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Never mind South Beach, Fire Island, or Provincetown. Census statistics and cultural trends are pointing to a surprising new gay mecca on the East Coast: Asbury Park, N.J.? With its seaside setting, shabby-chic real estate, and liberal local government, the city most often associated with corrupt New Jersey politics and rocker Bruce Springsteen is now the place to summer, to party, to invest--especially if you're gay. Rainbow flags fly from restored Victorians. There's a gay bowling night at Asbury Lanes, chat rooms where gays and lesbians can exchange tips on redecorating, a gay pride weekend and "Road Trip," and an annual program sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Homeowners Association that tries to show off Asbury Park (pop. 16,930) to potential residents and entrepreneurs. "There's something inherently ironic about a city so down on its luck being brought back by people who get what it means to be down on your luck," said Dane Hall, 40, a television producer who's part of a new influx of gay homeowners here. "All it needed was to be looked at with a different set of eyes." Asbury Park couldn't be a more unlikely place for such a movement. Named after a Methodist bishop and developed in the 19th century by a visitor to the religious camp meetings at neighboring Ocean Grove, it was originally intended to be a temperance resort. Instead it became a playground for the masses, offering sun and sand, amusement rides, and fortune-telling booths along the boardwalk. Those glory days are long past. The blighted, conspicuously barren oceanfront, left in disarray by a developer who went bankrupt, stands in stark contrast to other shore towns where the ocean and beach fuel a bustling summer economy. An ambitious $1.2 billion development plan at remaking the waterfront, together with a slew of new investment--much of it by gay business people and homeowners--is starting to take hold. People eager to see Asbury Park's gay community grow have taken out advertisements in newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, advertising it as a gay-friendly destination. "The resurgence of the residential market is largely due to gay couples who have moved here and renovated these absolutely gorgeous old homes that had fallen by the wayside or been chopped up into multifamily units," city manager Terence J. Reidy said. "Whether it's participating as residents or opening businesses, there's a whole economic engine they are part of in Asbury Park." Hall, a producer for VH1, and his partner bought a two-bedroom fixer-upper for $82,000 four years ago. They renovated it and sold it for more than twice as much. Now they're in another home and working on it. The number of newcomers is difficult to pinpoint. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, a little more than 3% of the city's households had "unmarried partners" living in them, although that could cover heterosexual couples as well. Longtime resident Barbara Vandenberge, a 53-year-old lesbian who works as a florist, says the influx has been noticeable over the last three years: "Many of the new people are urban city dwellers who enjoy the character of it, who aren't troubled by some of the flaws that Asbury has and can look past them." After all, she acknowledges, Asbury Park has its seedy side. Running a florist shop on Bangs Avenue with her longtime partner, she isn't far removed from it. On one recent morning, she spotted a used condom on the sidewalk as she walked to work. "Suburbanites tend to be 'Oh, my God, there's a condom on the sidewalk!' I'm here long enough that I can just kick it out of the way and be glad someone's using protection."