The Journey to hELLO Beach: How 2 Visionaries Created a Summer Dream in Keansburg

A longtime love affair with Keansburg, a small beach town in desperate need of aid post-Hurricane Sandy, served as the main catalyst that led Deme Spy and Theresa Lucerto to become the visionaries behind the hELLO Beach concept.

Having spent childhood summers in Keansburg, Theresa had a special connection with the small town, and Deme was attracted to its affordable coastal housing and neighborhood feel. However, as a low-income town along the Jersey Shore, it had been essentially skipped over as its neighbors benefited from the gentrification that was happening all along the coast. What seemed like bad luck at the time, has actually proven to be a blessing in disguise. As the nearby towns continue to build up with high-end housing and condominium developments, Keansburg is fast becoming a mecca for artists and other creatives, who are infusing this little corner of New Jersey with positive energy and purposeful impact.

Devastated by the crime that befalls low income towns across the nation, Keansburg faced real problems as it attempted to improve the lives of its residents. With residents flocking out of the town in droves, and the resulting shrinking tax base, Keansburg needed to get creative with ways to improve their situation. And being creative is what helped the town move forward. Due to its small size - about 10,000 people - there is a stronger focus on facing issues practically for the benefit of its residents.

Deme and Theresa are long-time large-scale music event producers, most notably Trance Mansion. "We were producing an event in NYC, and one of the most difficult things to do is secure a venue. In NYC, there are a lot of restrictions placed on music events - from the cabaret laws, and regulation on loft spaces. Although NYC should be a place for creativity, openness, and responsible freedom - I’ve found that these regulations are actually the opposite,” Deme says. “And then we have Keansburg. It’s the first real beach going down the NJ shoreline that people can use, so the thought occurred - Keansburg needs help and financial influx, and we’re always looking for a venue. There was a great, mutual synergy here."  He went on to express his admiration for the town, “Keansburg is a low income town. And they creatively turned something that would be considered a deficit into an asset.”

Faced with serious issues, Keansburg was able to really get creative with solutions to its problems. Not slowed down by red tape, town leadership was able to make quick decisions, securing fire and camping permits immediately. Deme smiles, “It was really magical. The open-mindedness of the town council, the way they thought creatively about the possibilities. Two seemingly disparate sides, came together. Gratitude opened up the vision and potentiality for this town.”

Photo by Eraj Asadi

Photo by Eraj Asadi

After Sandy, the Army Corp restored the beach with sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean, extending the beachfront for miles with pure white sand. This opened the waterfront to the possibility of hosting larger events, which would bring much-needed cash flow and creative interest to the struggling town. Prior to the beach rebuild, Keansburg had never hosted a large event.

With its proximity to New York City and the pristine beachfront, the team behind Gratitude*NYC, Drew Meeks and Avi Werde, knew there was potential. A community of artists, creators, musicians and collectives in New York City, Gratitude was the perfect fit for hELLO Beach. Gratitude Migration is the beautiful result of a marriage between hELLO Beach, Gratitude*NYC and the town of Keansburg.

Deme believes this is a model that can be applied to the world. 

We can break down barriers by going face to face, by interacting with one another. Both parties - Keansburg and Gratitude - wanted to come together and meet one another’s needs.

Theresa adds, "Together, we took the Mayor of Keansburg, Arthur Boden, to Figment, the free, inclusive participatory arts event held in multiple cities every year, and shared that THIS was the type of event we wanted to bring to Keansburg. He loved it.”

Understandably, there was a degree of hesitation and concern before the event took place last year. But very quickly, as the weekend progressed, it drew tons of positive feedback from the local community. By showing a genuine interest to invest in and bring positive impact, a symbiotic relationship budded rather quickly. 

By the end of last year’s experience, council members had invited some of the Migration pyrotechnics crew and core members of the planning team to family dinners in their homes, offering them food and clean showers. “I’m very proud of everyone for taking a chance. And for Drew having the vision, and acting upon it.” With the Gratitude Migration team expressing an authentic desire to invest in the local community, they proved that they were there to form bonds beyond simply holding an event in the town and quickly moving on. They wanted to truly connect with the town and bring about positive change, and they did just that.

Over the winter, it became very apparent that this was quite frankly the greatest thing that had happened to Keansburg in a very long time. For the hELLO team - a vision that had taken four years to manifest - it was a dream come true. By getting the town to see its own potential, they truly were able to see the opportunity in their own backyards. With a spectacular view, an amazing beach town vibe nestled amongst an old amusement park, they finally came to see the value of their zip code. And with that, they saw the value of bringing art, creativity and positive energy to an already amazing place. The hELLO team successfully showed Keansburg how to look at things a little differently, and a seismic shift occurred once they were able to see the light.

With all the good fortune befalling Keansburg these days, what else is in store? A new Mexican restaurant, La Playa, opened recently and will be hosting the Monmouth County Arts Salon. A town that was formerly best known for crime and a zip code that spelled hello upside down, is now quickly becoming a mecca for creative, open-minded people. And because of Deme and Theresa’s vision - and their marriage with the Gratitude Migration team and Keansburg council members - the potential of this once-devastated town now has the potential to thrive.

The town is already abuzz with excitement for this year’s event. And it’s no surprise why. Theresa gets nostalgic when asked about her memories from last year’s Migration. "I have a moment from last year etched in memory. It was incredible to witness people waking up and playing in the water as the sun was rising. There is nothing like this place.”

Her partner Deme chimes in,

There is something about the healing energy of the water. With the sun rising over it, and the landscape of New York City in the distance. Everyone is in this free creative play zone. This small beach town, and the big city. It’s like a mirror of civilizations.

For press inquiries regarding the story of hELLO Beach, Gratitude Migration and the ongoing symbiotic relationship with the city of Keansburg and its residents, contact press@migratewith.us

Written and reported by Dionisia Hatzis