Kevin Riordan: In Ventnor, a sunnier view from the porch

The Sage Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. One resident says his Ventnor neighborhood offers the best collection of Jersey beach houses anywhere outside of Cape May.
The Sage Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. One resident says his Ventnor neighborhood offers the best collection of Jersey beach houses anywhere outside of Cape May. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 24, 2013

As nicknames go, "NoBe" and "SoHo by the Shore" are catchier, and carry more cachet, than "Redevelopment Zone."

That dull label for the Ventnor neighborhood now known as North Beach was a legacy of the last decade, when the city sought to revitalize the section between Little Rock Avenue and the border with Atlantic City from the Bay to the Boardwalk.

Ventnor's overly ambitious, if not draconian, proposal to tear down/transform chunks of the 26-block residential and commercial area foundered and sank. Then the economy did the same. And last fall, Hurricane Sandy flooded the first floors of many bayside homes.

But an upswing in the fortunes of North Beach already was underway. In 2008, a handful of homeowners, mostly of baby boom age, began nurturing changes far more modest, but so far more tangible, than the earlier scheme's grandiose eminent domainia.

For starters, these residents wanted to polish the image of the place.

"The perception and the reputation had gone downhill," lawyer Stacy Jaskol, 53, says.

"So friends got together," explains Karen Dunkelman, 61, a retired restaurateur.

"We needed to have a good feeling here, a good feeling about where we were living," adds Richard Gober, 67, a real estate investor.

We're chatting with architect Thom Wagner on his magnificent porch, one of six beach-block verandas included in this Saturday's third annual "Progressive Porch Party" (advance registration is required at northbeachventnor.com).

Porches figure prominently in the neighborhood rebranding, an effort that has been driven by a grassroots group - albeit one rich in real estate savvy - called the North Beach Residents Committee.

A slogan, "Where your front porch meets the sea," waves from the cheery banners that hang from utility poles along Ventnor and Atlantic Avenues.

The cozy notion of relaxing on a porch works well with the group's sophisticated-yet-folksy social media presence, as well as its T-shirts and quirky events, including one in which volunteers offer "free hugs" to pedestrians.

"Today we did a little trash pickup," says Gober. A colorful character ("our neighborhood Don Quixote," Dunkelman says) and activist, he has long fought against eminent domain and for housing policy reform.

"We had about 20 people going up and down the street with trash bags, and leaving a little flier telling people, 'Hello, we're not here every week to do this for you,' " Gober says. " 'We need a little help.' "

There's more going on in North Beach than public relations, as the renovation of moribund buildings and the imminent construction of 26 townhouses on the site of a long-closed motel suggest.

Wagner, 57, whose architectural practice is in Haddonfield, says his Ventnor neighborhood offers the best collection of Jersey beach houses anywhere outside Cape May.

His block holds a majestic and eclectic array of houses, most built in the early 20th century and including Victorian, Dutch Colonial, and Mediterranean styles.

But quaint is not really the NoBe vibe, which to me feels more urban. This is particularly evident at the busy cluster of restaurants along Atlantic.

"On weekend nights, it is a-hoppin' and a-boppin," Dunkelman says.

Ventnor's restaurants do not serve alcohol, and the town has no bars, either. So it's unlikely to turn into, say, Seaside Heights.

But a new energy is palpable; I feel it as I dawdle over coffee at Malelani.

This hip little cafe on Atlantic offers a great view of a reviving North Beach - and of a Jersey Shore that really does seem to be coming back strong.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.philly.com/blinq.

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