ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Barbara Pisch was about 20 years old when she realized she had to save Eastern Europe’s past.
Not all of it. Just the fabric, specifically antique homespun handwoven hemp linen textiles. Having immigrated from Slovakia as a child with her parents, she had discovered such pieces in her grandmother’s pantry and attic.
“I loved them right away,” Ms. Pisch said. “I had a strong reaction to them.” Now she fills the light wood bookshelves in Patriae, her store on 713 Bangs Avenue here, with bolts, greige tote bags and natural tunics all made of the creamy old cloth.
With its white walls and floors, cactus plants and desert aesthetics, Patriae looks like it could be straight out of Joshua Tree. But it’s on the northern part of the Jersey Shore.
“People were just throwing this stuff out,” Ms. Pisch said of the dead-stock rolls, sheets, towels and wagon covers she has salvaged from flea markets and the homes of friends’ parents during regular pilgrimages to the old country. “I had this feeling. Like, ‘Oh my God, I have to save this piece of history.’”
Ms. Pisch could have easily been talking about Asbury Park itself. For years, the area was defined by crumbling 100-year-old buildings, desolation, government corruption and poverty.
But after an influx of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, along with dedicated music fans, artists’ collectives, historians, locals and a partnership between two major developers, Madison Marquette and iStar, the recent revival of this small city includes not only a deep dedication to its own relics, but also a growing contingent of merchants and artists interested in preserving the past.
(Though one well-known local object is out of sight: The Tillie mural, a garish clown face that once appeared on the side of the Palace Amusements park, has been “deteriorating” in a storage facility, according to a recent conservator’s report. Through a spokeswoman, Madison Marquette said it has “satisfied and will continue to satisfy all requirements governing the secure storage and eventual reinstallation of the artifact.”)
Joey Pisch, Ms. Pisch’s brother and the owner of Sweet Joey’s (523 Bangs Avenue), has been here for seven years. “Bangs was off the beaten path, but we like that,” Mr. Pisch said of the now thriving district, about half a mile from the beach.
The Pisch siblings scour for vintage items together and collaborated on designing a Grateful Dead T-shirt that the singer John Mayer wore last summer to one of his gigs.
The other day, Mr. Pisch was looking like a young Lou Reed in a beaten-up army jacket, blue striped shirt, round sunglasses and neatly tied neckerchief. Sweet Joey’s is something of a time warp too, filled with a mix of worn oil paintings and rock memorabilia, like Bruce Springsteen’s black and white “Nebraska” poster. (This is Springsteen country, after all.) A neon “Rock n Roll” sign was suspended in the window.
This year, Mr. Pisch began a self-described “economy rock ’n’ roll” sunglasses company, with frames inspired by Buddy Holly and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Next, he said, his company will design a wraparound style Mr. Reed made famous in the 1960s.
At the back of the shop, Mr. Pisch’s father, Vladimir, white bearded and with considerable energy, stepped away from the sewing machine where he was making an apron; he makes those, and handmade jeans, under the label Vlad.
“Another masterpiece finished,” the elder Mr. Pisch announced with a smile.
He pointed to the table of leather and denim wallets, all made from leftover fabrics, because the Pisches repurpose everything. Sometimes Vladimir buys boxes of old ribbons to use as apron ties from the local reclaimed architecture shop Salvage Angel by the Sea, because there’s plenty of old material to go around.
A Mod, Mod World
Tessa Perlow, an embroidery artist who works primarily with secondhand clothing, has also settled in the area. Ms. Perlow mostly sells from her Etsy account or over Instagram, where she has 150,000-odd followers, and she lives two blocks from the border of Asbury Park, in Ocean Grove with her two cats.
In her tiny cottage with a pile of old clothes in the center of the living room, Ms. Perlow showed off a blue-and-white striped buttoned shirt that she embroidered with two gold butterflies across the chest.
Ms. Perlow has always been passionate about vintage clothes and shopping at thrift stores. She is against so-called fast fashion. And she doesn’t want to buy more fabric and add more waste to the world when there is already so much waste out there, isn’t there?
“Nine out of 10 times I embroider all of the clothes I’ve hoarded over the years,” she said. “I”m excited to get people excited about secondhand clothes.”
An ironing board covered with 1960s mod fabric leaned against a bookshelf, a sewing machine sat on the kitchen table, and a ring of embroidery reading “Neo Nazis Not Welcome Here,” surrounded by flowers, hung on the wall.
Why was she so attracted to Asbury Park? “People here are excited about one-of-a-kind stuff,” Ms. Perlow said. “Which is the very essence of vintage.”
Danielle and Drew Levinson opened their midcentury modern furniture store, Flux Modern, three years ago at the Shoppes at the Arcade on 658 Cookman Avenue, an 1889 building that was once a Woolworth store. Their window front space has exposed brick, Sputnik chandeliers and reclaimed basketball court flooring.
