The Asbury Park Press reports: Last month, when police officers in Lakewood became the first in recent Ocean County history to be shot while on duty, the public spotlight once again glared at this love-to-hate island of urbanism. The Sept. 24 shooting, which sent four Tactical Entry Team members to the hospital, follows a string of sensational crime news here, from a tie to this summer’s sweeping FBI corruption probe to the pending trial over a gang-style execution to silence a murder witness.So what does this mean for the reputation of a town whose qualities are already often overshadowed by spats of mayhem and controversy? And what, if anything, does it say about a social and physical infrastructure straining to keep up with a flood of elements normally reserved for metropolises like Newark and Jersey City?
Those who live and lead here are staying calm while also fighting back, most recently with a proposed public relations blitz for the town. While some residents see the recent events as almost to be expected with drugs and gangs activity in the streets, others consider them isolated or random – Lakewood taking the unlucky brunt this time.
Most, however, agree on two points: Underlying factors are to blame, and Lakewood’s image needs mending.
Gangs, drugs and “crimes of convenience” won’t go away until their roots – poverty, education, housing – are healed, town officials, residents and advocates say.
“If you have a weakness in one area, it will be revealed in another, and that’s what is happening here,” said Glenn Wilson, a local pastor who recently helped organize a mostly minority-based group called Silent No More that has pushed for public school reform. “The child you don’t educate today will come back and bite you tomorrow.”
Then, there’s the image issue. Though crime here is down in contrast with 30 years ago, negative perception is higher than ever.
“When I invite friends over, I tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m close to Toms River.’ People think Lakewood is a jungle,” Karin Brooks, 47, who lives across the street from where the police shooting occurred, said while unloading groceries from her minivan. Gesturing to the row of trees and suburban lawns down the sidewalk, she added: “They never envision streets like this, with kids riding bikes.”
Of all the Asbury Park Press stories on Lakewood in the last three months, nearly a quarter were negative, largely crime-related. In neighboring Brick, that percentage dropped to 9.
“At the end of the day, that is all that’s going to dominate the news unless we get a better message out there,” Steven Reinman, the town’s newly appointed director of Economic Development, said in a phone interview. “My view is we have a good story to tell.”
One of Reinman’s first projects is to rebrand Lakewood. He is soliciting marketing experts to modernize its horse-and-buggy logo and promote the town as a progressive hub of diversity and unique assets. It is, for example, the only municipality in the county to be state designated as an Urban Enterprise Zone, which means sales taxes slashed in half for customers and a pot of money for business start-ups.
In Lakewood, too, are prized landmarks like the Strand Theater, an airport, the only professional baseball stadium on the Shore, the second largest industrial park in the state and the largest yeshiva in the nation.
Until he left his gated retirement community to take a tour of the township, Al Donado, 79, didn’t know local parks existed where he could go canoeing.
“The town has a crazy mix – a little sloppy and dirty toward the center with a lot of shops closed,” Donado said. “But we found a lot of good things that surprised us.”
Indeed, Lakewood may never fit in with its Pineland neighbors to the south and beach towns to the east. Through a 100-year history and into the age of urban gentrification, the near-city has always swung the other way. Its landscape has gone – some say slid, others say matured – from an aristocratic resort surrounded by horse farms to a cultural, religious and socioeconomic haven. Plantation-size estates gave way to college campuses, industrial zones and affordable housing. Collars blued. Population grew and diversified.
As with any metamorphosis, there are growing pains, and resistance among those who feel them.
“Lakewood is a town in transition,” said Raymond Coles, a township committeeman. “That is not very comfortable for many people.”
Coles compared the rise of the Orthodox Jewish majority here to Staten Island when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened, flooding the once sleepy New York borough with Italians.
“This is the second time in my life that I am seeing a major cultural shift in my hometown,” Coles, who grew up on Staten Island, said in an e-mail. “It is not always pleasant or pretty or fun, but change rarely is.”
And amid the tension are those fundamental problems that continue to hinder the town’s efforts to grow gracefully, officials say. Nearly a quarter of its population remains below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census data. Public school students are lacking basic supplies, parents say. Civic leaders point to absentee and negligent landlords, allowing gang members and drug dealers into quiet neighborhoods.
Rabbi Aaron Kotler, chief executive officer of the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, cited careless landlords – some of whom are attracted to Lakewood because of ties to the Orthodox – as the negative product of a town’s evolution that, with help from the Jewish influx, has otherwise reduced crime since the 1970s.
“Lakewood has seen incredibly beneficial changes and much revitalization as its population grew over the years. Yet, sadly, our quality of life is negatively impacted when people who have no vested interest in Lakewood’s future act carelessly,” he said in an e-mail.
Optimism vs. Fear
The problems have caused people to move or draw inward, as is the case with some senior citizens.
“I thank God I’m in this community,” Ann Rowe, 82, said of the gated Leisure Village East adult neighborhood. “It gives me the opportunity to wipe the outside world away.”
Others, however, reject the notion that Lakewood is doomed. For them, the occasional violent crime is not an opportunity to dwell on all that is wrong with their town. Shop owners and commercial advocates insist such incidents haven’t hurt business.
The morning after last month’s shooting, Brooks and eight other parents walked their children to the bus stop to show television news cameras their routine had not faltered.
“If we don’t do that, we’re negating everything those officers did,” she said. “Why not go on as normal?”