Wildwood

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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.

In the whirl at Mariner’s Landing Pier in Wildwood.
 
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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.

Map
 
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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.