The building has become something of a center for vintage stores. Twenty fill the space including Backwards Glances, a vintage-clothing shop; Groovy Graveyards, selling records; Flying Saucers (kitchenware); and Kill Screen Games, which sells used video games.
“The town has seen its darker days,” Mr. Levinson said. “But you kind of bring it back to life with a little polish and give it another life.”
Ms. Levinson winced at her husband’s remark. “It depends on how you look at it,” she said. She is concerned that artists, musicians and other lower-income people are going to get pushed out. “Which we know a little bit about,” she said. “The rent has already gone up here quite a bit.”
Over the past three years, the Levinsons have moved Flux Modern from a 300-square-foot space to a 900-square-foot space, and their clientele has expanded to include set designers from “The Deuce” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
They use Instagram as a selling tool. “I’ll post something new as soon as I get it,” Mr. Levinson said. “And sometimes it’s gone before I even take it out of my van.”
Also helping them out with sales is Judy Feinstein, 83, a former pilot who showed off an Amelia Earhart medal that she wore around her neck. “I’m the real vintage one in here,” Ms. Feinstein said, and then handed everyone cake.
The vintage shops are mostly located east of the town’s railroad tracks, not on the West Side, where riots in 1970 took place and most commercial buildings were destroyed. (A West Side-based Springwood Avenue redevelopment project is underway.)
According to the United States census, 48.5 percent of Asbury Park’s residents are black, yet store owners are predominantly white. When asked about the disproportion, Sylvia Sylvia-Cioffi, the executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce, said that as redevelopment continued, particularly on the West Side, she anticipates more merchants of color would be represented.
“Our philosophy is that we’re on the West Side,” Ms. Sylvia-Cioffi said of her office building, on Springwood Avenue. “It makes a real statement that the chamber is here where the next phase of development is really needed and supported.”
Anda Andrei, the creative lead of development at iStar, has salvaged many of Asbury Park’s vintage signs. A marquee that had been in storage after the original Baronet Theater was demolished in 2010 now hangs on the side of a boutique hotel, the Asbury, about a block from the boardwalk.
Once a grungy punk-rock hangout, the newly rehabilitated Asbury Lanes boasts its original — and now working — neon bowling pin sign, restored by the family of the electrician who originally built it, along with other items.
While decorating the hotel in 2016, Ms. Andrei said she “raided” many of the vintage stores at the Shoppes at the Arcade. “It’s hard when you start restoring everything and it becomes like an imitation of the past,” Ms. Andrei said.
Even harder, perhaps, is when the past doesn’t warrant imitating. The city’s founder was James Bradley, a segregationist who in 1887 stopped black people from using the beaches, bathing houses, pavilions and promenades.
Ms. Andrei was unaware of Bradley’s segregationist history, or the new push to remove a statue of Bradley from a park named for him, when she mentioned that she had hung his portrait in the hotel. “We’ll take it down,” she said. (It turned out the portrait is actually of Francis Asbury, an early bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S. and a hero of Bradley’s, and for now it’s remaining.)
Over lunch at the High Voltage Cafe on Springwood Avenue, Stephanie Leopold and Amanda DiRobella, of the traveling vintage furniture and clothing shop Sojourn, talked about their future here.
Deeply connected to the vintage community, the women ran a temporary shopping market inside the Convention Hall. Last year, they brought a Sojourn pop-up to Patriae and to the High Voltage Cafe, which had another location on Ocean Avenue.
High Voltage’s owner, Jason Thomson, runs the Instagram account Asbury Back Then and shares the Springwood Avenue space with the Asbury Park staple Second Life Bikes, a nonprofit that helps children restore old bikes, which they then get to ride away in. They also sell new bikes, because, as Kerri Martin, the founder, said, “We’re in beach cruiser country.”
“If you are someone who sells vintage, you’re automatically drawn to these older places,” Ms. Leopold said. “It calls to you. Just like something you’d find. And you connect with these older places,” she said.
Ms. Leopold and Ms. DiRobella, who have been collecting vintage goods together for over three years, said they would like to find a brick and mortar store here, but don’t think they could afford it. Right now, they’re selling worn army jackets, Moroccan cactus silk pillow cases, linen caftans and pottery out of a 1969 Sprite travel trailer they painted creamy white and sunset pink.
Both women understood that developers have a job to do. But they have some qualms about the massive restoration they’ve witnessed in the past few years.
“There needs to be more of a community involvement,” Ms. DiRobella said. “And I’m talking about the entire community. I’m talking about the West Side of the tracks. And the East Side of the tracks. Because there is a divide, for sure.”
Perhaps the creative and vintage community could bridge that gap. “You have to keep the past alive,” she said, “to understand what the future is going to be.”