The Magazine

Razing New Jersey

In which developers in league with city hall have come up with a curious definition of "blight."

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Long Branch, New Jersey

OCEAN AVENUE runs, with only a few interruptions, more than 40 miles along the New Jersey coast, from the northern tip of Long Beach Island all the way up to the southern entrance to Sandy Hook Bay--the effective end of the Jersey shore.

Driving north on Ocean Avenue, you're never more than a few feet from the beach, and the small towns whip by quickly, each with its own peculiar character. There's the Richie Rich enclave of Sea Girt with its multimillion-dollar mansions next to the merely wealthy town of Spring Lake, with its million-dollar homes. There's middle-class Belmar and working-class Bradley Beach. A little further north is tiny Ocean Grove--where the town's Methodist Church owns the land and leases it to homeowners. Next comes Bruce Springsteen's crumbling hometown of Asbury Park, where the girls comb their hair in the rearview mirrors and the boys try to look so hard. Go a few more miles still, and you arrive in Long Branch.

Long Branch was once a thriving resort town. From the 1860s until World War I, seven different U.S. presidents summered there. In 1869, Winslow Homer painted Long Branch, New Jersey, depicting a pair of Victorian women on the bluffs overlooking the surf. But, as the years passed, Long Branch declined.

Part of the decline was an unexpected consequence of urban planning. In the 1960s, in neighboring Newark, the city fathers began to experiment with public housing. They bulldozed much of the heavily Italian First Ward to clear space for housing projects. Newark residents fled to the suburbs. Some could afford the ritzier towns in Monmouth County; those of more modest means chose places such as Long Branch. By 1965, the influx of working-class residents finished off much of what remained of Long Branch's resort culture. Downtown businesses moved out, and the town went into further decline, which wasn't helped when, in 1987, the town's last tourist attraction, a large pier on the boardwalk, was destroyed in a fire.

Today, however, Long Branch is on the brink of a rebirth. Young people with wads of disposable income are flocking to it; upscale businesses--trendy coffee shops and hip designer boutiques--are back. These victories are the fruits of 12 years of planning done by the mayor, city council, and a consortium of local businesses. It is a testament to the power of eminent domain, as blighted old neighborhoods were bought up and cleared to make way for the new developments. But, while Long Branch may look like a success story, it is actually a cautionary tale.

The traditional American understanding of eminent domain is summed up in the text of the Fifth Amendment, which places two limits on the power of federal and state governments to take private property. Land can be taken only "for public use"--a new highway, for instance--and it cannot be taken "without just compensation." Last year, in a controversial 5-4 decision known as Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court upheld the extremely elastic definition of "public use" that undergirds most modern urban renewal schemes--namely, that a private developer's promise of "increased tax revenue" counts as a "public purpose." In other words, simplifying only slightly, the government can compel you to sell your house to a developer who promises to build a more expensive one. In the wake of the Kelo decision, Long Branch is a case study in what the use--and the abuse--of eminent domain means to middle-class America.

WHEN THINGS WENT AWRY for Long Branch after the 1960s, the city of 31,000 hollowed out. Drugs became rampant, much of the town fell into disrepair, crime took hold. It got so bad that, on February 21, 1994, in the middle of a heated mayoral election, a drug-related riot broke out, with a crowd of 300 residents throwing bottles, vandalizing cars, injuring two police officers, and burning down two vacant homes. Five rioters were arrested, and Mayor Adam Schneider was forced to declare a curfew. Schneider won reelection in 1994 and is still mayor today. From that hotly contested race, the plan to redevelop Long Branch was born.

Schneider had long been a proponent of redevelopment, and in 1994 the stars began to align. The Monmouth County beaches, diminished from years of erosion, were about to get a facelift, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers. A group of some 40 local businessmen headed by Robert Furlong, who owned a number of local clothing businesses, had just established a private redevelopment arm, Long Branch Tomorrow, to help goose the process.