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.
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