Greetings from Asbury Park: Eminent domain goes to the movies


Greetings from Asbury Park, a 93-minute film documentary, was shown Friday evening, June 22, as part of the “Kelo Day” anniversary activities at the Jersey Shore Arts Center.  There’s one heart-rending scene after another in a film about a senior citizen who finds out the city is condemning her property. There’s the title theme - postcards from Asbury Park. You vacation or you live at the shore; you buy postcards and send them home. Or in this case, you send them back to the relatives in Greece. Independent filmmaker Christina Eliopoulos documents the immigrant’s story, her family’s story, starring her 'great auntie,' Angie Hampilos

You have to admire the sheer gumption of this 92-year old woman, as she faces the condemnation of her home to make way for oceanfront redevelopment. Angie’s mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it sitting down. She’s going to visit the Mayor, but she mentions stoically that her lawyer told her to go see the Mayor on her own. Her niece Christina grabs a camera, any camera will have to do, because it’s important to document the moment her aunt finds out the mayor isn’t in. Angie’s disappointment is palpable. It’s so palpable, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house. Except for the group of people in the theatre from Long Branch – they’re mad as hell, too. 

They have their reasons. Some are waiting for an appeal, some of them know what it’s like to be condemned, and one is homeless. They know that the lawyer representing Angie against Asbury Park in this movie is the same lawyer working for the City of Long Branch and condemning their homes.

Around the time of the Kelo decision in 2005, director Eliopoulos told a reporter from GM News:

“If you look at all these postcards, people walking the street, they were sharing something bigger. Asbury Park was the ultimate stage. You could fulfill a fantasy, you could be someone else. You could just stroll proudly with your beautiful wife, your beautiful kids. You could cruise and show off your beautiful car. … That is needed in society. I want people to really think about what can we do to bring it back.”

There are other supporting actors in the film: developer Larry Fishman, former Mayor "Butch" Saunders, the town's appraiser, Donald Moliver.  They have their own fantasy of Asbury Park and its future. 

Fantasy is part of the history of Asbury Park: Tillie and the arcade, Bruce Springsteen and the Stone Pony.  The film alternates archival footage of the resort in the 1920s with Victorian photographs, personal memorabilia, and home movies. Historians discuss racial and social issues and there are clips of property rights activist Dana Berliner, senior attorney with the Insitute for Justice, who was interviewed before the Kelo decision.

One wishes that the film delved more deeply into the relevant corruption in Asbury Park, the nefarious connections between Philip Konvitz, Terry Weldon, James Condos, and former Mayor Kenneth Saunders. The film neglects the dark side - the bribery, the MOUs, the bankruptcies, and the cast of developers who made their deals and did their time, like Charlie Kushner and Joe Barry. But that's another movie.

Instead, Eliopoulos makes us feel the angst and shame of eminent domain. As we watch Angie wandering the old neighborhoods as autumn leaves fall and wondering where she can afford to live next, we can almost hear Bruce Springsteen sing:

Now the sweet veils of mercy
Drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother's down on his knees

My city of ruins
My city of ruins