Geldzahler and his partners own a section of this block on Cookman Avenue in downtown Asbury Park, where fashionable shops and restaurants have opened.
Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
MJuly 3, 2008
When Ivan Geldzahler was a little boy, he remembers the Jersey Shore town as “the cat’s meow. It was Asbury Park’s glory days,” he said.
Geldzahler, 56, and the original owner of Zayda’s kosher deli and butcher shop in South Orange, is betting that the once sparkling seaside resort town that for years has been beset by urban blight is about to make a comeback. “We’ve invested everything in real estate here,” he said, in a recent interview with NJJN in his office on Cookman Street in the town.
It isn’t the first time a renaissance has been promised in Asbury Park. Though experience has created skeptics when it comes to the most recent development plans, Geldzahler, who grew up in nearby Bradley Beach, where his father had a kosher butcher shop, remains the ultimate optimist. He is certain this time it will be a success.
To hear him tell it, you’d think the Esperanza — the luxury apartment complex that has become the ultimate symbol of the stalled rejuvenation of Asbury Park — had turned into Trump Tower overnight.
Confronted with the bleak half-built shell of the complex in the middle of what he calls a “show me” tour, Geldzahler waves his hand. “Oh, everyone says, what about the Esperanza? I tell them, when was the last time you’ve been to Asbury Park? Come and see it for yourself.”
Geldzahler relishes every aspect of the Jersey shore; he bikes from town to town, he loves to fish from his favorite jetty, and he seems to know everyone in Asbury. Whoever passes by shouts hello and gets in return a kind word, a slap on the back, a wry reference, or a friendly hello right back from Ivan.
He has felt at home at the shore since he was a kid, and he remembers his father’s kosher butcher shops — in Irvington and Linden but also in Bradley Beach, where he was born. His birthplace was, in those years, a haven for Jews from northern New Jersey as well as from Brooklyn.
Geldzahler reminisced about walking down the beach and knowing everyone there. “It was a great feeling,” he said. And he recalled his father as a “great businessman.” “He put up a big sign on his little kosher butcher shop: ‘We barbecue chickens free.’ Everybody’s mother would come by, buy a chicken,” he said.
The Casino is still just a shell, the carousel and the Funhouse are gone, but Ivan Geldzahler, who grew up in Bradley Beach, believes a bright future for Asbury Park is just around the corner, and he has invested heavily in the shore town. He points to plenty of construction on the boardwalk to back up his optimism. Here, an upscale Italian restaurant will open.
chicken boy,” he said. “When you go back there [today], it’s something that’s lost.
“We were poor but I always felt rich at the Jersey Shore.”
When he turned to selling real estate to make a living, the first place he looked to was the place he knew best. “I figured I’d find something in Bradley Beach or Ocean Grove
to flip,” he said, when he went down the shore to explore his options three or four years ago.
But he was surprised at the prices, which he called “untouchable. A quarter-acre knockdown near the beach was $800,000,” he said. Instead, he turned to Asbury Park, where the prices were lower in pre-rejuvenation days.
A new perspective
He went in with two partners, Andrew Geller and Andrew Lewis, and the three formed GGL Development Group. They now own a warehouse, condos near the landmark Convention Hall, a building zoned as a restaurant with a liquor license — where he envisions a steakhouse — and several other lots. Asked whether or not the steakhouse, should it happen, would be kosher, he says no. But he considers the idea, mulling it over.
“If it caught on with the residents of Deal” — the nearby town that is home to a sizable and wealthy community of Syrian Jews — “you could do well. If you had the right hashgaha, it would do well. They have the money to frequent a restaurant that I wouldn’t frequent because it would be too expensive….
Geldzahler’s path to Jersey Shore real estate entrepreneur had some detours. He trained as a teacher, holds a black belt in karate, then followed in his father’s footsteps. A year after one of his father’s shops burned to the ground, he opened Zayda’s in 1985 and ran it until 2003, when he sold it to current owners Andrew and Alison Halper. He recalls working 80-hour weeks, from his 20s through his 50s, toiling in the meat business. Though he has no regrets, he said, he is now “making up for lost time,” enjoying his 80 acres near Woodstock, NY, and fishing both in the streams there and from his favorite spot down the shore.
He has taken off the blood-stained apron, grown his hair long, and added a mustache. After selling Zayda’s, he spent some time crafting furniture out of sticks in a kind of riff on Adirondack-style furniture, but says it was more about his own chi than about making money. While a whiff of the driven salesman remains, he now has a more laid-back, sun-drenched aura.
He can’t wait to show off the upscale restaurants that have opened near his office on Cookman Street in downtown Asbury, the condo buildings where units are selling, the upscale home goods store on the corner, and the construction near the boardwalk where the arcade- and ride-filled Funhouse used to stand, across from the once popular Casino — which housed amusements and a classic carousel and is now gutted, awaiting development.
The jewel — at the northern end of the boardwalk — in Asbury Park’s crown is the fully refurbished Paramount Theater at Convention Hall, where Tony Bennett performed June 28. Geldzahler points to a brand-new supper club, a bar overlooking the beach, and boardwalk shops stocked with goods. “This is going to be a workout studio; that’s a gelato shop,” he said.
But some of the shops aren’t open yet, and some restaurants have yet to turn a profit. Still, the new construction gives a visitor a new perspective; depending on where you stand, it sometimes even dwarfs whatever is or isn’t happening at the Esperanza.
Geldzahler still lives in Livingston with his wife, Linda — they have three grown daughters — but has set his sights on one of his own condo units, one near his favorite fishing jetty. Meanwhile, as our “show-me tour” comes to an end and we head away from the boardwalk, he watches a few locals biking in with fishing rods. “What are you using — lure or bait?” he asks. Perhaps the success is all in the lure.
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