Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us

This pier lights our carnival life forever

Oh, love me tonight and I promise

I'll love you forever.- From "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," by Bruce Springsteen

ASBURY PARK, N.J. - This is the story of a love affair of sorts between a rock legend and this gritty beach town of 17,000, some 40 miles south of New York.

Yet sometimes, as on this overcast morning just before Christmas, you wonder what the rocker, Bruce Springsteen, sees in the old girl.

Oh, the main drag of Cookman Avenue breathes new life after a decades-long decline, with its eclectic restaurants and shops, including Wish You Were Here, an "espresso bar, gelateria and resort boutique." But walk a few blocks up to Ocean Avenue and it might as well be Dresden-by-the-Sea.

Urban blight scars the landscape as far as the eye can see. Boarded-up buildings and empty, graffiti-covered pizza joints line a desolate, wind-swept boardwalk, where not even the faintest echoes of the old carnival life can be heard. All the way down to Convention Hall, the once-stately venue where Janis Joplin, the Stones, the Doors and the Who played, trash litters the sidewalks and the only people you pass are wild-eyed drifters.

Over the years, after the race riots of 1970 precipitated its steady decline, lots of people wrote off Asbury Park. But not Bruce Springsteen.

By all accounts, Springsteen remained fiercely loyal to the town that helped forge so much of his identity, and his music. He grew up in nearby Freehold and lives in Rumson, a 15-minute drive away. But he's always called Asbury Park his adopted hometown.

It's where he lived for years, where he met most of his E Street Band members, where he jammed in clubs like the Upstage and the legendary Stone Pony and first tasted fame. It's memorialized on his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, and it's the place that moved him to pen a plaintive song about the Fourth of July to "Sandy."

Bruce loved the town from the very beginning, even when he was broke and living in a dingy apartment above a beauty salon in the 1970s. And the town loved him right back, even as he soared to the big-time as one of rock 'n' roll's supernovas.

"We treat him like he's another guy," says Lynda Young, events manager for a local restaurant and nightclub, Harry's Roadhouse, where Springsteen frequently stops for a burger and beer. "He loves Asbury Park. When he walks in the door, he just gleams."

So this Christmas, as he has for the past few years, Springsteen is again playing Santa Claus - at least figuratively - for the town. As part of a contest to help the Merchants Guild of Asbury Park, he's agreed to play two gigs Sunday, each in front of 500 people, at Harry's Roadhouse.

The contest, which ends Saturday, is designed to bring holiday shoppers downtown. Anyone visiting one of 48 participating stores can fill out an entry form to win one of 10 free pairs of tickets to each show, along with a backstage pass. (Other tickets went on sale Monday through Ticketmaster for $100 each.)

Springsteen has done shows to raise funds for local organizations before. But when he steps on the stage Sunday with members of the renowned Jersey Shore band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, it will mark the first time he's performed in downtown Asbury Park since the late 1960s.

Predictably, the chance to see their idol in such an intimate setting has caused Springsteen fans to go nuts, and swarms of them, holiday shoppers or not, have descended on the town.

More than 25,000 entry forms have been filled out. Eileen Chapman, president of the Merchants Guild, says the contest has been "incredibly successful. ... It's boosted [foot traffic] at least 100 times what we would [normally] have."

On this weekday afternoon at Harry's, one of the fans hoping to see Bruce this Sunday is Arlene Perez, 50, of Newark. Perez is a huge Springsteen fan. She's seen Bruce in concert, what, 25 or 30 times? She's here with her boyfriend, who declines to give his name.

Perez spent the morning visiting 25 stores and filling out 25 entry forms. What gives her hope of seeing Bruce at Harry's is that last summer, she won a contest to be among 200 lucky fans who spent a few hours with Springsteen as he signed copies of his latest book, Bruce Springsteen: Songs, at Antic Hay Books across the street.

"You want to see a picture of me and Bruce?" she asks.

She turns to the boyfriend: "Go out to the car and get that picture."

