- Historic Sites
A New Jersey seaside resort struggles to save the architecture—and the memories—of the Eisenhower years
April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
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.