During our recent vacation—too short, as always—my wife and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, right next door to the rowdy and famous Asbury Park. While Asbury Park tempts one with rock ‘n’ roll music, cheap drinks, and the hope of fast women, Ocean Grove offers quiet nights, family-friendly restaurants, and a proper (read: Methodist) atmosphere.
After disembarking from the train, we walked through downtown Asbury Park to the footbridge traversing Wesley Lake, the man-made body of water separating Asbury Park from Ocean Grove. The difference between the two localities could not be more visible and palpable.
On the Asbury Park side of the lake, a local beer garden had commandeered the block across from the footbridge. Beneath a large tent, a small, yet growing afternoon crowd feasted on roasted pork and strong German beers. A band was setting up its instruments. Asbury Park identifies itself as place where one can partake in entertainment, sometimes rowdy and bawdy, and let off steam with a few–or maybe too many–drinks. Although a contemporary hipster haven, it remains a beach town.
Victorian homes with gingerbread trimming and inviting front porches run alongside the Ocean Grove bank of Wesley Lake. The narrow, peaceful streets leading to our lodging were chockablock with houses of various shapes and sizes, mostly all carefully and lovingly maintained and many with tidy flowerbeds and front gardens. Trees formed a canopy over the streets, shielding us from an afternoon sprinkle. We didn’t have to close our eyes and dream: we had stepped into the past.
The unique history of Ocean Grove merits exploration. Ocean Grove began as a Methodist camp meeting site in 1869. Visitors would travel from Philadelphia and New York to enjoy the refreshing sea air and find spiritual nourishment in the religious services and wholesome activities. In 1894, the Great Auditorium was built to accommodate the swelling crowds of sun-loving pilgrims. A literal tent city grew behind the Great Auditorium. In many ways, Ocean Grove has changed little since the nineteenth century. A Methodist organization still owns all the village land. Families and individuals still reside in the tent city during the summer months. The Great Auditorium still physically and symbolically dominates Ocean Pathway and the sight line from the beach.
In the evening, after a fine meal at one of the many eateries dotting Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, my wife and I would return to Ocean Grove and stroll through its streets chilled by the autumn air. Only rustling leaves disturbed the silence. We fancied that we were characters in a classic English ghost story. Our travels had led us to a quaint beach village, nearly untouched by the cruelties of modernity, the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate. Gradually, we would learn that not everything was as it seemed. Something sinister lurked just beneath the surface.
Fortunately, our private narrative remains fiction. Once the sun sets, Ocean Grove slowly falls asleep. While sitting on the porch or lying in bed next to an open window, one may listen to the ocean waves washing the shore. Standing on the darkened beach, the brilliantly lit cross of the Great Auditorium serves as beacon. Church bells softly echo throughout the night. All is well in Victorian Ocean Grove.