“Wildwood,” from American Heritage


If you have 20 cents, you can recapture your childhood on the Wildwood boardwalk. For that price, you can play a round of Flipper’s Fascination, a strangely hypnotic, and once widespread, midway game that is a cross between bingo and Skee-Ball. And if you keep playing and Randy Senna, the owner of the joint, is feeling generous, he might call out, “Next game on the house,” and you, like everyone around you, will focus all your energy into rolling a ball into one of 25 little holes, hoping for the lights on your board to go off, indicating that you have triumphed over all the other crazy vacationers.

Wildwood, New Jersey, is one of the few seaside towns that offer the attractions of nearly extinct pleasures, a place where you can still play Fascination, bocce, and shuffleboard; where you can wander the two-mile-long boardwalk with a Polish ice in one hand and a giant pretzel in the other; where drive-through windows are meant for bikes, not cars; and where riding down a giant slide in a burlap bag is still worth paying for. But the “doo wop” motels that give the town its distinctive look, buildings that seem to come straight out of “The Jetsons,” are being razed in favor of condominiums, and Skee-Ball has been pushed aside for louder arcade machines. The demolition of Wildwood has been so swift and unrelenting that last year the National Trust put the doo-wop motels on its list of Most Endangered Historic Places, hoping to call attention to their charms before Wildwood, like Asbury Park, becomes just another memory.

Wildwood, a barrier island consisting of three towns—North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest—was developed as a resort for the working class, and the current struggle is a reflection of a fear that it will be transformed from a place for a cheap weekend into a community of quarter-million-dollar condominiums. It is also a struggle between business owners and tourists, the latter wanting to hold on to an ideal from 50 years ago and the former trying to adapt to a changing economy.

In Wildwood the locals have a term for tourists, shoobies. Derived from the habit of day-trippers’ bringing their lunches to the shore in shoeboxes, a practice that probably started in 1889 when the Pennsylvania Railroad began running dollar excursions from Philadelphia, the epithet retains the behind-your-back scorn that distinguishes the love-hate relationship between any tourist town and its prey. (A teenage Wildwood native, ignorant of the etymology of the word but deeply familiar with its connotations, told me it came from the horrible habit of tourists wearing shoes on the beach. “That,” she said, “is a very shoobie thing to do.”)
Just as motels edged out hotels 60 years ago, now condos are replacing motels. More than 100 have been razed.

Considering that the year-round population of the town numbers just 5,400, the shoobies, who swell the island’s population to 250,000 during the height of summer, have always been the economic reason for Wildwood’s existence. Originally a dense forest of tangled trees, Wildwood began its transformation from a wild wood to a smooth landscape of motels and sand in the 1880s. Local working-class and middle-class Philadelphians and neighboring New Jersey residents were drawn by the proximity and affordability, and soon the town was a popular destination. In 1927 more than 20,000 day-trippers came to visit the island over the course of just a few days. But these early shoobies were not well loved by local merchants. The thrifty shoebox-toting visitors were not staying in hotels or eating in restaurants, and, scandalously, they changed into their bathing suits in their cars, before dumping their picnic lunches all over the sand.

It was not until the 1950s that Wildwood began to find an effective way of seducing these car-driving, penny-pinching nuisances into overnight stays: motels. Today, even as those same motels are being demolished month after month, it’s hard not to feel the hope of mid-century optimism when strolling along Pacific Avenue. Kona Kai, Astronaut, Bel Air, Hi Lili, Sans Souci, Eden Roc, Shalimar: The very names seem to echo a sunny time when Hawaii was about to join the Union and when Americans were gearing up to go to the moon and, here on earth, were dancing cheek to cheek. Decked out in shades of shocking turquoise and pink, or bright blue and yellow, the motels were part of the new and booming car culture. Freed from wartime gas restrictions and encouraged by the development of the Garden State Parkway, tourists from as far away as Montreal were packing up and driving to Wildwood.

Few of the motel rooms had kitchenettes; they were (and are) simple affairs, fashioned from reinforced concrete and ventilated with jalousie windows. With expanded incomes from the postwar economy, even working-class families could afford the treats of the boardwalk, and the motels were all they needed—a place to rinse off the sand and get some ice for the cooler, with a bed to sleep in. Unlike the earlier seaside hotels, the motels had no bellhops or doormen, and thus no tipping. Visitors could run outside to grab their stuff from the back of the car, and the motels turned the cheap shoobies of the 1920s into prosperous fathers able to offer the wife and kids a breezy ocean vacation for a week or two.

Half a century later much of Wildwood retains that expansive feeling. I drove a surrey bike (with a canopy on top) into a flower bed, and nearby observers just laughed at my incompetence. At its skinniest, on the southern tip of the island, Wildwood is only five avenues wide, a little line of land separating the ocean from the ocean. The motels along Ocean Avenue in Wildwood Crest look like a chorus line of beach cabanas, stacked on top of one another, with floor-to-ceiling windows jutting out from corrugated walls. The earlier ones from the 1950s are on the west side of Ocean Avenue, and when the ocean began piling up sand on the east, creating more land, motels started appearing on that side too, with 1960s architectural flourishes marking the change from one decade to the next.

