By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
In recent years, talk of Asbury Park’s comeback has dominated headlines in Monmouth County; the idea that new life could emerge in the long forgotten city by the sea has excited residents and visitors alike and presented a business opportunity unparalleled in any other Jersey shore community.
But while the city’s redevelopment and pseudo-gentrification take hold, local property owners have spent years and exorbitant amounts of money trying to save their homes, businesses, and buildings from the wrecking ball: Asbury Park has aggressively seized properties by way of eminent domain. They refuse to let anyone stand in the way of their condominium crusade and have often tried to strong-arm locals and force them off their land.
Just ask Jeanette Bender, who owns the former Club Phoenix at 427 Cookman Avenue. The venue first rose to national prominence in the 1970s, when it housed legendary entrepreneur Ray Palozzi ‘s discotheque The Odyssey, one of the East Coast’s most popular gay clubs. It was an unrivaled era in the history of American night-life, and Jeanette remembers it fondly.
“This was the place,” said Jeanette. “It was wonderful.”
Bender purchased the property in 1988; her troubles began shortly thereafter. Despite her efforts to keep the club’s chic vibe alive, Asbury Park was suffering an economic downturn and the discotheque was no longer profitable. Jeanette’s son, Dale, reinvented it as Club Phoenix, a rock venue turned go-go bar.
The club enjoyed great success until the mayor launched a puritanical sweep of the city’s nightclubs. Undercover agents were sent in to scope out illicit activities, and the Phoenix was charged with encouraging “lewd behavior” a total of three times. Dale was informed that if he plead guilty, his club would only face a 90 day suspension.
This was the first time the city lied to the Benders; unbeknownst to the public or the media, on one of the mayor’s last nights in office, the city council held a closed-door meeting to determine the club’s true fate.
“They had an unannounced city council meeting with no public invited, no lawyers, no anything” said Dale. “They had a private meeting and never informed my lawyer, never informed me, and never informed [my mother]. They determined [we] were closed, period!”
[Once home to a legendary discotheque, Club Phoenix has sat dormant for over a decade. Photo: Dennis “DJ’ Mikolay]
While preparing to open the club one Monday afternoon, Dale was greeted by authorities that seized his liquor license and informed him his club would be closed “indefinitely.”
That was in 1997. The venue has yet to re-open.
The Benders have been fighting to get their liquor license back ever sense. But in a bizarre transaction (of questionable legality) the city transferred Phoenix’s liquor license to a nearby bar, The Deep.
In a surreal twist, a patron of The Deep was killed inside the club, and since they had Dale’s liquor license, he was held accountable.
“I got a letter saying that I was responsible for an unlawful death,” said Dale. “The Deep had a killing inside their bar…but we own the liquor license!”
And so Dale found himself in court yet again.
But the city wasn’t through yet. By the early 2000s, developers had made it clear that they wanted to utilize Bender’s land in the redevelopment. And so the city’s motive for attacking the Benders shifted from moral to financial; they appraised the property, which consists of a large nightclub, several apartments, and a parking lot, at a mere $300,000. The family remained adamant: they weren’t selling.
And so the harassment began. The city threatened to declare their property blighted. One day, they sealed off the club’s parking lot, tore up the sidewalks, and eventually removed the gas from the structure, deliberately leaving Dale (who lives in an apartment above the club) without heat in the winter!
Asbury Park then fined Jeanette for not having a sidewalk, even though they had torn it up without her consent. They also claimed her building didn’t meet current regulations, forcing Dale to perform extensive renovations, all of which came out of pocket, despite the fact the city had forced him to close his business, thus negatively impacting his income.
Today, Cookman Avenue is a very different place than it was when Jeanette Bender purchased The Odyssey. Condominiums have replaced her long-time neighbors, and while the Benders no longer want to operate a nightclub, they hope their venue will live on in the memories of those who danced at The Odyssey or grabbed a quick lunch at Phoenix. They are currently seeking out a new business to occupy the space, and are still trying to reclaim their seized liquor license. Perhaps one day, the phoenix at 427 Cookman Avenue, can rise from the ashes.
This article originally appeared in Monmouth University’s Outlook newspaper.