Sayreville has always been livin' on a prayer.
When hometown hero Jon Bon Jovi wrote his most popular song more than three decades ago, he was lamenting the slow fade of a bedrock-solid, blue-collar, close-knit community where neighbors proudly displayed American flags, there was never a shortage of volunteers for the fire department and rescue squad and folks were happy to pay $3.50 for a spaghetti dinner in the church cafeteria to support the Our Lady of Victories CYO.
In the 1980s, the industries that fueled post-war American dreams of a decent job, a modest home with a small yard and public schools promising a brighter future were disappearing, sinking into the marshes along the Raritan River. More than just the traffic on the Garden State Parkway was passing by Sayreville.
But Bon Jovi, a true believer in the power of community shown by his philanthropy, knew at the heart of Sayreville was an unbeatable resilience. He said it in the reprise of the song:
"We've got to hold on to what we've gotIt doesn't make a difference if we make it or notWe've got each other and that's a lot for love."
And just as Sayreville has endured calamity, tragedy and scandal in the past, it will survive the latest traumatic event that has shaken and shocked the town - the killing of 30-year-old Councilwoman Eunice Dwumfour Wednesday night as she sat in her car outside her home.
Once again, the town has crash-landed into the national media spotlight, a notoriety that few of its 45,000 residents want to embrace.
But Sayreville will survive, residents say, because when trouble seeps into town, somehow, some way people come together, bound by a shared faith because, in Bon Jovi's words again, "we've got to hold on, ready or not."
'Safe, genuine, good community'
That collective community spirit was evident Friday among Sayreville residents braving the cold on Main Street and at the Parlin Center on Washington Road.
Alexis Romero said Sayreville people come together during difficult times because "it's the people's community."
Abades Diaz agreed.
He said Sayreville people come together in tragedies "because people have to be together and try to get along with everybody."
Eunice Dwumfour:Sayreville councilwoman's life 'embodied the American Dream'
Like Romero, Diaz said he doesn't know much about the killing, except that the councilwoman was found dead in her car.
"I think that person that did it is a coward," he said.
Michael DePrizio, owner of Mike De's Wild Card Tattoo on Main Street, said, "Sayreville is a really close community."
DePrizio said when he moved here 25 years ago, he noticed that "everyone kind of knew each other."
Like others, he said he is not concerned about his safety.
"I can take care of myself," he said.
Steven Kessler, accompanied on Main Street by his wife Audra Howarth, said, "stuff like this really doesn't really happen here."
"I think that's more of a reason why it brings people more together," Kessler said. "It's unusual."
Kessler said he and his wife believe authorities are giving out enough information about Dwumfor's murder.
"You got to let them investigate," she said.
With the number of shots he heard that were fired, Kessler speculated that the councilwoman was "an intentional target."
For Romero, the killing was an aberration.
"It's very out of nowhere," he said. "I never read anything like that happening here."
Resident Corey O'Brien said that's true.
"I think that Sayreville is really a safe, genuine, good community," O'Brien said.
He said Sayreville residents rally and come together in difficult times because "they have love and respect and they are human beings."
The last time Sayreville crashed into the national spotlight was in 2014 when seven football players at War Memorial High School were charged with hazing younger players on the team. Six were placed on probation and ordered to serve 50 hours of community service. Some of the players had faced serious sexual assault charges but pleaded guilty or were found guilty of lesser charges that spared them from having to register as sex offenders.
The scandal sparked a national debate on cable news networks and websites about the culture of high school sports and hazing.
But the football team, the pride of the town obsessed with all sports, has recovered.
'He was going over the fence'Man thinks he saw person who killed Sayreville councilwoman
Sayreville has also been notorious for its small stretch of Route 35 that was once dotted with strip clubs.
In June, five employees at a Route 35 strip club were arrested and charged with money laundering and other criminal offenses following a yearlong investigation. The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office has gone to court for the forfeiture of more than $3.5 million in assets, including two properties, 11 vehicles and $687,902 in gold and silver coins, from the family that ran Club 35. The prosecutor's office also wants the forfeiture of $651,398.26 from the bank account of a Club 35 dancer that she allegedly earned through prostitution.
In August, Thomas Pollando, the former Sayreville Democratic chairman who held other positions in Middlesex County government, was charged with allegedly accepting several thousands of dollars in a bribe. He allegedly said he would then attempt to use his political clout to influence an ongoing criminal case.
Pollando was arrested after Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office detectives were conducting electronic surveillance of an unnamed Sayreville business.
In 2021, a former special education teacher at Sayreville Middle School who also formerly served as wrestling coach at Union County College was indicted on multiple charges of criminal sexual contact with a minor and surreptitious filming of several adult victims. That case is still pending.
And in Superior Court, there is a civil suit pending with a plot worthy of a cable television mini-series. A former youth soccer official and his wife have filed a lawsuit against the Sayreville Democratic Organization, public officials, residents and other soccer officials alleging he was removed as a coach after texted images from a consensual sexual relationship were discovered by several Borough Council members.
And yet, Sayreville is on the edge of a renaissance.
Redevelopment plans are in the works for the Amboy Cinema site on Route 35.
But those projects are small compared to the estimated $2.5 billion Riverton waterfront community on 418 acres by the Raritan River and the Parkway.
The Riverton project proposes about 1.4 million square feet of retail space and almost 2 million square feet of office and commercial space. The project includes about 800,000 square feet of hotel/conference centers and 2,000 residential units. The project also includes a mile-long waterfront walkway, which will feature honors to veterans and military service people, and bike paths.
It's proposed for the former NL Industries site where paint was manufactured until 1982, just a few years before War Memorial High School graduate Jon Bon Jovi wrote "Livin' on a Prayer."
'A very nice town'
Though residents may vehemently disagree about many issues in Sayreville and battle ferociously like pumped-up linebackers, they agree on one thing.
"It's a very nice town," Abades Diaz said.
There must be something special about a town of 45,000 souls that has produced television stars Greg Evigan (of "B.J. and the Bear") and Dule Hill (of "The West Wing" and "Psych"), Carolina Panthers defensive back Myles Hartsfield, recently retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin and, of course, Bon Jovi.
Sayreville never gives up and sometimes it almost seems as if it feeds on adversity. Again, in the words of Bon Jovi, "You live for the fight when it's all that you've got."
After all, Our Lady of Victory Church took its name from a feast day in honor of a 16th-century naval victory which secured Europe against Turkish infidels. Pope St. Pius V attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was invoked on the day of battle through a campaign to pray the Rosary throughout Europe.
Because, in the end, Sayreville is always living on a prayer.
Contributing: Staff Writer Susan Loyer
Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to his articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Sayreville NJ has traumatic recent history