Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 7 | Spring 2024

Have the Jersey Kids Landed Yet?

Like cotton candy melting on the tongue, pastel colors drift across the boardwalk under the midday sun, touching everything within reach. A hallmark of the 16-block borough, the Seaside Heights boardwalk markets itself as a classic American site. Advertisements invite visitors down the Garden State Parkway to “find the heart of the Jersey Shore” along Ocean County beaches, where for only ten dollars a day, young couples can play with their kids in the sand. Maybe the couple will hear the heart beating as they chat with a senior citizen from a nearby retirement village. She’s laying out in her beach chair, laughing as her grandchildren let their ice cream cones melt down their chins. In this slice of heaven, everyone is tan and relaxed. The summer is infinite. Eventually, the lifeguards will put down their stands and ride their bikes home as the young family joins the crowd transferring from the beach to the boardwalk. The children exchange grins when their father buys pizzas and sausage sandwiches, grease seeping into their hands. The pounding heart might quiet after the kids exhaust themselves on the Casino Pier rides and the family makes their way back to their Airbnb, conveniently located only a few blocks away.

Or maybe the family will find the Jersey Shore’s heart palpitating in the floorboards of a three-story house with an Italian flag painted onto its garage. Here, it palpitates at a faster pace. There was once an outline of New Jersey at the center of the garage’s mural, though it has since been painted white. Made famous by the MTV show, Jersey Shore, 1209 Ocean Terrace stands as a former temple to big hair, spray-tans, and electronic club beats. Four of the reality TV show’s six seasons took place in Seaside Heights, following the lives of twenty-somethings Pauly D, Snooki, The Situation, Sammi, Ronnie, JWoww, Vinny, Angelina, and Deena, as they worked the boardwalk’s “Shore Store,” partied at nightclubs, and hosted Sunday night dinner. During his first televised boardwalk fist fight, Ronnie yelled “Come at me bro” and the world repeated his words. As the show progressed, it cemented its place in popular culture, inspiring conversation everywhere from small households to research institutions including the University of Chicago. The man who brought MTV their shore house, Michael Loundy, watched with pride as the beach community found itself on the minds of millions, in turn attracting tourists from across the country.

But with that attention came backlash too, when the show amplified the borough’s youth culture and unrestrained nightlife for all to see. As opposed to neighboring shore towns, such as Lavalette and Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights has had a long-running reputation of hosting younger clientele. The others called it “Sleazeside,” referencing the boardwalk’s “trashy bars, trashy clothing stores, arcades, and body piercing stands” in a 2005 Urban Dictionary explaining the term. Stereotypes intensified during the show’s run when the borough became associated with vapidness, fights, public intoxication, and poor decisions on a national scale, and subjecting the town and its people to more analysis than standard Jersey gossip. Although its neighbors also housedpartiers, Jersey Shore was a final nail in the coffin for Sleazeside’s reputation. Seaside Heights was the poster child for debauchery.

Yet no matter the national perception of the town or the noise of the summer beach season, Novembers are quiet for Seaside Heights, even when it’s election season. In office for the past eight years, Mayor Anthony Vaz secured another four in a 2023 unopposed election, allowing him to move forward with his plan for the borough: redevelopment. While the Jersey Shore house remains a landmark for tourists, Seaside Heights is moving the spotlight away from the infamous home, asking locals and visitors to look toward the future instead. In an interview with Asbury Park Press, Vaz made his mission clear: “The community has joined together, from the property owners to the business community, and they said it’s time to change things.” With only locals and the ghosts of summertime left in town, developers are replacing old motels and nightclubs with single-family homes and condominiums, initial steps in actualizing the borough’s new family friendly vision.

Across from the boardwalk, motels line the streets. Some wear fresh coats of paint, advertising air conditioning and free Wi-Fi, their shimmering pools like billboards for those driving by. Others are decaying, and tourists avert their eyes as they drive past. Further down from the boardwalk’s commercial sections, the properties transition to houses as the properties near the peninsula’s bay. Wealthier homes stand on stilts, six feet above the ground in case of a storm. It feels inappropriate to describe beachfront homes as ‘single-family,’ because they could likely fit four comfortably. At Christmas time, people look at its neighborhoods through car windows, unsure of whether to marvel at their decor or sheer grandeur. These homes are the future of Seaside Heights.

