Finding North Asbury 7 January 2019

North Asbury Drug sign, view from east side of Memorial Drive

After running some errands last week, we took a different route home, not too far afield, but just far enough to engage in some urban exploration of the psycho-geographical sort. Call it drifting down the shore. And that’s how we found this happy vestige of North Asbury Drug, a horizontal neon sign in silhouette along the roof of a rundown one-story back building with a larger sign painted on the wall just below.

“North Asbury” is no longer an official designation, but it still refers to that part of town north of Sunset Park between the ocean and the railroad tracks. At one time North Asbury also identified a train station.

View of North Asbury in 1897 [Library of Congress]

In the 1890s, the New York and Long Branch Railroad erected the canopied building that still stands on the east side of Memorial Drive. In the 1950s, the railroad leased part of the station building to the Asbury Park National Bank for a branch office, complete with drive-in tellers. By then, the New York Times described North Asbury as a “growing residential section,” one that supported not only regular train service, but also a small commercial crossroads running along the block of Fifth Avenue just south of the station, which served as a kind of anchor.

North Asbury Drug was one of the corridor’s thriving midcentury establishments. It advertised regularly in the local paper and it fielded a winning basketball team in the local league. When the trains stopped calling at North Asbury station in 1975, North Asbury Drug was still in business, probably under the proprietorship of Howard Stuart Isaacs (1945-2016). Though it retains a spectral presence on the web, as a physical store North Asbury Drug is long-shuttered, and the space it once occupied is now a community health center. 

That storefront and a handful of others on the block are what remain of the North Asbury commercial district. The street-level retail offers a snapshot of Asbury Park in the second decade of the 21st century: a gay bar, a barbershop, a falafel take-out place. The building as a whole has suffered numerous indignities, most egregiously in the tin siding covering the projecting bays and ornamental cornices. The storefronts are equally compromised in terms of material and design, but all of them, albeit modestly, evidence pride of place in their signs and window lettering.

As for the last vestiges of North Asbury Drug, that old sign still makes an impression, with its rusted, but still upright channel letters and even a few glass tubes still in place. What color was the neon? Was the sign visible to passing trains? (It runs parallel to the tracks, a few feet away.) Of course, in 2019, in a town in transition, the real question might be, how long before an enterprising urban scavenger removes the sign for resale in a vintage boutique downtown?

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