The boyfriend looks like he'd rather dive headfirst into a tub of broken glass. But he goes and gets the picture. It's a keeper, all right. There is Perez, smiling as if she'd won the lottery, her arm wrapped around Springsteen's shoulder like you'd need a crowbar to pry it off.

After Perez leaves, Chapman walks a visitor outside. The day is unseasonably warm. The streets are not exactly bustling, but there is a steady flow of people for a dreary Thursday.

She shakes her head in wonder.

"Last Christmas Eve, I came downtown to shop and there probably weren't two other cars parked on the streets," says the owner of Ddk Sense, which sells handmade soaps and bath products. "And there were only two stores open. This year, it's a big difference."

The merchants of Asbury Park know: Bruce has come through again.

When this guy promises he'll love you forever, he means it.

Now the greasers they tramp the streets

Or get busted for sleeping on the beach all night

Them boys in their high heels, ah Sandy

Their skins are so white

And me I just got tired of hangin' in

Them dusty arcades, bangin' them pleasure machines.

It would be nice to get Bruce Springsteen to talk about his feelings for Asbury Park. But these days, you have a better chance of getting a one-on-one with the pope. A request for an interview is answered with a terse e-mail from Springsteen's publicist, saying it would be impossible to arrange even a short telephone conversation with Bruce now.

But it's not hard to imagine how much it pained him to watch Asbury Park's stunning decline these past 35 years.

As late as the 1940s, Asbury Park was generally thought of as the premier resort city on the Jersey Shore. But after World War II, things began to change. Better roads lured beach-goers farther down the shore. Air travel lured tourists to destinations all across the country. Shopping plazas and malls lured business away from the commercial district downtown. Then came the race riots of 1970 and rampant corruption in city government. Soon, Asbury Park was in free-fall.

Now, as it has so many times in its past, the city is attempting to shed its image as a seedy beach town on life-support. And there are small signs of hope for a turnaround.

Thirty-eight new businesses have opened this year. And the city's Web site trumpets new luxury condos and retail stores that are planned, along with the fact that reading scores for elementary school students are up 20 percent.

Then there's Bruce Springsteen, the Santa of the Boardwalk, bringing people downtown this holiday season.

"I call it the 'Fear Factor,' " says Don Stine, 54, an Asbury Park native who owns Antic Hay Books. "Asbury Park has, for decades, had a bad reputation. It has a high crime rate, a large minority population, a poor school system and governmental corruption.

"... What [the Springsteen promotion] does is it forces people to come downtown and see what we have here now. Then they say: 'Hey this is pretty nice.' And they see they're not going to be robbed. That's overcoming the Fear Factor."

Stine knows first-hand about Springsteen's love for the city, and what that can do for a downtown business.

Springsteen happened to visit Antic Hay Books last year and, during a casual conversation, mentioned that he would be amenable to doing a benefit book signing.

"I said: 'I appreciate the offer,'" Stine recalled. "'But I don't think I could handle the number of people that would come.'"

In that instant, Stine may have become the only person on the planet to have ever turned down the offer of an appearance by Bruce Springsteen. The Boss was undaunted.

"Maybe we can keep it low-key," Springsteen replied.

Sure, thought Stine. Bruce Springsteen. In my tiny store. And we keep it low-key.

Woodstock would have been more low-key.

But Stine's friends kept telling him: "Are you the biggest jerk in the world? Springsteen wants to do a signing and you said no?"

In June, the book-signing - Springsteen's first ever - finally took place.

Twenty-thousand raffle tickets were distributed. Two hundred winners were selected, among them Perez. "She was hysterical when I called to tell her she'd won," says Chapman.

For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, winners got to chat and have their picture taken with Springsteen, and to take home an autographed copy of his handsome coffee-table book.

"Everybody that won was just beside themselves," Stine recalled. "I had people come up to me and say: 'You gave me the best time of my life.'"

On Sunday, at Harry's Roadhouse, Bruce Springsteen will give some more lucky fans a night they won't soon forget.

It's Christmas in Asbury Park. And the old beach town has a friend who doesn't forget it this time of year.

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