Spring 2024 will see a significant reduction in the borough’s forty motels. At least fourteen have been torn down for new developments and more are to follow. Officials expect there to be less than half to remain standing next year. In place of the motels, Seaside Heights is shifting toward single family Airbnb and condominium rentals for tourists in an attempt to bring money directly to community members. Karma, a now abandoned nightclub that was often featured on Jersey Shore, will be torn down to make way for a 36- unit mixed-use development. Bamboo and Merge, former nightlife favorites as well, will share similar fates.

Owner of Seaside Realty and the man who brought the shore house to MTV, Michael Loundy is helping usher in the new era for Seaside Heights, adapting with ease to the new flow of the tide.

As the borough’s current Director of Community Improvement, Loundy boasts about the new plans for development, anticipating economic growth. Open to calls and texts on his personal cell phone, Loundy wants to meet the needs of the people in any way possible, following a family legacy of servicing the shore since 1932. To an extent, the fate of the town lies in the period between late spring through Labor Day weekend, all other time goes toward preparations for the season. He explained, “at the end of [the tourist season], we’re left with approximately 3000 people in our 16-block, one mile square town.” So he has taken on the role of helping his local community by appealing to those outside of it. A recurring figure in recent journalism on Seaside Heights, his town-spokesperson hat fits well. Professional and friendly, he constructs all his sentences to put Seaside in a positive light—always sure to remind his listeners of its beautiful beaches—catching the interest of those searching for oceanfront properties.

When Hurricane Sandy swept through Seaside Heights and its neighboring borough, Seaside Park, in October 2012, it left only destruction in its wake. Coastal towns anticipate storms, but Sandy arrived with a force that Ocean County couldn’t stand against. A roller coaster sank into the water, houses were flooded and torn apart, debris lined the streets. The shore became a wasteland and Seaside Heights was closed off to the public for months. While full-time residents—some physically injured, all hurt— watched their lives wash away with the superstorm, rental property owners waited from the outside with rising anxiety. One of the few people to access the Shore in the early aftermath, Loundy and his team focused on communication by providing those that lived away from the beach with updates on their properties. Since 2012, along with the rest of the borough’s leaders and developers, he’s worked on redeveloping the town–but not to its former state. “Circumstances beyond our control changed who we were,” he admitted.

With Loundy’s help, 2009 saw Seaside at its most wild, but exhaustion sank into the town’s bones due to Sandy. When the rebuilding efforts began, the borough came back with a new maturity. Beach towns operate in a “reverse migration,” he said. People are searching, not for industry or jobs, but for leisure. And for the town, leisure today looks different than it did a decade ago. As Loundy put it, Seaside Heights is “growing older.” Its days of partying were mere “growing pains.”

Seaside Heights is ready to settle down. But the question remains whether its visitors are too. As tradition dictates, all high school seniors in New Jersey must go to Seaside Heights for ‘after-prom’ celebrations. Siblings from Clifton, Kerry and Ian Archer agree: “That’s where everyone goes to party.” For many throughout the state, it’s the closest beach on the shore with a boardwalk and the town’s reputation for young visitors makes it the perfect location for Jersey teens to come together. Filling in motels and any rental homes they can find, they flood the boardwalk and beaches, reveling while graduation and adulthood await.

Earlier this year, Ian was one of many at Seaside Heights, to Kerry’s surprise. She had never seen her younger brother as the partying type. He agreed and admitted, “I just wanted to go ‘cause my friends were going.” She nodded along, pointing out that “his friend group doesn’t go to parties…But they still went to Seaside.”

Even if after-prom generates revenue for Seaside Heights, town officials and police officers feel that the stress caused by a large youth presence weighs down on the town. Referencing a 1961 newspaper clipping on teen rowdiness, borough Administrator Christopher Vaz’s frustration is clear. He revealed to a Patch reporter that the borough has had problems with teenagers and young adults for over sixty years. During Memorial Day weekend in 2023, videos of altercations made their way across social media, displaying teens fist fighting, harassing business owners, and refusing to follow orders. Lavallette-Seaside’s Shorebeat website reported that one video showed a car driving into a police vehicle. With too many teens around, Vaz’s statements suggested, families can’t enjoy all the pleasantries of Seaside.

