Everyone who knows me knows that I love the Jersey shore. I have written op-eds about it and have blogged about it several times here and here and here and here. I have visited almost every Jersey shore municipality. I still hope to write a book about the Shore that people might be able to buy at one of the Atlantic Book Stores–perhaps the one in Beach Haven or the one on the Ocean City boardwalk. I imagine the book would have a subtitle like: “A Cultural History of the New Jersey Shore.” (Publishers, you can contact me here at the blog!). I could get a grant to work on the book and spend a sabbatical year with my family on the beach! (Only HALF-kidding about this).
Today I was chatting with a student about the Jersey shore and it reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago in the Asbury Park Press. I don’t think this piece ever appeared on-line, so I thought I would republish it here. It originally appeared in the Press on July 12, 2007.
So here are some summer thoughts in the midst of yet another mid-Atlantic snowstorm.
Historical Differences Make Jersey Shore More Than a Brand Name
By John Fea, Ph.D
Most outsiders think about the “Jersey Shore” as if it were a single place–127 miles of sandy beaches and fun in the sun with very little variation from Sandy Hook to Cape May.
I remember a few years ago when the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority tried to market it that way. It held what it called a “Summit on the Shore” and tried to turn the Shore into a brand that would appeal to consuming tourists. I don’t know what happened to this initiative, but I imagine similar marketing strategies are in the works as the Shore is forced to compete with other destinations around the country in an age of relatively cheap airfares and attractive vacation packages.
I realize that vacation tourism is a vital source of revenue for our home state. But homogenizing the Shore to make it more palatable for visitors from afar flies in the face of how most of us have experienced it. Any New Jersey native knows that the Shore is made up of a host of different communities that reflect the historical development of the region and the kinds of people who first ventured to Jersey’s Atlantic coast for summer pleasure.
“The Shore” is many places. To suggest that there is one “Jersey Shore” clouds the region’s historic richness.
Each beach town on the Jersey coast has its own unique past and has attracted its own unique people. For example, the refined upper classes from Philadelphia made Cape May the first major seaside resort in America.
Protestant teetotalers looking to improve mind, body, and soul started summer camp meetings at Ocean Grove, Asbury Park and Ocean City. Italians made their way to Wildwood. The educated elite from Princeton and elsewhere populated Bay Head. The extremely wealthy bought mansions in Mantoloking.
Middle-class white America flocked to Long Beach Island and Point Pleasant Beach. Those looking for entertainment went to Atlantic City. Working-class families from Newark and Trenton took day trips to Seaside Heights.
Some of this history can be still felt today in the food, architecture, entertainment options and general way of life that pervades these shore communities. Cape May’s Victorian buildings reflect its refined past. Ocean Grove still has its summer religious gatherings in the Great Auditorium. Do you want to quench your thirst with a beer after a hot day on the beach in Ocean City? Good luck finding a place that will sell you one. The Seaside Heights boardwalk continues to exude a honky-tonk feel. Wildwood still has some great Italian restaurants and great Italian people. I still admire houses as I pass through Bay Head and Mantoloking heading south on Route 35.
Long Beach Island’s lighthouse and rustic clapboard buildings, especially in Beach Haven, reflect its historical sensibility. Atlantic City, of course, remains a place for entertainment.
The Shore has a fascinating and diverse history. While it has never been a place of racial diversity, it has still been a place where a host of different groups have contributed to the social fabric of the great American vacation. You can tell a lot about people from where they vacation. You can tell even more about them from where their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents vacationed. Let’s not forget about this rich tapestry of people who have made the Shore what it is today. It is this diversity that makes it a unique New Jersey vacation destination.