VENTNOR — As they sat outside the Malelani Cafe in the trendy Ventnor neighborhood of North Beach — part of an area once known by the unflattering designation of the “Redevelopment Zone” — several people mentioned the same phrase: “Perception is reality.”

After a branding campaign by the self-styled North Beach Residents Committee, the opening of several cafes, restaurants and art galleries, and the renovation of old homes and the creation of new ones, the 10-block section of Ventnor just south of Atlantic City is a promising, up-and-coming location in South Jersey — a SoHo by the Shore.

“It has that image,” said committee member Peter Mokover. “I don’t know what came first, the image or reality.”

“I’m not sure who came up with that,” joked committee member Stacey Jaskol when asked about the moniker “SoHo by the Shore.” But any attention paid to North Beach in the media can only help, she said. “Perception is reality. We had a negative perception as our reality, and we wanted a positive perception to be reality.”

The name “North Beach” was the third-place finisher in a 2008 contest started by Planning Board member Julie Mealo, behind “Ventnor Gateway” and “Ventnor Uptown.” But the Residents Committee liked the sound of North Beach — “Miami has South Beach, why can’t Ventnor have North Beach?” was how committee member Richard Gober remembered one argument — and so North Beach it was.

The neighborhood had a long and spotty history — still raw for many to talk about — involving possible use of eminent domain, lawsuits and scrapped development plans. The rebranding, the creation of the committee, plus beautification efforts by that group, the Ventnor City Beautification Committee, and others, started to turn things around.

“Slowly but surely,” Mokover said, “it gave the neighborhood an identity.”

One of the keystones of the neighborhood has been the Melalani Cafe, owned and operated by the Drakopoulos family. The cafe offers open mic nights, four nights of music per week and shows by local artists alongside espresso and flavor-infused teas.

“We had a couple other cafes in some of the condos over here,” co-owner George Drakopolous said. “Eight years ago, we were able to get a free-standing location here. We’re from South Africa, and the idea of cafes is so cool. DJ’s, fashion shows, things like that. We had an espresso machine that sat for two years before we found a location. ... Then the music and art shows all started to come along, because that was part of the concept.”

Steven Winkelstein, a Margate native, helped the owners try to re-create the cafe scene in Boulder, Colo., which “has pretty much one of these on every block,” he says. “We planted a little seed in Ventnor. We wanted to infuse the area with some real culture, and that’s something that’s taken off pretty well.”

Added Drakopolous, “Music attracts the locals — and the locals support the location. We have to be in business 12 months a year.”

Next door is the North Beach Gallery, where owner Kimberly Romantino was showcasing painter Katie Catanio, of Atlantic City — who also manages the band Argo (Alex Siniari on guitar, Jeff Caraway on mandolin), which would be the third act that day.

“I think it’s great now that Kim’s opened this place,” Catanio said. “She’s giving local artists opportunities to develop their work — which is something we haven’t had. ... There is a market for it, but it’s not being tapped right now.”

Romantino said the neighborhood is still “on the ground floor. We’re hoping to get more art shops and more galleries coming in. And we want to do more art exhibitions out on the streets.”

Just a block away, next to the new Japanese fusion restaurant Yama, is the Holtzman Gallery, a high-end art gallery that opened earlier this year.

“I always liked Ventnor,” said owner Dave Holtzman, a once and current Ventnor resident who recently returned. “It’s sort of like a Soho by the beach” — yet another designation to add to the books — “and I’m hoping to give it a shot in the arm with the gallery.”

“The flow of business has been nice,” he said. “The last weekend (in June) was really amazing. Believe it or not, we were busy in here till about midnight. People were coming from the restaurants in the area, (and) a couple fellas stopped in and bought something, they went back to Sage ... and then their wives came in to see what happened.”

The owner of Sage, Lisa Savage, has seen it all in her 19 years in the neighborhood, including eight as owner of Lisa’s Pizza and Sage restaurant.

“It has a great little neighborhood feel to it,” said Savage, who cited the business owners and a number of different groups, including the Ventnor Merchants Association, who worked together to beautify and clean up streets and buildings. But, she added, “I don’t think branding really made a difference.”

“Honestly, what Atlantic City is trying to do, with the art and the grassy knoll with words on it, this neighborhood has already done,” said Marc Berman, a radio host on WOMD, while enjoying a meal at Malelani.

Why has it not worked in Atlantic City?

“Because perception is reality,” Berman said. “People don’t perceive Atlantic City to be an arts community, or (having) outdoor cafes yet. It has to come naturally.”

Rachel Albanese, a blogger with, even coined a New York-esque contraction for the neighborhood: NoBe.

“NoBe is the spot for up-and-coming artists,” Albanese said. “This is where it’s at. I live in Margate and I ride my bike here to hang out. The locals know about it. The locals are the ones who create the art and are trying to transform the area.”

Still, Ventnor Avenue hasn’t reached the levels that Atlantic Avenue has reached. Mike Wiesen, owner of AAAA Bike Shop, called Ventnor Avenue “just a little bit behind.”

While there are still busy restaurants and shops on Ventnor Avenue, “I’m just hoping someone will buy the (long-defunct Ventnor) Theater. That will change the whole neighborhood. As soon as that happens, it will really take off.”

As for the real estate side, agent Mary Lou Ferry cited the recent approval of the Monaco project, which will create 27 new townhomes — some going for as high as $1.3 million — on the site of the old Monaco Motel, at Boardwalk and Little Rock Avenue, There is other new construction, such as the project planned for the site of the empty Sun Bank building.

It turned out that Ferry had called the area “Ventnor’s Little SoHo” — not “SoHo by the Shore” — in a previous Press story. Reality had been misperceived. But in the end, here it is in print.

“SoHo by the Shore?” said Ferry. “I like it.”

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