Due to the occurrences on Memorial Day weekend, Seaside Heights joined neighboring boroughs and enacted a curfew, forcing beaches to close at 8:00 p.m. while everyone under 18 was expected to be off the boardwalk by 10:00 p.m. The measure was a direct response to a 2020 state policy, increasing the difficulty for law enforcements to check adolescents for alcohol or marijuana based on suspicion alone, opting for warnings over arrests if they find minors in possession of drinks or marijuana. For borough officials and law enforcement, this was the state’s method of allowing unlawful behavior to go without consequence.

Despite the curfew, Ian revealed that the regulations had little effect on the teens and the weekend continued as usual. People simply partied inside houses, not on the boardwalk. Kerry added that, compared to their older brother’s after-prom, the borough’s police appeared to pay less attention to underage drinking in recent years, putting their energy toward other infringements of the law. “All they [police officers] cared about were parking tickets. And then there are people stumbling in the middle of the road, in front of police, and they don’t care… all they care about is fining people.”

Claire, a “Lucky Leo’s” arcade employee noticed an increased presence of police officers and security during the past seven months she’s worked on the boardwalk. As she spoke, the arcade—one of the few boardwalk businesses open year-round—was buzzing with energy as people of all ages played games. Children stepped up to the counter, looking for toys to purchase while their parents guided them through the process. Despite Claire’s observations, she said that she saw “no changes” in teen behavior. However, she affirmed that the borough’s plans for redevelopment are noticeable. Pointing out an increase in pubs and food-driven bars in place of nightclubs, she agreed that the town was becoming more family friendly.

Unaffected by club and bar closures, and unperturbed by recent policy changes, Jersey teens feel untouchable during the summertime. Down the shore, the kids (not yet adults, even if they are eighteen) release the pent-up energy of the entire school year on the boardwalk or within the walls of rented rooms and houses.

At night, they might communicate by shouting at each other across back decks, eager to connect despite potential noise complaints. While some may not take part in party behavior, smoking, drinking, and fighting are strongly associated with the influx of teens on the beach. Some parents feed into the youth culture, supplying their children with alcohol and thinking back to their own days spent partying until morning.

Time seems to stop in Seaside Heights. The future, whether it be college or career, is nothing more than a passing thought. Handcuffs might even make for a good story. But the search for a rental property might bring teenagers back down to Earth.

‘No teens. No parties,’ is now a common condition on listings. This summer, alongside the curfew, the borough implemented a new limitation which raised the rental age to 21 from April 1 to June 30, hoping to capture the high schooler’s prom and graduation periods. “Even being 21, sometimes you can’t get a hotel room, because they really don’t want anyone [young],” Kerry said when discussing the topic.

As one wanders down the boardwalk, they’ll reach the borough’s quieter counterpart, Seaside Park, which houses many of the season’s tourists. As a rental property owner in Seaside Park, Susan Obermiller is tired of renters’ rowdy behavior, finding that “people don’t have respect for the owners of the house or the next people that will be there.” While a leasing agent screens their clients, turning away teenagers looking for an after-prom house, Susan finds that even families can be disagreeable renters. Frequent violations she and her husband, Kevin, encounter include throwing parties, exceeding the number of guests, and damaging property. Borough officials inspect each rental property, issuing fines for any policy violations, even those committed by renters themselves, she explained. “It got harder for us to go there every week to check the house [for damage].”

Beyond partiers, Susan and Kevin mentioned another source of concern among property owners: violent crime. “There’s been murders…where are these people coming from and are they going to stay?” asked a concerned Susan. Some attribute crimes to Seaside Heights’ homeless population during the winter; Ocean County has no formal shelter for unhoused people and instead rents Seaside Heights motel rooms to house people during the off-season. Known as ‘welfare motels,’ Lisa Rose published an exposé on the twenty-seven (out of forty) Seaside Heights motels that sheltered unhoused people including sex offenders, drug-users, and illegal sex workers in 2014. Under the title of “emergency shelter,” these inhabitants might stay for years at a time while vacationers are unaware that a sex offender could be staying next door. In Rose’s article, borough officials disputed with motel owners, viewing their practices as a hindrance to attracting families to the area. Such motels are dwindling in number because of the borough’s redevelopment process, but a permanent Ocean County homeless shelter has not been built yet. Where these people will live instead is a later concern. New Airbnb and condo rentals will be subject to government oversight in a manner that the motels were not. Redevelopment means ridding the borough of the undesirable, in all its forms.

