Sunday, October 09, 2005

Destruction along the South Jersey Shore

During the last few weeks, the news and public has been concerned with all of the destruction to cities in the US due to natural disasters (hurricanes). After returning from a vacation down in Wildwood, NJ, I want to make a note of some terrible destruction taking place by man. To give some context on the situation, here's a brief history lesson on the Wildwoods. They are 3 towns located on an 5 mile island off the southern Jersey Shore (a few minutes north of Cape May). The golden age of the resort was during the 1950s and 60s when many working class people from the Philadelphia area would vacation there during the summer. During this time many motels sprung up and they featured lots of neon, plastic palm trees, and names such as the "Astronaut", "Satellite" and "Bel-Air". The music scene in Wildwood was also strong with the city making a strong claim to early rock and roll with Bill Haley and the Comets debuting Rock Around the Clock there, and Chubby Checker debuting his version of Hank Ballard's The Twist. During the 80s, the area experienced a decline. But 40 years later all of the original 50s and 60s architecture was intact. I had gone to Wildwood during the 80s as a kid, and then stopped for a while.

In 1999, I returned for the first time in 10 years, and I was amazed at how much things had stayed the same. It was an amazing experience to be surrounded with all of the buildings straight out of the 50s and 60s. You'd rent a bike and drive down Surf Avenue in North Wildwood, and just take in all of the great neon signs, and swooshes on the building facades. The boardwalk was also the same, with totally unique mom and pop stores (no Starbucks or Walmarts). Nothing high end here; just lots of cheesesteak places and arcades. Then just a few years later, I guess the wealthy discovered the south Jersey Shore. I guess they had already overdeveloped the other beach areas so why not keep the destruction coming.

Over the next few years we'd see the new condos going up. Horrible pieces of work. They're described as "custom townhouses", but there's nothing custom about them. They are all beige, plastic looking condos with the same layout. Absolutely no character at all, and selling at around a million bucks a piece. The saddest thing is that they are tearing down tons of the original 50s and 60s buildings to make way for these condos. I just returned from vacationing there this summer, and the change is heart-breaking. The condos have wiped out so much of the area's charm. Where you would look down streets with cool architecture, buildings with character, now you see these monstrous ugly condos. And then you'll see a beautiful 60s motel with a sign up that says "New Construction Coming Soon!"

What can be done? Sadly probably nothing. There were efforts to try and declare the area a historic district, but I believe the architecture is too young to qualify. So even though these buildings had lasted for 50 years, that means nothing to a developer who wants to make a buck. I'm not even against new construction, but I think it's how the new condos have no character at all. To me Wildwood means a working class resort "stuck" in the 50s and 60s. They should embrace that and new buildings should reflect that design. But instead they are cranking out these monstrous bland condos that fill the lot and give plenty of space to park your SUV.

Driving down the shore, we'd had seen that condo cancer had hit all of the nearby towns- Sea Isle City, Stone Harbor, Avalon. They all looked the same. Same buildings, same SUVs parked in the driveway. Now the next thing is to start getting rid of those low class mom and pop businesses and replace with the corporate stores so everyone can get their Starbucks for breakfast. To me it seems so short-sighted destroy unique buildings. Why do people enjoy places like Cape May, Society Hill, or brownstone Brooklyn? Because they cared enough to preserve the flavor of the area. I think Wildwood could have been like this, but to me it's just another Yuppie sprawl.

Maybe there is some hope. There is the Doo Wop Preservation League. They are trying to preserve the feel of the Wildwoods, but to be honest after my last vacation there, I'm not sure they can win the war. They do have addresses of public officials so you can write them to see if they will lend an ear.

Here's an older article on the architecture style in the Wildwoods

Not totally related, but still of interest. A site devoted to Castle Dracula in Wildwood:
The castle burned down in 2002; some stupid kids burned it down.

So I guess we can all be proud of progress. Make sure you destroy the past and replace it with new material. Get rid of old buildings, get rid of drummers, and make sure to make quick buck.

Some photos

Coming soon! New Construction! Get rid of those plastic palm trees! We want condos!

Ah there we go. Much better! An SUV in every garage.

Unique signage? Cool buildings. Tear it down! (Word is this hotel will be demolished in 2006)

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