When Jenn Hampton, known as Juicy Jenn, moved to Asbury Park in 2003, the city was still famously deserted, poverty-stricken and crime-ridden, and the historic Palace Amusements was being torn down. But her idea to create murals throughout the city helped transform Asbury into a destination for the arts, and was a major part of the city-by-the-sea’s radical transformation.
She gravitated to Asbury Lanes, the 1960s-era bowling alley that reopened as a live-music venue in 2004. Eventually, she took on the role of booking the fringe acts it was known for—the punk bands, films, burlesque performers, DJs, visual artists—along with cheap drinks and famous tater tots. And as she is known to do, she poured her whole being into it.
In 2006, the city was feeling positive momentum when Hampton, now 48, opened the Cry Baby Gallery and then the Parlor Gallery, both on Cookman Avenue.
She was still managing the Lanes, which became an indie clubhouse for the Shore and Central Jersey region, helping to attract new visitors, and even residents, to Asbury. When the company I-Star bought up 70 percent of the buildable land on the Asbury waterfront, it included Asbury Lanes. But the development company rebuilt and reopened the venue without her.
“Music creates a certain community that feeds an art community. An art community feeds a music scene,” she says. “I had the best of both of those worlds. I didn’t need anything else. I was so heartbroken after I lost Asbury Lanes.”
She comforted herself by spending time by the ocean and came up with the idea to commission artists to adorn boardwalk buildings with art. “I thought that working with artists to inspire visitors might heal my broken heart,” she says.
The proof of concept came when Hampton’s longtime business partners, Michael Lavallee and Brad Hoffer, painted an expansive mural in the boardwalk passthrough of the Casino building (which was recently closed indefinitely due to structural rust). In 2015, Carrie Turner, now executive director of the Asbury Arts Council, and Angie Sugrim, both former employees of Madison Marquette, which owned the boardwalk buildings, diverted funds from advertising to pay eight artists to adorn walls. “Art is educating people, making them comfortable. My brain doesn’t work in a way that is only driven to the profit. Your return on investment in art isn’t as obvious,” she says.
Today, Hampton’s Wooden Walls Project has grown to include ambitious installations and residencies, giving thousands of Asbury visitors a visual experience they won’t see anywhere else on the East Coast. She’s also worked to bring projects to the overlooked west side of the city.
But after 20 years of the transformation, Hampton is aware of the trade-offs. Facilitating public art helped fuel Asbury’s gentrification—but now some people who helped to pave the way can’t afford to live there.
“I try to tell our local officials that you wouldn’t want to be in this city if we didn’t have the vibrant music and art that we have,” she says. “That was why we were all drawn here.”