However, others believe that organized crime and gangs are the source of problems in Seaside, leading to robberies and car theft. The Obermillers shared, “There’s so much going on. It’s hard to pinpoint where the problems are stemming from.” Despite anxieties, the couple looks forward to the new developments. “It’s upgrading the neighborhood.” Yet, there is a lingering fear that as the borough becomes more affluent, new types of crime will emerge, bringing Seaside back to square one.

Most locals, or full-time residents, are attempting to keep the same positive outlook as their surroundings change. Working behind the register of “The Original Steak’s Unlimited,” Tiffany shared that new developments are happening at a quicker pace than before, but locals are trying to welcome change if it means safety. Some of the motels down the block from the shop will likely be gone within the next year, making room for condos and houses. Everyone seems to agree with efforts to “clean up the town,” expressing gratitude that the area feels safer and less characterized by public disorder. But concerns remain, especially as housing prices increase and new buildings alter the aesthetics of the beach town. “The cookie-cutter look is not what Seaside is.” But it might be what Seaside will become.

Where Karma once stood in its gauche neon blue glory, a mixed-use condo complex will soon be erected. The new development’s rendering depicts a building that could exist anywhere in the country. Leaning heavily into contemporary apartment design, it invokes neither a sense of tranquility nor fun as one might associate with coastal architecture. This same look is replicated in the rendering for the townhouses and stores destined to replace the Merge nightclub. A parking lot on Ocean Terrace has been approved for a similar development marked by neutral tones and vertical lines. NJ.com’s real estate column spotlighted the new designs without any discussion of their stylistic influences or aesthetic implications. The new developments represent safety and a changing reputation for officials and developers; their significance outweighs their looks. Notably, cookie-cutter designs are time and cost-effective—enticing factors for a town that wants to evolve as quickly as possible.

At least sixty new single-family residences were built in Seaside Heights the past two years, NJ.com learned from Michael Loundy, each selling for $750,000 to $1 million or weekly rents of $5,000 to $7,000. Most buyers are looking for secondary homes for summer that will be available to rent when they aren’t in town. This raises concerns about how increasing property costs will impact full-time residents. While rentals are a large part of the shore economy, their cost corresponds to the borough’s clientele.

Terms such as “luxury” accompany new condo and townhouses plans while the affluent build along the beachfront. The new money coming into town could cause a shift in Seaside Heights’ character which would affect full-time residents most.

According to 2021 census data, the median household income for full-time Seaside Heights residents is $37,008, whereas the state’s median household income is $96,346. As with most coastal towns, local employees rely on tourism and seasonal visitors to make a living, but do not want to feel alienated from their community in the process of business. If Seaside interests adapt to cater to a wealthier crowd, more money could flow into the pockets of full-time residents, or it could drive them out of their own town. A tension lies at the core of redevelopment: who gets to grow with the town and who will be cast aside? Who does Seaside Heights belong to?

While locals do their best to embrace their new lives, teenagers will keep returning to Seaside Heights, exhausting all avenues they can think of to respect tradition. They aren’t deterred by recent policy initiatives, but borough officials are determined to solve any problem that undermines their family-friendly image. Directly targeted by recent policy, there is a possibility that it will become so difficult for youth to reside alone in Seaside Heights that they will have to move on to another borough. Perhaps this cycle will keep repeating itself until teens can no longer place for themselves. Then, the Jersey kids will have to settle down too.

Displacement of motel inhabitants—and potentially full-time residents—is a consequence of redevelopment. Changing the youth culture is a primary goal. Seaside Heights has outgrown the craze of adolescence. It seems that its visitors must do the same.

For the borough’s leaders, Seaside Heights seems to exist only in its perception. Forging an identity is necessary to the tourist economy. In the early 2010s, Seaside Heights was the face of the Jersey Shore, embracing the weight of that title. While it was once economically effective for Seaside Heights to be the life of the party, officials and residents are ready for a new image, even if it makes them the same as every other neighboring town. Fortunately, no reputation is permanent, officials can shape and mold the town’s character as needed. So close to the shores of a better reputation and renewed interest from tourists, Seaside Heights leaders are polishing every corner of the town, taking account of its imperfections, and trying to solve them before the summer arrives. Redevelopment has been on the borough’s agenda for years and soon it will reap the rewards. The removal of each club and motel makes way for homes and well-regulated rental properties. In the midst of Sleazeside’s demolition, a new Seaside Heights emerges: a picturesque spot for families to find rest and relaxation at the Jersey Shore.