They were taking pictures by the large sculpture of a Fender Esquire electric guitar which lies on the corner of Tenth Avenue and E St. It’s the same instrument that appears on the cover of Born to Run, the famous 1970s recording of Springsteen and his E Street Band.
A motorcyclist approached and took his helmet off. Inevitably — the amazing always happens around this part of the Shore — it was The Boss himself. He was checking on the sculpture to make sure it had weathered the storm.
The 2.4m tall structure had only just been erected, an event which had been delayed by the death of Springsteen’s longtime bandmate and collaborator Clarence Clemons. A couple of towns north along the coast is Asbury Park, where the pair first met and performed together. Springsteen was born a little further north in Long Branch.
Hurricane Irene was bad news for all these iconic places, but nothing had ever touched the scale of the disaster which was to come when Superstorm Sandy battered the US northeast six months ago this week. The huge guitar survived again despite the surge of water which spewed forth from the Atlantic Ocean, shattering communities up and down the coast as well as in New York’s Staten Island and all along the southern sections of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island.
Belmar was even more prone than other areas, surrounded as it is by Shark River to the west, an inlet to the north, and the ocean to the east. Making matters worse were the lakes there and in neighbouring Spring Lake to the south, which acted as stubborn basins for a tide that would not recede.
One of the people who helped commission that Bob Mataranglo sculpture was Dubliner Mary Brabazon, who works for the Belmar Tourism Commission.
Brabazon was born MaryMaloney in California, before moving to Rathfarnham at a young age and subsequently spending a lot of her adult life in Galway. She is very much a Jersey Girl now though, having lived in Belmar for 25 years, as much a fabric of this proudly Irish town as the Belmar natives themselves.
“We were originally moving here for two years,” she admits sheepishly, a common phrase for any emigrant who left in the 1980s.
At her office in Belmar Borough Hall, she shows me pictures of the damage. They’re haunting and evocative but always colourful — the locally based photographer Stephen Lacko displays an uncanny gift for making art out of a submerged SUV or a Dunkin’ Donuts reflected in a large puddle.
Brabazon points to where her office’s beachside hut should be and then a photograph which depicts a humble shop entirely emptied of its stock by the unforgiving tide. On her wall is an old picture of the Taylor Pavillion, which has since been demolished.
A few years back, Brabazon commissioned murals to give the main part of town a bit of a lift. One of those painters was Bob Mataranglo, but an even better by-product was a post-Sandy initiative which aimed to disguise the drabness of the countless (and aptly named) Jersey Barricades, which added to the warzone appearance of Belmar.
“The streets were extremely dark at night and there were special troops who would ask you for ID,” Brabazon said later as we drove around to survey where the damage had been and where it remains still.
“There were rumours of looting, but there wasn’t any as it turned out. We were very lucky. There were a lot of these barriers so people decided to paint them and take ownership of them.
“It was a positive spin on what was going on. We were trying to pull something good out of it.”
They’re still lying around, some of them on the streets where repairs drag on. There’s a barrier with piano keys and another Wizard of Oz-inspired design reading “there’s no place like Belmar”. That latter one has found a temporary home with other barriers at a big parking lot in which a couple of large UPS trailers have been sitting for months, full of supplies for which no other storage can be found.
“This town looks so good when the sun shines,” Brabazon says as she drives back out onto the street.
THE boardwalk is the lifeblood of the entire Jersey Shore. The areas will change in nature: Upper class Spring Lake is a world away from Seaside Heights. But every town shares a long-held dependance on those simple platforms along which so many visitors and residents have walked and jogged and fallen in love on for over a century.
That Sandy ripped up almost every mile of boardwalk was the cruellest and most personal setback.
Everyone from governor Chris Christie and Springsteen down to the beachside vendors and visitors mourned the end of so many eras.
Still in awe of the carnage of late October and trying to get her head around the immediate emergencies, town official Colleen Connolly remembers being grabbed by the shoulder by Paul Calabrese, a vice-president of the borough’s engineering company.
