is eating -but don’t raise your hopes, if by any chance he shows up they close the place to other customers). At 702 on Cookman is the site where the Upstage Club was (now it has been closed). It was one of the originals live music clubs of the Seventies in Asbury Park, Bruce and all the early members of the E Street played here in some show.
As for the rest, Cookman is a really nice street with the kind of shops you’ll find pretty much anywhere in the USA, but THESE have the Asbury Park sign, so if you like it and have the 2days trip, take a look around. If not, bolt away , direction Belmar, 10th Avenue (freeze out).
When you have reached the TENTH AVENUE, look for the A-B-C-D= E STREET intersection (deeh-heee), and there you’ll find the white road pole with E STREET written on, and a very nice guitar monument erected a few years ago. Pictures pictures pictures.
If we’re talking to the Hit-and-run trip and you’ve been on schedule, this would be afternoon, not too late. You have time for Freehold, that from here is about 17 miles (20 minutes by car). But first, I have to say that in Asbury Park there are at least two other places where Bruce showed up to play during the years (to be sure, there’ll probably be 20 of that bars and premises), I’ll just list them here (for the chronic completists):
The Saint (Munro Avenue and Main Street);
The Fast Lane (206 Fourth Avenue)
This is the Bruce’s milestone that for me is less moving than all the others. There are many things and memories tied to him, but mostly to his childhood and teenage years, rather than to the real rock’n’roll myth. So I’ll offer you what is essentially a fast, not very romantic trip, in a way just to say I’ve been there. Most of this part of the travel will be pictures to road signs, which held a remote significance just to you, Bruce’s fan: if you are traveling not with another fan but with a gentle SO, I’m afraid he/she’ll find this part extremely boring, because at least Asbury Park with its Boardwalk and the shore has a certain charm, but none of that allure here!
Even if you have taken plenty of the afternoon to stay in AP and the evening is approaching, there’s a lot of things you can see, and here is your list:
- 39 e ½ Institute street. This is the famous white and light blue wooden house where Bruce lived from 5 to 12 yo, where he saw Elvis for the first time on TV, and therefore asked for a guitar. It’s the one with the tree outside that is on the My hometown cover, the one where Bruce is leaning on it. This is the cutest of all the houses, and it certainly deserves a visit.
- Randolph street is the site where there was a Bruce’s house, now it’s just a parking lot, but you can take a picture at the road sign.
- St Rose of Lima, 16 Mc Lean St, Freehold, that’s the elementary school Bruce attended, and most important, where he played for a show during the Tom Joad Tour
- St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 31 Throckmorton Street, ok, that has nothing to do with Bruce, actually. But it’s an historic landmark, a church built in 1771 based on a design by architect Robert Smith and was added to the National Register in 1998 as one of one five churches in the state dating back to the 1700s still standing. I just thought you could thrown in some erudite note, on the way, just to set the tone.
- Firehouse, at 3587 U.S. 9 #302. In this particular Firehouse there’s a big, yellow fire engine, with the writing BORN TO RUN on the side, bought with a Bruce donation. If you feel you are not imposing yourselves too much, you can gently ask the firemen to take a picture, they’re very kind.
- at 68 South Street there’s the last of Bruce’s original houses in Freehold. Here he lived from when he was 14 years old until he was a young man and essentially began living alone (or with other band members). It’s not a very nice building and every time I stopped by there were bunches of men lingering outside and I did not felt comfortable enough to ask them to have a picture (I’m often traveling alone). But that’s the house where he began to compose and really practising with his music.
- There’s another thing to see in Freehold, and that would be a little park dedicated to the name of Gordon “Tex” Vinyard, a local citizen very fond of music who, together with his wife Marion, helped many kids finding a way with their music back in the late Sixties. Those were the Castiles times, and the Vinyard’s home was a place which offered food and refuge, a room to practise, amps, some money to buy chords, and a couch to sleep to all the band members, Bruce included. The park was inaugurated during the Tom Joad era I believe, with Bruce making a speech and a little plaque. I’ve been there a couple of times, problem is, when you’ve seen it one time is not so memorable that it urges you to come back; after a while the plaque began to fade, and I did not visited it ever since 2005. I tried to find the park address online but I could not; if someone knows it and wants to share some news on the park, please feel free to write.
Once you have finished with this little tour, that you can (and must) rigorously take by car, so that you’ll be done in less than a hour, you can stop and have diner at Federici’s pizza (14 E Main St, Freehold). If you don’t feel like it, you can simply have a picture at the insign, and just in front of the building on the sidewalk, there’s a tile with Springsteen’s name written on it. The pizza, anyway, is good; inside, the only Bruce’s memorabilia is a picture of him during the Tom Joad tour, when he eated here, and that’s all. The legend said that this was one of Danny Federici’s aunts, or cousins, but it was never confirmed, at least that I know.
Anyway, this is a nice area of the town, with restaurants, bars and shops, if you want to have a look around. If you want to skip this, just take your car and go register to your hotel in Ocean Grove (or where you choosed to stay), or go back to spend the night at the Stone Pony, if there’s a good show scheduled.
