Asbury Park: It’s Harder Than Hell to Be a Saint in This City in 2021

This article is dedicated to the founder of, Mark Nejmeh. Keep fighting the good fight, Mark. 
On the evening of Thursday, July 15, 2021, two people were shot and injured in Asbury Park, a city in Monmouth County, New Jersey.  According to the, “One shooting victim was taken from the crime scene by Asbury Park firefighters to a hospital in Monmouth County. A second shooting victim was taken to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, initial reports said.” 

As this is a developing story, details are just emerging. However, this is not the first time Asbury Park has been in the news with regard to violent crime, specifically shootings. Here are some disturbing headlines:

Crime became extremely personal and particularly morose for Asbury Park residents in February of 2017 when it claimed the life of Yovanni Banos-Merino, a then fifth-grader at Bradley Elementary School, who ” . . was killed when a gunman fired five shots into his family’s West Side apartment on Ridge Avenue” according to

Asbury Park
Homes on Asbury Park’s west side. Source: Steve Strunsky for NJ Advance Media

And while violent crime is a problem in many cities across the United States, it is particularly acute and problematic for Asbury Park. The reality is the beachfront city has a history of violent crime, and much of it is related to the gangs who claim Asbury Park as their home turf.  According to the Law Offices of Johnathan F. Marshall, “Members of organized street gangs like the Bloods, the Crips, and the Latin Kings live all over the county including in Asbury Park, Neptune, Freehold, Keansburg and Manalapan. Motorcycle clubs known as the Pagans, the Breed, and the Warlocks are also associated with gang activity within the jurisdiction of Monmouth County.” 

These gangs are not just there to look tough and strike fear into the hearts of Asbury Park Residents, but exist as part of a vast criminal network involved in the sales of illegal drugs, gun trafficking, and racketeering, amongst other illegal behaviors, as reported by the Office of the Monmouth County Prosecutor. Here is a summary from a major bust that occurred in October of 2020: 

An 8-month investigation into ongoing acts of gang criminality and organized street crime has led to charges against 29 people from Monmouth and Ocean counties for Racketeering, Conspiracy, Attempted Murder, drug and gun trafficking and Dogfighting, announced Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni.  The probe revealed a power grab by a Bloods gang leader to consolidate his command of the gang’s criminal activities through violence, intimidation, illegal drug and gun sales, and the operation of a dogfighting ring. 

The investigation, known as “Operation Golden State,” recovered multiple firearms, a vehicle used in criminal activity, various quantities of cocaine and marijuana, and a dozen canines used in the dogfighting operation.

Back in 2017, RLS Media reported “An Asbury Park violent criminal street gang ringleader was sentenced to 82 years in a New Jersey state prison.” James Fair, 29, of Asbury Park and a member of the Bloods criminal street gang was “. . . sentenced to 82 years in a New Jersey state prison” according to Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni.

In fact, while “Violent crimes decreased slightly in New Jersey in 2019 and the state remains well below the national average” according to the FBI’s 2019 uniform crime report, the same report indicates “Statewide statistics show that Asbury Park has the second highest violent crime rate per 10,000 people in New Jersey.” 

To put that in perspective, a resident in most other parts of New Jersey has a 1 in 483 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime, while residents and visitors to Asbury Park have a 1 in 86 chance of being a victim of a violent crime, more than 500% higher than their New Jersey counterparts. 

Asbury Park
Duane Small, long-time resident activist of the West Side neighborhood of Asbury Park Source:

And the continued violence has exposed a broad and unsettling dynamic; the disparity of reaction regarding the residents of the poorer, mostly African-American sections of Asbury Park, such as the West Side. Duanne Small, 49, a West Side resident and community activist puts it this way when comparing his neighborhood to the well-publicized mass shootings, such as Newtown and Parkland: “When you have a shooting in these suburban areas or in schools, it’s a big issue. They get grief counseling, they get all the services that they need to deal with the trauma that they’re going through, but it’s not happening here in the city of Asbury Park, and in other African-American communities that I know of.”

At the end of the day, however, this is not about race or about gangs, or crime alone. Rather, Asbury Park is emblematic of a dying American dream, a dream that through our hard work and efforts, our kids would have a better shot at the proverbial brass ring, a dream of unlimited possibilities, a dream that has been circumscribed by the hardscrabble realities of Asbury Park. Perhaps Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in Freehold NJ, just 18 miles west of Asbury Park, presaged the demise of the city on Atlantic in his 1973 song “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”:

Asbury Park
Bruce Springsteen, born in Freehold NJ, just 18 miles west from Asbury Park.

I was the king of the alley, mama, I could talk some trash

I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar’s bash

I was the pimp’s main prophet I kept everything cool

Just a backstreet gambler with the luck to lose

And when the heat came down it was left on the ground

The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street

Showin’ me a hand I knew even the cops couldn’t beat

I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat

It’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street

Nearly 50 years later, it’s not just hard to be a saint in Asbury Park; it’s hard to make out alive. 



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