After Hurricane Sandy, is the Jersey Shore a changed place?

The Ben Franklin five and dime store in Lavallette is unchanged after Sandy, but owner Jason Boekholt says the same cannot be said about the town itself.

LAVALLETTE, N.J. — You can do a double take in those neighborhoods that prior to Hurricane Sandy were reliably year-round working-class enclaves, the kind where cocktail waitresses and landscapers raised their kids, worked odd shifts, and had regular spots on the beach.

Wait, is that a Tesla with Pennsylvania plates outside a newly rebuilt house on Derby Avenue in Ventnor Heights?

And look, there’s a BMW with Pennsylvania plates outside an old teardown on nearby Dorset Avenue.

The shoobies have definitely made themselves at home in the five years since Sandy struck, scooping up damaged properties from people buffeted by economic and natural disasters at the Jersey Shore.

At the same time, those year-round communities shrank. School enrollments dwindled in Atlantic County as much as 20 percent, as casino workers fled to other jurisdictions and foreclosures continued to be the dubious category at which the region excelled. Sandy pushed a lot of year-rounders over the edge.

For second-home owners from Philadelphia and, increasingly, New York City, their Jersey Shore did not materially change; if anything, it became more the Shore that shoobies love, with those pesky locals outnumbered.

But for the locals who stayed, whole neighborhoods seem to have changed hands, leaving towns pockmarked with empty homes and a host of fancy new neighbors. The surfer-bum culture that drew young people and old burnouts now belongs to the gear aficionados who stockpile expensive surfboards and Jet Skis.

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“It’s all new homeowners,” said Jason Boekholt, whose family has owned the Ben Franklin store in Lavallette since the 1940s. The store is unchanged, but the same cannot be said about the town. “The new people have a million-dollar second home. Bigger families, bigger parties. They’re very nice people. Even the cops said, it’s like all different people. They’re not troublemakers.”


Camera icon Amy Rosenberg
Jason Boekholt, whose family owns the Ben Franklin store in Lavallette, says the Shore post-Sandy is “all new homeowners.”

The old patchwork Shore where a blue-collar family could rent a home on the water and have millionaire neighbors took a hit after Sandy, despite concerted efforts to keep residents in their neighborhoods, and a vow by Gov. Christie to try to maintain working-class accessibility. The new Shore is richer, and for many, out of reach.

Just ask Frank and Graycee Rusnak, who lost a battle with their former landlord to stay in their year-round rental home on the bay in Brick. They were those blue-collar renters who enjoyed the Shore life right next door to, as Frank put it, the “multi-katrillionaires.” Now they’re renting on the mainland: OK, but not the same by a long shot.

“That’s what it accomplished,” said Frank. “It’s going to weed out the people. Before, you had a millionaire and a rental next door. It was a melting pot. We had a beautiful home. Now it’s turning into money.”

Camera icon Amy S. Rosenberg
Graycee and Frank Rusnak were blue-collar renters who enjoyed the Shore life right next door to, as Frank puts it, the “multi-katrillionaires.” But no more.

Here’s a sampling of thoughts from some other locals who lived out the storm.

Liz DeBeer, a retired teacher at Point Pleasant Beach High School, where a third of students returned to school homeless after Sandy, summed up the difference in perception for locals and visitors as evidenced in Sea Bright:  “The beach clubs have all been rebuilt, and to many visitors, it looks fabulous. But if one looks a bit harder, there are still boarded-up buildings and homes just a few yards away. We celebrate when each business reopens, but for locals, we still see the scars and wonder what happened to the people whose homes are still boarded up.”

In Ventnor, Tom Hewitt noted a deterioration of sturdy year-round neighborhoods. “You can throw a stone from abandoned house to abandoned house around us; tucked into the Heights. House turnover in general seems to happen faster. Around us there have been three-plus owners of some of the houses. Finally, there’s more awareness and tension around the extreme high tides. They are worse than in years long ago. But people are just tense about it. People admit to having PTS(andy)D.”

Laura Devenny, also of Ventnor, was one of the first with a raised house: “We decided to stay and rebuild right away. We watched as many people walked away from their homes in Ventnor Heights. It was very quiet for a long time. I think over the last couple of years, as people raised and rebuilt, it feels more like it did before Sandy. I see more kids in the neighborhood than in the past couple of years. Still, coastal living is harder than ever. The storms and flooding that we constantly experience continue to be not only a nuisance but a source of anxiety for many.”

On the plus side, locals note that the influx of eager new and loyal returning summer residents, whose love for the Shore has also carried down the generations, albeit in a different way, has created a renewed sense of community in the larger culture of the Jersey Shore.

Said Margie Master of Ventnor: “As a whole, after Sandy, the city residents suffered financially and emotionally. Witnessing families moving to raise homes while trying to keep things normal has been a painful process. However, this summer our little island hosted crowds similar to when I was growing up. There was a new buzz.”