Local Journalists and Residents Will Join Forces at a Community Forum in Asbury Park

I grew up on the Jersey Shore and have always known Asbury Park as a city rich in culture, the arts and music. As a former reporter for the Asbury Park Press, I’ve seen firsthand the resiliency of local residents, who have survived riots, hurricanes and years of broken promises.

Through good times and bad, however, there’s been a persistent division between Asbury Park’s East and West Sides. This small City by the Sea is, in the eyes of many who live here, a community divided in two.

The split has existed for decades, but my first understanding of it came from my father. While working at the local hospital in the 1970s, he would drive around Asbury Park in a van and provide free medical care for expectant mothers who couldn’t afford treatment on their own.

The differences between the East and West Sides existed back then, but over the past decade or so they’ve become more pronounced. Over the last few weeks I’ve crisscrossed the city’s dividing lines of Memorial Drive, the train tracks and Main Street to meet with residents and consider how journalism can support its residents.

One Community, Many Perspectives

I’ve come back to the city as an organizer with Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey project. I’ve been speaking with locals about a public forum we’re holding on Wed., March 23, that’s bringing local reporters together with community members to talk about ways that journalism can unite communities.

At the event, residents and local media will discuss pressing issues in Asbury Park and the role they see journalism playing in the city. Together they’ll brainstorm story ideas and, most importantly, listen to one another and collaborate on ways to give every resident a voice in Asbury Park’s future.

The event comes at an important time for Asbury Park. For years, the biggest questions in the city have been about revitalization — whether promises would be kept and what renewal would look like. Asbury Park was just on the verge, residents were constantly told, of finally turning it around.

That turnaround has been happening most visibly in the past decade, especially in the last few years as investment and development has picked up. With development continuing on the East Side and beginning in the past couple of years on the West, there’s an opportunity to consider how the entire community can benefit.

I’ve gotten first-hand accounts from people who are actively building toward that future. Depending on who’s asked, the answers vary widely. So while it’s a disservice to boil down an individual’s perspective solely based on what side of town they live on, certain themes related to where one lives and works come up.

People on the East Side tend to focus more on small business ventures, downtown and waterfront development and the arts/music/culture scene. Almost all of the people I spoke with acknowledge that the city is changing: They’re excited to be a part of it but are also concerned with the nature of the changes. They want it to be more than a place for people to come to shop or eat; they want to build something sustainable and meaningful.

Residents and organizations I spoke to on the West Side are concerned with jobs, housing and education. They want a safer community where economic opportunities are evenly distributed and racial justice prevails. They’re just as worried and excited about how the community is changing, but are fearful of being left behind as money pours into one side of town. Asbury Park may be in the midst of transition, but the West Side has been burned one too many times — either forgotten or ignored.

The differences in perspective play out in real ways. Take the public park being built on Springwood Ave on the West Side. It’s located across from the invaluable Springwood Center, home to Kula Café, the Senior Center and other community organizations. Some residents hope the West Side’s first public park will aid in the area’s development and beautification. I’ve also heard from residents who fear the park is for “folks over there,” meaning that it’s not in fact for the long-neglected West Side constituency and is instead a product of East Side development stretching over the tracks.

Perspectives will always vary from person to person throughout a community, and especially from neighborhood to neighborhood. But Asbury Park isn’t a big city; it’s a little over 1.5 square miles, with a population of around 16,000. Residents of the East and West Sides are only blocks apart, but it often feels like they’re living in two different worlds and experiencing two different realities.

The Role of Journalism

Asbury Park is at a critical juncture. An important question on the minds of many people is whether this revival threatens to leave some behind or can actually benefit the entire community.

This is where newsrooms can come in and partner with residents. The platform journalists provide enables them to listen to a variety of perspectives, sort through complicated information, and ask tough questions as powerful individuals make important decisions.

But when speaking with residents, especially on the West Side, the question I often get is, “The media can play a positive role here?”

It’s hard to blame the skepticism, since the general storyline of “The East Side is booming while the West has nothing to offer” is reinforced in media coverage of Asbury Park. Headlines talking about the East Side center on “revival,” “rejuvenation” or the latest business or restaurant opening up. Meanwhile, stories about the West Side tend to focus on crime and violence.

Broad declarations and divisive language may make for good headlines, but they don’t represent the realities of people’s daily lives, address solutions to entrenched problems or unite the community.

As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jack Murtha wrote in a story about national and regional coverage of Asbury Park and other communities experiencing change, “When big newsrooms write about communities in transition, they often miss the first signs of a turnaround. Once they do wake up, they ascribe sweeping proclamations of change, usually tied to some ‘landmark moment.’ The spin of local stakeholders becomes the foundation of the story. Reporters buy into the stakeholders’ motives and miss what’s actually unfolding in the community.”

That’s why it’s so important for journalists to critique what’s happening and challenge misperceptions as communities like Asbury Park go through economic and cultural transitions. One of the best ways to spark that is to bring journalists and community members together.

Journalists can advocate for local residents by giving them the means to make informed decisions. Documenting what’s happening, pressing for transparency, uncovering the truth and holding power to account are all ways to advocate for the public interest.

Reporters can bridge divides by seeking out, listening to and reporting on a broader range of community voices. In the case of Asbury Park, journalists can and should ask questions about who will benefit from the city’s new prosperity.

News Voices: New Jersey’s public forum, “Asbury Park: The Whole Story,” will be held on Wed., March 23, from 6–8:30 p.m. at Asbury Park High School. This event is open to community members and local media. Click here to learn more and to RSVP.

Originally published at www.freepress.net on March 21, 2016.

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