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Tuesday, 9 July 2013





New Jersey's shore communities in Cape May County are class conscious. Ask someone their summer vacation town, and the response will likely reveal the respondent's perch on the economic social scale  and/or  that of his family's. Here's the run-down:

Ocean City has Old Guard Philadelphia professionals, to grandchildren of the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs who settled in the this Methodist meeting ground in the 1920s.

Sea Isle, after 1962, drew heavily from the union officials and contractors who helped rebuild the place after the devastating nor'easter. Today, the island is wall to wall condo homes, staked sky high, an obvious tribute to crass consumerism and the ability of some people to rise above their station by living on credit. People there long to be considered established and those who live close to Townsend Inlet are fond of telling others they reside in Avalon which is a lot farther on the collective scale despite being just a short waterway away.

Cooler by a mile, Avalon is home to families from the inner regions of Pennsylvania, sons and daughters of Reading stockbrokers and Lancaster surgeons who now have homes on the outer edges of the Main Line while captains of major industries in the region build their mansions on the little available land left.

Stone Harbor is even further up on this communal slide.

Then there are the Wildwoods (North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and West Wildwood), the fifties fantasy land of the middle class. When everyone who worked could own a car, when gas was cheap and homes affordable, the lure of a retreat by the ocean no longer became the sole domain of professionals of the northern barrier islands or the millionaires in Cape May. Now the working people of primarily Philadelphia could indulge their summertime enjoyments with more than a trolley ride to an amusement park or a days outing in Atlantic City and could experience what their snootier bosses and union leaders had: sand and sea at their doorsteps.

With them came the collective taste for aqua vinyl upholster furniture, linoleum floors, and  blond wood sofas wrapped in plastic. It was low rent with high expectations.

All the way down on the southern tip of the county and before the long-established hoity toity Cape May, the Wildwoods became a mecca for the extension of the American dream.

As Ford gave birth to the open road, these shore roads led to overnight rest stops. Originally separate cabins with a destinations, they morphed into motels, affording motorists the two most important elements of modern vacation life, air conditioning and a pool.

A pool is hardly ocean, but it has a diving board, no jelly fish or icky sand. With all that chlorine, not much can live in it, so of course it must be healthier. Wildwood’s inexpensive luxuries also included a fully equipped boardwalk with everything a person from Port Richmond always wanted out of life: arcades, cotton candy, a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and alcohol to eighteen year olds.

My family summered down the coast, in sleepy Cape May, land of the endless wrap-around hotel porches with wicker rocking chairs and people (it seemed to me) who were so old they lived lives more advanced than the Victorian architecture that housed them. Back then, the grass was greener in Wildwood and it literally was. I think the town's motel lawns were a precursor of Astro turf.

Also Wildwood wasn't wasn’t lit by gas lights. It there was a neon paradise and I wanted in.

They partied in a democratic way over in the Woods; not on private  porches or yacht clubs but in bars and nightclubs on the boardwalk. It wasn’t tacky, it was fun. Every youth in stuffy old Cape May wanted to be there at least one time in the summer.

In your car, in a magical evening, you got a chance to go, by the south into Wildwood Crest and past the white stucco palaces with luxury inspired names. Versailles, The Copacabana, Eden Rock, Bel Air, Tahiti Village, and the Lollipop Motels.

Every moniker evoked an image of a worker's dream of the real thing. Yet despite the designations of the signs each motel was basically the same. They were four stories high with conjoined balconies, plastic chairs, metal rails and a view, not of the ocean but the pool. The Swan motel had a synthetic swan on each of it’s aqua doors, The Catalina had plastic palm trees, The Sand Castle was pink and green while The Dunes stood for a subdued Las Vegas casino elegance in brown and gold with red curtains.

After 2006, as the price of gas rose and workers' wages couldn’t keep up with the real cost of living, the Woods turned in on itself. As more people are left behind on the economic scale, those who remain are nervous about newcomers. There is talk about charging people beach fees, or maybe even the right to walk on the Boards! A ride down Pacific Avenue (the major thoroughfare) on  summer night last year was like driving through a ghost town. While Wall Street may have  recovered for a time and Cape May, Stone Harbor have survived, Wildwood, that mecca for the great body of working stiffs, is on the ropes.

Photographer Dorothy Kresz has captured the faded elegance of this cherished American landscape in “Vanishing Wildwood,a retrospect showing through July 14, 2013 at The SomaArt Gallery in Cape May.

Writer Jonathan van Meter, the founding editor of Vibes Magazine has dubbed the Wildwood look as 'Low-Rent, Flat-Roofed, Doo-Wop architecture.' I just leaned backed and sighed for what was, as I remembered the happiness and hope a staying at the Port Royal could invoke to a kid from Fishtown.

The Society for Commercial Archaeology, a group of people who recognize beauty in kitsch, have declared Wildwood a national treasure. Great, now we can restore and preserve the buildings. The real treasure in the resort were the people who went there.

I like Kresz’s take on all this. She shows us the Hi Lili and Shalimar and all the other fantasy suites in the harsh glare of the sun with cracks and faded curtains, then jettisons to the Boardwalk and beach in sunset. This tells is all we want to know about what has happened to this country. When we leave people behind we pull down all of our expectations.