SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - To some who know it well, this Ocean County beach town is known, not so affectionately, as "Sleazeside."
It's the summer playground for bored city kids who pack boardwalk bars and nightspots looking for drunken debauchery and quick hookups. When the revelry turns to rivalry, fueled by the alcohol-all-the-time vibe, the place becomes "Seaside Fights."
And if you live in neighboring Seaside Park, you never, ever fail to tell an out-of-towner that you're not from here. Home is "the Park," not "the Heights." Got it?
So it's no surprise to the small group of year-rounders in this now-freezing beach tundra that their town has been given another black eye.
The punch was delivered by MTV's new reality series Jersey Shore, in which eight buxom babes and buff boys - most from New Yawk - make the rounds of clubs like the Beachcomber and Bamboo to compete for time on the hard-drinking, dirty-dancing, Real World-ish soap opera.
The tanned, fist-pumping Italian American cast members' references to themselves as Guidos and Guidettes - repeated in MTV's promos - have angered other Italian Americans. State Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D., Middlesex), chairman of the New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus, yesterday joined organizations such as the New Jersey-based Italian American service organization UNICO National in calling for the series' cancellation.
"The show is ridiculous and insulting to Italian Americans. It's despicable," said Bruce Polcino, a funeral director who lives in Seaside Park.
"We're trying to improve the image of Seaside Heights, and MTV has certainly set us back in doing that," he said. "People see this and say, 'Gee, no wonder they call the place 'Sleazeside Heights.' "
Kevin Vahey, who moved to Florida but still owns a home in town, said he and his brother call the place "Seaside Fights" because of brawls they routinely broke up in the bars and clubs they once owned.
MTV's portrayal is "a shame," said Vahey, who heard about the flap during a holiday visit this week.
The much-hyped fourth episode of the series, which began Dec. 3 and will conclude next month, has been a boon to ratings. In it, cast member Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi is punched at the Beachcomber Bar & Grill by a male patron whom she accuses of stealing her roommates' drinks. Some contend that the segment promotes a wrong impression of Seaside Heights as a "free-for-all" town.
Last Thursday, when the episode premiered, it drew 2.5 million viewers, compared with a meager 1.4 million the night the series made its bow. MTV blacked out the moment the assailant's hand hit Polizzi's face, though the footage is all over the Internet.
MTV has pulled some of its controversial promos for the series, which was taped in August, and issued a statement indicating it did not intend to "stereotype, discriminate, or offend."
But many lifelong residents and local officials say MTV has undone a decade of work to make the resort more family-friendly.
While they haven't exactly mounted a temperance crusade, town leaders have altered zoning to accommodate more condos and fewer bars. Other measures include a crackdown on underage drinking and a ban on smoking on the beach, Borough Administrator John Camera said.
Camera doesn't dispute that there is some reality in the reality series.
"While the borough did not participate in the production of this television series, we do think that in many ways it is representative of some of the people who come to Seaside Heights," he acknowledged. "Young people go to bars, and sometimes they get in trouble."
This isn't the first time MTV has based a series in Seaside Heights. In the 1990s, and again about five years ago, the network staged similar reality shows, placing strangers in vacation homes. This is the first time the series has taken the roommates outside their house, and into bars and restaurants and onto the beach.
"Overall, the town looked very nice in the shots," Camera said of Jersey Shore.
He knows that some locals are "really outraged" by the hedonistic chronicle starring the likes of "DJ Pauly D" Delvecchio, from Johnston, R.I.; Mike "The Situation" Sorrento, from Staten Island, N.Y.; and the abused Polizzi, from Marlboro, N.Y.
"They have to remember, the show is about people who come here, not about the town or the people who actually live here," Camera said. And Brad Ferro, 24, the drunken gym teacher from the Queens borough of New York City who smacked down Polizzi, has been "dealt with," Camera said.
The program "shows he was arrested and that this town is not a free-for-all for these kids," said Camera, adding that Ferro was found guilty of simple assault and fined, given a suspended sentence of 30 days in jail, and required to take anger-management classes.
Others would like to stop putting out the welcome mat for MTV.
"I wish they would just stop coming here," said Louis Dowd, a Toms River resident who summers in Seaside Heights and at 15 fits into the cable channel's demographic.
Dowd is among those who staunchly defend the place, where three generations of his extended family, the Cappettas, have owned the properties where some of the Jersey Shore shenanigans have taken place. In fact, Grandma Cappetta owns land near the now-infamous Beachcomber.
Dowd worked last summer at a boardwalk custard stand whose owner refused to let MTV shoot a cast member buying a cone. "It was publicity they didn't want," he said.
Reece Fisher, who grew up in Seaside Heights and was its fire chief, agreed with Dowd. The Toms River resident still owns a vacation condo in town.
"If you get a group of people who are going out to look for trouble when they are in Seaside, then they're going to find it," said Fisher, now police chief of nearby Ocean Gate.
"If you have a family that wants to come here and enjoy the beach and amusements on the boardwalk, then they are going to find that here, too," he said. "Bottom line is that this show is a very unfair representation of the town."