SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — It is one of the icons of America, the backdrop to a thousand stories — the place where Tony Soprano's nightmares unfolded, where Nucky Thompson built his "Boardwalk Empire," where Snooki and The Situation brought reality TV to the ocean's edge and where Springsteen conjured a world of love and loss and cars and carnival lights and a girl named, incongruously, Sandy.
But after the storm of the same name passed through this week, the seaside towns of the Jersey Shore, a place that popular culture has picked to exude Americana, have been upended, and some of the boardwalks have been pushed into the sea.
And those who live there, those who spent their childhood weekends there and those who experience its stories from afar are asking different versions of the same question: What happens now?
"This is just a heartbreaking experience seeing all these places we love that are just decimated," said Jen Miller, a blogger about the Jersey shore who lives in the Philadelphia area. "It's just what you do every summer: you go 'down the shore.'
"The pictures are awful; my heart breaks looking at them," she said. "I run on all these boardwalks. I go over that bridge between Belmar and Avon. It's one of those things you think will always be there. And now it's not."
All along the state's 127-mile coastline, the storm wrecked communities rich and poor, from multimillion-dollar homes in Bay Head and Mantoloking to blue-collar bayfront bungalows. Boardwalks were trashed, a roller coaster dumped into the ocean. The worst damage was nearest the ocean, but winds and water wrecked homes several miles inland as well. Damage assessments were still being made, but thousands of homes were affected.
"Who ever thought they'd see a roller coaster in Seaside Heights in the ocean?" Gov. Chris Christie asked. He vowed to help rebuild the shore, while cautioning it might not look exactly the same.
For many people, the Jersey shore is much more than a place; it's an identity, a brand, an attity-toode. It's the place where Christie got into it with a heckler last summer while eating an ice cream cone as he went out for a stroll with his family.
It's also the economic engine that powers New Jersey's $35.5 billion tourism industry.
The real Jersey shore is the setting for MTV's "Jersey Shore" reality show about a group of foul-mouthed, horny, hard-partying 20-somethings, which has enshrined big hair, fist-pumping and phrases like "Come at me, bro" as part of Jersey pop culture.
A young Jon Bon Jovi shot one of his first music videos atop a rest room pavilion on the Seaside Heights boardwalk in 1985, across from the Sand Tropez clothing stand and Lucky Leo's arcade; Richie Sambora played the guitar solo to "In And Out Of Love" in a Seaside Heights lifeboat.
"It's gone," Bon Jovi said on NBC's "Today" show, hours before he and Springsteen headlined a televised concert Friday to raise money for storm victims. "The entire Jersey shore that I knew is gone."
That Jersey shore is a blend of competing aromas: the fried dough of zeppoles just before the powdered sugar goes on, the extra garlic on pizza slices, the salty spray coming off the ocean and the smell of the chemical protectants they spray on pier pilings to insulate them from water damage.
It's where the click of spinning prize wheels, carnival barkers' shouts and the "pop" of breaking water balloon games compete for attention with boom-box rap, pop and heavy metal from strolling or skateboarding teens.
"When you're a teenager and you get your driver's license, the first thing you do is get in the car and drive down to Seaside Heights," said Marilou Halvorsen, a lifelong shore resident who until recently worked for the company that owned the now-wrecked Casino Pier in Seaside, where the remains of a roller coaster sit half-submerged in the ocean.
"You walk on the boardwalk, you get an ice cream cone, you take your kids on their first carousel ride: Whether you're young or old, these are memories that are part of your life in every stage of your life," she said. "This is the skyline of the Jersey shore. It's a special place, a historic place."
Historic, indeed. Atlantic City built the world's first boardwalk as a way to keep guests from tracking sand into beachfront hotels. A small portion of that Boardwalk — now uppercased as a formal street name — was destroyed in the storm, though the Boardwalk in front of the nine oceanfront casinos remained intact.
In Wildwood, the widest beaches in New Jersey — a half-mile from the boardwalk to the water in some spots — helped protect the famous boardwalk amusements in what is routinely voted as the Jersey shore's most popular beach. Will Morey, president of Morey's Piers, said his rides sustained some electrical damage from flooding, but nothing that won't be fixed well before Memorial Day.
"This is a part of our culture; it's deep in the soul of Jersey," he said. "The whole Jersey shore phenomenon is pure Americana. Is it the sense of freedom, the sun, the water, the Greek joints and the pizza stands? I think it's a symphony of all these things. It's an authentic experience and a very powerful one."
Morey said it is at least theoretically possible for wrecked attractions such as the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights to be rebuilt by next summer, provided state government cooperates with expedited permits and minimal red tape.
The pounding surf wrecked part or all of boardwalks in Belmar, Sea Girt and Point Pleasant Beach. Walkways in Asbury Park, about which Springsteen often wrote, and Ocean City sustained lesser damage.
Kimberly Blackburn grew up at the Jersey shore but has been living near her husband's family in Joliet, Ill., for the past four years. She described feeling "helpless" over the past week from 750 miles away as she viewed devastating images of the communities she holds dear: Belmar, where she went to high school and took her senior class picture at the 5th Avenue Pavilion; Seaside Heights, where she'd always pick up a pizza from Maruca's; and Point Pleasant Beach, where she constantly hung out with friends and even worked on the boardwalk one summer during college.
"It's like someone washed my childhood away," Blackburn said. "That's how it feels. It's like this storm literally just came and washed it all away."
She now treasures photos of her young daughters taken at Brick Beach over Labor Day weekend, the last time she visited home. And while she believes New Jersey will rebuild the boardwalks and piers "bigger and better than ever," there will still be something missing.
"They can never take the memories away," said Blackburn, briefly breaking down. "But it's never going to be the same."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson in Trenton contributed to this story.