“You need to tell me to design the new boardwalk now,” he said to her, full of far-seeing urgency.
They were still flooded and the water was going nowhere, having settled in on top of the small lakes, Lake Como and Silver Lake. And yet mayor Matt Doherty and his administration were able to think ahead to summer 2013. Being ready for Memorial Day Weekend — the first weekend of June — would become the priority once all the other priorities were taken care of.
“The mayor had his head together,” recalls Connolly, whose role of borough administrator is replicated across all these small towns, a responsibility which includes co-ordination of departments and management of the day-to-day operations.
“He knew that if we didn’t put in a bid, we might lose the summer. We might not be done in time. For a small town like Belmar, we survive on our summer. Matt’s vision was: ‘Get going, get going, get going.’ We designed the new boardwalk and went out to bid one month after the storm. We hit every milestone so that we ordered contract by the end of the year and broke ground on Jan 9. We were the first in New Jersey who got out to bid. We got the best prices and the best contractors. Now there’s a big demand for a restricted supply.”
By happy coincidence, the sunny Thursday morning on which I arrive at Belmar Train Station to be picked up by Connolly is also the occasion of the final project management meeting of the boardwalk reconstruction. Mission all but accomplished, in other words.
We head to Ocean Avenue along which the brand new boardwalk stretches, bare but proud, and sturdier than ever.
The same height and standing in the same footprint, it’s now 2.1km long — a little longer than the original 1.9km, and a lot more wheelchair accessible. There’s a lot to be said for starting from scratch.
Sat around a small table in a the contractor’s makeshift office, an agenda is handed around with “DONE!” written bold and green in the centre of the page. Connolly asks those present to sign it so it can be framed by Rob Bye Jr, general superintendent of Piscataway-based Epic Construction.
After the meeting, Bye recalls the tough conditions they faced back in January, when this vital project got under way.
“It was pretty cold out here, pretty brutal,” he says. “They wanted it done for April 30 so as soon as we got the contract, we got going.
“These people here are great, but it’s not just that. There are businesses here and this is their life. To a lot of people here, the boardwalk is so important. They come up here every day. They walk it. You go into stores in town to get something and they’re all thanking you and telling you how much they appreciate it.
“I’m not from the Shore but I have started to really understand why they love it so much. I used to hang out here and in Point Pleasant. I’m definitely a shore person. But you spend your life coming here and you don’t realise how important the beach is to the locals.”
They finished ahead of time and, in so doing, triggered a $100,000 (€76,400) bonus offered by Belmar to ensure there would be no delays. But there was no pressure, he insists.
“I had total confidence we were going to get it done on time,” says Bye. “My guys didn’t miss a single day. There were two nor’easters, wind blowing sand every day. Rain gear on most days.
“Belmar did the right thing, they reacted right away. They cleaned up. They got a contract to us right away. We ordered material early which helped. Everyone’s trying to get it now because everyone’s trying to rebuild their boardwalk. A lot of them are waiting for wood and screws.”
Before the storm, the anchoring poles burrowed just 2.4m into the ground. Now they’re 7.6m deep with hurricane straps which twist around, and 14 nails hold each board down.
“It’s built like a brick shit-house,” Bye adds, laughing.
“You’re under no obligation to tell me, but what are you going to do with that bonus?” Connolly asks Bye, laughing before wrapping up an “uneventful meeting” which couldn’t be more satisfactory.
DOWN in Spring Lake, the surge wasn’t as extreme but their 3.2km boardwalk was obliterated, scattered out to sea. Now nearing completion, the new version stretches along a more genteel waterfront than that of Belmar, boasting homes valued upwards of €5m while the only three licenses to sell alcohol in town are held by two liquor stores and a restaurant.
Spring Lake is a conservative stronghold, home to a disproportionate amount of Irish-Americans who enjoy low town taxes and a do-it-yourself attitude. Stricter rules apply to the beach on the Spring Lake side of the border and it’s more expensive to go with it.
