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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fish and Wildlife Service: Entrapment on the Beach

Philadelphians may choose to vacation in Atlantic or Ocean City, but nine times out of ten when someone in Philly says they are goin’ “down the shore,” they mean the beach at Wildwood, where all you have to do to meet a Philly neighbor is to take a walk on the boardwalk. Here you’ll find people from all over the city, but especially from the riverwards.

If you don’t drive, a New Jersey Transit bus will take you to Wildwood in about 3 hours time (an express bus will begin by the end of June). If you don’t like long bus rides that make at least forty stops en route—not to mention the lack of a bathroom on board—then you had better wait for the express service to start. My own pilgrimage to Wildwood began Friday a week ago at 8:35 pm. There were 12 people on the bus, most of them going to one of the many little Jersey towns nowhere near Wildwood.

Though my trip was well after Memorial Day, Wildwood seemed pretty much of a ghost time when the bus pulled into the station at about midnight, and when I made my way to one of the Yellow Cabs parked nearby.

Despite the wonderful ocean breeze, reality set in fast when I realized that economic hard times have forced businesses in Wildwood to get money anyway they can.

“I have to tell you,” the cab driver said, catching my eye through the rear view mirror, “that we are charging extra for bags or suitcases.” Disbelief fell like a dark shadow over my seashore optimism. In my mind I drew the obvious comparisons with the airlines’ new baggage fees, then asked the cabbie what she’d do if one of her customers had an oversized bible or purse. “I wouldn’t charge for that,” she smiled, “but… if the purse was big enough, well…”

Walking the boards the next day I saw far too many empty pizza and ice cream parlors with distraught looking vendors staring at passersby. Large signs advertising 2 for 1 or “buy one get one free” competed with loudspeaker pleas to buy new flavors of Polish Water Ice. The game people, megaphones in hand, supplied endless commentary on the glories of winning an $85.00 sports jersey.

I stopped in at the local McDonald’s and noticed that it was staffed with Eastern European teenagers—Russians and Serbs especially—replacing what was once a summer job for mostly Irish kids. The bigger Wildwood restaurants employ mostly Mexicans, some legal and some not. The Mexican influx into Wildwood has been building for years. English is only one of many languages now spoken in this once predictable, monochrome “white bread” community.

Many of Wildwood’s famous Doo Wop motels have been replaced by McMansion-style hotels with zero architectural character. These cookie-cutter monstrosities, built during the height of the real estate bubble, now stand empty, thanks to the recession. To my mind, the McMansion hotels give the town a tacky Miami flavor (Miami, in fact, has often been referred to as a mix of Manhattan and Wildwood).

The little cottage in the Crest where I stayed was built in the early 1940s and has a definite 1950s retro décor. Up the street is the Doo Wop Astronaut Motel, built at the beginning of the US Space program, and near that is the Annette Funicello-Frankie Avalon-inspired Beach Colony Motel. Closer to the beach is a new McMansion monstrosity built on the site of a fabulous Doo Wop hotel that was once the talk of the town. The new structure calls to mind the deserted back lot buildings at MGM’s Universal Studios. It had no tenants as far as I could tell.

I couldn’t help but notice all the half empty and closed motels. During the cold weather months a sight like this makes sense, but on a warm, seaweed scented night, the effect can only be described as eerie.

Welcome to The Twilight Zone, folks.

“So where are all the people?” I asked a check out clerk at the Wildwood Acme.
“Come back in two weeks when school’s out and you won’t be able to move,” she said. “It’ll fill up.”

But not according to one Wildwood friend, who told me that the town has never been this empty during the first week of June.

So where were all the Philadelphians?

Were they still in Philly watching the Flyers, or were they reeling from pain and laying low, like I was, after being hit with a $100.00 ticket for walking on the wrong beach, namely the National Wildlife Refuse beach currently under the surveillance of the Fish and Wildlife Service?

I won’t get into what happened-- that’s for when I contest the ticket before a judge-- but I’ll tell you one thing: I wish I had stayed home and gone to Penn Treaty Park instead!

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