RED BANK. This a nice little town, where the Big Man had a setting for a while. You can put on your GPS 30 Broad Street, when you are here you can park and have a little tour. # 30 is Jack’s Music Shoppe, a very nice record shop; sometimes it has some Bruce’s stuff (vinyls, t-shirts) it depends on if it’s a tour period or not, but it’s worth a visit neverteless. Plus, it’s the record shop where Bruce showed up a couple of times to sign some LPs and CDs the night before the coming out of his new album (es. The Rising), and he has been spotted here regularly during the years.
This is another town that the elusive SO (not Bruce’s fan) who is following you around with patience will appreciate, it’s really neat, cozy and nice.
Crossing the road, almost in front of Jack’s (35 Broad Street) you’ll find filmmaker Kevin Smith’s comic book store, Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. If you actually know what I’m talking about, go inside and let the credit card run.
Then, take your car and go to Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth Street. Here Bruce during the years has made several surprise guest appearances, plus in 2008 he played with the E Street a benefit concert for the theatre renovation, where Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born To Run were played for entire.
Sometimes if there’s someone from the administration working inside they let you have a tour inside, it’s a very nice building.
Now, you can head to Rumson. Actually, it’s a borough, not a town: it consists of a series of very magnificent and expensive villas, mostly clouded from the street view by trees and high gates (famous residents include among many others Queen Latifah and Richie Sambora). There are parks, tennis courts, gazebos with benches, and a little city centre with shops and restaurants (for this, set on the GPS 44 West River Road, it’s a Delicatessen shop).
So, this is a very, very, VERY rich borough, pleasant, quiet and green. Bruce and his family used to live here during his children school’s years. Yes, he stills owns a house here (it’s in the area of the Elementary school), but as far as we know he lives now in his ranch in Colt’s Neck.
Now, I’m not giving you these informations so you can jump outside the car and keep ringing the bells hoping he will come and answer to you at the intercom. As a fan, I fully understand the emotion of seeing the landscape and roads and houses he sees every day, I get it; so if you want to drive around Rumson and have a nice look of the surroundings, and breathe Bruce’s air, it’s all good.
You’ll not have from me addresses of where he lives, because I have seen a lot of stupid things made by fans during the years: ringing his doorbell, trying to enter the driveway, having words with the security (yeah, he has a security, what do you think?). I am a fan, and I respect him, and this is his home, we have no right whatsoever to disturb his privacy just because we buy all his records.
So, let’s move on: if you want some nice ocean views, you can drive to Sea Bright (about 3 miles from here).
And then, off to Colt’s Neck, originally a farming community, known for its large number of equestrian farms and heavy wooden areas. Many of Colts Neck’s residents are professional business people who commute into New York City. As far as I know, Bruce owns the town’s largest equestrian farm and built his home on the farm.
If you want to grab a nice snack, go to Colts Neck General Store, 48 County Rd 537 W Colts Neck, their sandwiches are really really good.
Proceeding with our travel, now it should be early afternoon. You can choose to drive around, or go back to Asbury Park, say good-bye to the Convention Hall and the ocean, and head back to NY.
If you have planned another day, a part of this could be spent in Atlantic City. From Asbury Park, it’s about 80 miles, an hour and half driving.
Atlantic City is a town that combines the Las Vegas trash and kitschy Casino decorations with the Atlantic Coast fascination: its Boardwalk is one of the longest in New Jersey (4 miles).
You don’t have to walk it entirely, though: it’s an endless sequence of the same fake chinoiserie and Indian junk, nails shops, bars and restaurants, and cheap and flashy clothing. You can easily buy for a few dollars some Atlantic city t-shirts and hoodies, and a lot of souvenirs, in any shop of the Boardwalk.
So my suggestion is to set the GPS on 1000 Boardwalk, this will bring you behind the Trump Taj Mahal, you can park and have a nice look around from here. You’ll find Hard Rock Cafè and House of Blues, the Steel Pier attractions, the Ripley’s believe it or not.
There’s a lot of history in Atlantic City, especially from the high times in the Twenties.
If -besides Bruce- you are a fan of The Boardwalk Empire too, you’ll find many mementos of the TV series. The Ritz-Carlton (now Atlantic Condominium), in the 20s was the epitome of posh living, and the city boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson leased the entire ninth floor from which he conducted the business of the day.
Nowadays the hotel offers guided visits to the site (you have to book in advance).
The last time I’ve been here was January 2014, for the Light of Day shows. I read that many Casinos since then have been facing bankruptcy, and that the town is going thorugh a hard recession, so it’s possible that some of the attractions have been closed, please check in advance, they all have on line sites to consult.
I think that in any case Atlantic City is worth a trip, even if, like me, you don’t like gambling, you’ll admit that with the sun disappearing in the ocean at sunset even the Casinos acquire a certain allure.
As a Springsteen’s fan, you have now seen almost everything you can see: driving around you’ll probably have been on Route 9 (that will be the Highway 9 in Born to run, but they don’t call it “highway” around here, just Route), plus the New Jersey Turnpike, and that will be the last expected from you. You’re done, congratulations!
Of course, there are many other fascinating sites to visit and things to do in New Jersey, shores to see, amusement parks, nice little towns with lovely Victorian houses, and lighthouses and falls and bird sanctuaries and Swamps, but we’re talking United States here, not “just” Bruce Springsteen sites and memories.
If you need any further information, please write me and I’ll be happy to help you.
I hope this little contribution of mine can be of some usefulness to you all.
For the rest, take care, have love, will travel!