Wildwood was affordable enough in the fifties that teens could come there on their own and listen to bands play the new rock ’n’ roll. Like many others, June Janof, whom I found reminiscing in the historical society, started coming to Wildwood at 16, in 1952, taking the bus with her girl friends, all of them rustling in their crinolines and dresses and toting extras for nights out on the town (“I don’t know how we carried them!” she said). They would eat crackers in their motel room before going out to see Dick Clark broadcasting from the Starlight Ballroom. And before the big shows, the clubs would open the doors to jam sessions in the afternoon, where you could hear Bill Haley and His Comets, Peggy Lee, and, later, Chubby Checker, who first performed “the twist” in Wildwood.

But Chubby Checker and other black performers sang for all-white crowds, and even big stars like Sammy Davis, Jr., and Eartha Kitt stayed on the west side of the island after a performance, cordoned off between Davis and Schellenger Avenues, where both black residents and tourists lived. It wasn’t until 1964, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, that the clubs, motels, and restaurants began to integrate.

Black college students were among the early seasonal workers in Wildwood. With a tiny year-round population, the town has always needed to import labor in the summer, and hundreds of black students would travel from the Deep South into Wildwood during the fifties, working through the summers to earn money for college. Recently the seasonal help has come from Europe and Asia, and in the past couple of years, much of it from Romania, Poland, and Russia.

The Eastern European girls, their soft accents a contrast to the flat South Jersey drawl of the store owners, are everywhere—serving breakfast at the bakeries, selling tickets for the water slides, and changing the sheets in the motels. At the Convention Center restrooms, I remarked to the attendant, a Russian student, how clean the facilities were. “That is because I’m stuck in here all day,” she said. Though a number of the students are hired by scouts who are sent to their universities, others seem to end up in Wildwood by some magnetic draw. After landing at Kennedy airport in New York, my restroom attendant met another Russian student who suggested they go to Wildwood—“I had never heard of it,” she said —and she’s been working the eight-to-four shift ever since.

The change in demographics in summer workers has led to a mini international area along the central part of Pacific Avenue, where a grocery store called Europa carries mayonnaise con limones next to the Russian mayonnaise encased in bags, and tins of preserved Greek fish sit stacked up near Polish pastries and envelopes of Mexican powdered horchata. The selection is U.N.-worthy, but the store seems a little sad, a temporary refuge for students who come to experience America but end up in a windowless convention bathroom, cleaning up sand hour after hour.

The Eastern Europeans are predominant on the boardwalk too, ringing up T-shirts that bear slogans like “Welcome to America, Now Speak English!” and selling souvenirs emblazoned with Confederate flags, including a hermit crab with the banner painted upon its shell. I never dared ask the Romanian girl who sold me a sweatshirt what she thought about the shirts, but the irony seemed too obvious to make fun of. To me, the in-your-face attitude of Dixie or working-class pride (other popular shirts include the phrase Get-er-done, a catch phrase of the Blue Collar Comedy group) as well as the defensiveness of older locals I spoke with, some of whom complained about the foreigners “keeping to themselves” or “refusing to speak English,” was a reaction to the diminishing place for the working class in Wildwood.

More than 100 motels have been demolished here, their corpses replaced with cookie-cutter condos that can be rented for a month or more. They feature full kitchens, geared for families who plan to eat at home, and I saw Escalades, Range Rovers, and the like parked in the driveways. The condos are not meant for the working class, and just as motels edged out hotels, now condos are replacing motels. The boardwalk games, the typical recreation for a night out on the town, mostly cost five dollars a pop (Fascination, of course, being the exception), and big-name stars never play Wildwood any more. “We came up with rock ’n’ roll,” said Bob Bright, Jr., of the Wildwood Historical Society, and “we went down with rock ’n’ roll.” And even though American parents, often wealthier than their own parents, encourage their children to take internships and aim for career-track jobs rather than work a stint on the boardwalk, the foreign students are a reminder of the larger battle about immigrant workers and their role in American society.

In the end, no matter how Wildwood changes, the lure of the boardwalk, with its bright lights and deep-fried food, holds strong. One night, out for a walk, I saw a little boy about seven years old, pushing his toddler sister in her stroller. Zigzagging all over the boardwalk, he lifted the stroller off its front wheels and tipped his sister backward. His passenger was waving her arms and legs in a perfect imitation of the grownups on the roller coasters behind her, her hands above her head and her little feet flexed and outstretched. Her giggles and shrieks were a reminder that nothing is better than a warm night at the beach, with an exciting ride to experience and some cotton candy in your sights.

Originally published in American Heritage magazine

Posted in history, travel, Uncategorized, Writing at July 18th, 2009. Trackback URI: trackback