The average age of residents is thought to be around 50, which makes the emotional tie with Ireland all the stronger. It goes back to an important early resident, Martin Maloney, who owned a good deal of property there and also built the lakeside St Catherine’s Church at the turn of the 20th century, modelled after the Church of Maria del Popolo in Rome.
Tall flagpoles bearing large Irish flags stand proudly at every third or fourth residence. The vast majority of houses keep faith with early 20th-century grandeur and the lawns are kept immaculately.
There are no parking meters and there will be no new sand dunes erected to protect from future extreme weather, a tactic adopted by many other coastal communities.
If the police force of 13 needs a new police dog, one or other resident will donate the cost. The reaction to Sandy was equally generous and low key. Anything to keep their low tax paradise ticking along.
When I visited borough administrator Bryan Dempsey, he extolled the virtues of his town. Then he revealed a fascinating donation from the old country.
The City of Derry Swim Club had been sending swimmers to this part of the Jersey Shore for more than 30 years. During that time, many families in Spring Lake had opened their homes to host a swimmer for the month of July. When disaster struck, Derry came to Spring Lake’s aid.
Belmar, meanwhile, had the Friendly Sons of the Shillelagh, a New Jersey fraternal society for Irish-Americans which is headquartered at a cosy clubhouse on 16th Avenue.
Outside the bar, a steel girder from one of the Twin Towers has been fashioned into a 9/11 memorial. Inside, the blinds are drawn low to keep out the glare of the sun throughout the long summers.
Jim Lynch Jr, the constantly smiling barman, doles out green chips to the drinkers as another round is bought by a member. Baseball plays on the television and the wood panelling of the walls is adorned by tributes to the patriotism and history of Ireland and America.
“They are vital in this community,” said Mayor Doherty last week. “We don’t have any other independent group like them that can gather together donations and volunteers.”
Many of their 1,100 members were personally affected by the storm, including incoming president Matt Sharin, who begins his term today.
“We’re very proud of our Irish heritage,” Sharin says. “But charity is important to us too. We raised $10,000 for Belmar and another $5,000 for [neighbouring] Lake Como. We partnered with the Robin Hood Foundation to dispense other funds to those in need.
“It wasn’t anything that was going to change the big picture but more like small things such as rent, food, and clothing. And a lot of our members are skilled tradesmen so we pitched in like everyone else.”
As did many out-of-town volunteers — their rush to help, though welcome, was out of the usual pattern.
“The way this town operates, the population grows by 10 times in the summer and then in the winter it goes back down to this kind of sleepy town,” says Brabazon.
“You wouldn’t see anyone on the streets. With the storm you had volunteers coming in and rubberneckers too, checking out the damage. There were traffic jams on Main St and hundreds of people looking to pitch in. Which was fabulous but it was a shock to the system too.”
There’s one more place she wants to show me before I catch the train home: Brian Katz’s well-known Mexican bar and restaurant, 10th Avenue Burrito. His friend and fellow restaurateur Chris Brandl pops in as we settle down for a drink and discuss town plans for the summer.
So many eateries in this region of the country faced a dilemma when power was lost for over a week. When the prospect emerged that their food stocks wouldn’t keep, Katz and Brandl organised a large and hasty cook-off, raising $14,000 which they handed straight over to their town.
Katz’s wraparound sunglasses and furious beard hide a deep passion for Belmar. He gestures towards an open space ideal for a car show, away from the main street but within view of passing motorists. Brabazon listens intently and Brandl offers equal helpings of encouragement and playful insult.
As they chatted excitedly, the sun was setting brilliantly on the far side of the railway tracks that bring New Jersey commuters back north to Newark and New York.
Soon Belmar train station will be teeming with beachgoers and daytrippers, as will Spring Lake and Seagirt to the south and Asbury Park to the north, all as ready as they can be for their biggest and most important season in memory.
Sandy will always be that darkness on the edge of town, but when the boardwalk opens and sunny chaos resumes, the fighting spirit of the Irish Riviera will have ensured she will be buried deep in the hardened earth of an unbeatable coastline.