OCEAN CITY - For years, Winnie Piriano lived in the northern section of the city in a neighborhood known as The Gardens.

That was nice, but it could feel isolated in the winter, when many of her neighbors left for warmer climes.

"I had a nice, big old house. It was a nice neighborhood. Everyone was very nice," she recalled. "But it was very quiet. It was dead in the wintertime."

So she moved back to Asbury Avenue, to the downtown neighborhood where she grew up. Her mother had a dress shop on Asbury at 11th Street, she said.

There, she can walk to get lunch, grab a cup of coffee or - her favorite - do some shopping. She lives above her home-health care business on the avenue.

Sometimes she stands on her second-floor balcony and simply soaks in the energy of the downtown.

"It was like coming home," Piriano said. "I couldn't think of living anywhere else. My daughter lives offshore with a lovely home and swimming pool. I love visiting, but I wouldn't give up my neighbors for anything."

Ocean City has one of the best-defined Main Streets in South Jersey, consisting of Asbury Avenue between Sixth and 14th streets and Ninth Street from Bay Avenue to the Boardwalk.

The entire district is served by multiple public parking lots and on-street metered parking. It is pedestrian-friendly, with ample traffic lights, crosswalks, wide sidewalks and awnings that encourage strolling and window shopping. Bike racks encourage bicyclists to linger and grab a cold drink or lunch.

Marie Repici lives above her business, the Chatterbox Restaurant, which has been on Ninth Street since 1940. She, too, lived elsewhere on the island before deciding she preferred the downtown.

"You can walk anywhere. You don't need to take your car. I love that part," she said. "For 15 years, I lived on the bay, but I'm glad I came back. It's so much more convenient."

The Chatterbox is one of the main-street area's many signature businesses in a downtown that has more than 120 shops, restaurants and service companies. The Chatterbox can accommodate big extended families, she said.

Like most of Asbury Avenue and the downtown, the Chatterbox sustained major flooding from Hurricane Sandy in October. Repici decided to remodel the entire restaurant and put in a lunch counter.

"We've modernized it. We were thinking about doing it anyway, but this way we could do it right," she said. "At the time, I was devastated. Now that it's done, it was a good idea."

The hurricane presented a monumental crisis for the city's downtown but brought out the best in neighbors who helped each other recover from the disaster, said Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The community, city and businesses formed a nonprofit and raised more than $200,000 to help merchants renovate and reopen. Business owners, especially contractors, volunteered their time to help neighbors.

"It's been a wonderful learning experience, knowing they could depend on their neighbors. You can't just say the words. They showed they really could depend on them," she said.

Small business owners on the avenue always have shared the same sense of purpose and willingness to help, said Dot Taccarino, of Upper Township.

Taccarino, who has owned Asbury Kitchen & Bath on Asbury Avenue since 1994, said merchants look to their neighbors' businesses first when they do their personal shopping. This esprit de corps is a common theme in Ocean City's downtown.

"Keep business local. So many of my customers say the same thing. That's a good feeling," she said.

Taccarino said she has come to appreciate how unique the city's downtown is.

"There are really very few downtown business districts left in the world," she said. "It's a destination for Ocean City. We are so lucky to have it."

The downtown has a trade group called the Retail Merchants Association and a Special Improvement District designation that levies a fee from merchants for promotions, marketing and special events. The downtown hosts Funtastic Tuesdays and Market Thursdays with live entertainment and children's entertainers on the avenue.

The Ocean City Tabernacle hosts a summer farmer's market on Wednesdays that draws lots of business downtown.

And twice a year, the avenue closes to host huge block parties with crafters, vendors and entertainment from Sixth to 14th streets.

"There's more to do here than anywhere else I've ever lived," City Councilman Keith Hartzell said.

Living downtown puts him within walking distance of most of his daily errands, he said.

"I'm busy. During the week, I'm traveling and making sales calls," he said. "When I come home, the car is parked and it doesn't move."

Hartzell said he walks to his bank, the dry cleaner, to get his meals and buy his clothing. He can buy a card at the store and walk to the U.S. Post Office off Ninth Street to mail it.

As a politician, living downtown constantly puts him in contact with residents and their concerns, he said.

"You can live in the suburbs, and unless you make an effort, you might never meet your neighbors," he said. "It dramatically changed my life moving here."

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Guide to Ocean City

Places to go

City Hall at Ninth Street has restrooms and water fountains.

A pocket park on Ninth Street is a nice place to sit and eat an ice-cream cone.

The Ocean City Tabernacle, on Simpson Avenue at Sixth Street at the north end of the downtown, has gardens and offers summer programming.

The Ocean City Repertory Theater at 813 Asbury Ave. and the Greater Ocean City Theatre Co. at 854 Asbury Ave. offer concerts, karaoke and other entertainment throughout the year.

Stainton's Gallery of Shops at 810 Asbury Ave. offers a collection of 80 vendors under one roof.

Where to eat

The Chatterbox Restaurant opened in 1937 before moving to Ninth Street. It can seat large groups, making it ideal for extended families on vacation.

Sack O' Subs, owned by the Sacco family, has been making party trays for Ocean City's Night in Venice boat parade since opening on Asbury Avenue in 1994. It offers a variety of sandwiches.

For lunch or a snack, Jon & Patty's Coffee Bar & Bistro at 637 Asbury Ave. offers everything from grilled cheese to the Veggie Bomber Wrap.

Yianni's Cafe at 841 Asbury Ave. offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, including a dozen types of salad.

Arlene's on Asbury, at 624 Asbury Ave., has salads and grilled choices along with a healthy menu.

Where to park

Most people look to park near their target stores at metered spaces on Asbury.

The city also offers metered spaces in lots behind City Hall or at the Transportation Center on Ninth Street.

Services in the district

Beach tags are available at City Hall.

The Police Department is on Central Avenue near Ninth Street.

Public restrooms are at City Hall or at Stainton's Square on the 800 block of Asbury.

What's special

Businesses on the avenue offer jugglers, face-painting and other entertainment every Tuesday and Thursday.

A Farm Market is held every Wednesday morning at the Ocean City Tabernacle on Sixth Street.