[30 August 2009]
PopMatters General Features Editor
I’ve been on vacation the past week in Wildwood, New Jersey, (North Wildwood to be precise) which is down the shore about 30 miles south of Atlantic City, near the southern tip of the state’s coastline. It’s long had a reputation as a working-class beach town for immigrants from Philadelphia, and it’s still not uncommon to see houses down there with the Italian and Irish flags flying from the awnings alongside the U.S. flag. Like its North Jersey equivalent, Seaside Heights, Wildwood has an extensive boardwalk that retains a carnivalesque atmosphere, where scams and bad bargains of all sorts are made to seem innocuous and where the water-gun-game barkers and snake-handling carneys and iron-on T-shirt makers seem like artisan practitioners of threatened traditional crafts.
I played lots of skee-ball to win tickets (my high-risk, high-reward strategy—always shoot for the 100s), which I could then trade in for plastic army men, balsa-wood propeller planes, and off-brand candy. I also rode an old wooden coaster that may have concussed me; I got off and wandered the amusement pier punch drunk, in search of place to sit and fortify myself with a lime ricky.
The upper middle classes from the Philadelphia area tend to eschew Wildwood in favor of Ocean City and Cape May, Avalon and Long Beach Island—similar places by and large that have somehow managed to manufacture class distinction for themselves. The aspirational towns tend to push a contrived family-friendliness and institute measures like charging a fee to use the beach to seem exclusive. Thanks to their protected reputations, real estate values rose dramatically during the bubble years in these towns, which meant that much of the earlier generations of buildings (the boarding houses and one-story “shit shacks”) have all been razed in favor of generic aluminum-sided, triple-decker condos and elaborate second-home mansions.
But in Wildwood, this hasn’t really happened, making it an architectural treasure trove, at least for me—I have an inexhaustible fascination with vacation motels of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Wildwood is still filled with hundreds of them, some of them renovated, some run down, some essentially unchanged since their construction in the heyday of democratized leisure. The vendors on the boardwalk are as up to the minute with trends as they can be—they were selling Michael Vick Eagles jerseys (and “Hide your beagle, Vick’s an Eagle” shirts) a week after he was signed. But away from the boardwalk, the town becomes a museum. To walk into Wildwood Crest at night is to enter a hushed Edward Hopper world, haunted with a pensive sense of unfulfilled possibility, all these lido decks and lounge chairs under the orderly rows of subdued lights, devoid of people.
Just as consumption itself was being democratized after World War II, with the working classes experiencing the thrills of purchasing power amidst the sudden flood of mass-produced goods, so was leisure democratized, with similarly mass-produced motels rapidly constructed in déclassé seaside enclaves like Wildwood. This motel build-out mirrored the construction of housing developments for lower-income families in the string of Levittowns outside Philadelphia—workers could now for the first time enjoy their own detached homes in suburban communities, and they could also expect to enjoy their own private rooms in resorts meant to accommodate them when their week of summer vacation—another novelty—came around.
These motels tended to come in two sizes. The first is a two- to four- story motel in a L-shape, nestling a small standard-issue in-ground pool (the sort with a 8-foot deep end that rarely gets built anymore—the drowning/lawsuit risk has made them infeasible now) surrounded by plastic chaise longues, and with a sundeck dotted with fake palm trees. Here’s a few pretty typical examples:
Many of these have since been converted to efficiency condos, which is part of what saved them from demolition.
The deluxe version of these are a little larger and typically sit nearer the ocean:
These are the places that are often billed with the somewhat oxymoronic appellation “resort motels.”
I probably photographed 50 of these motels, and I only scratched the surface. And this is after untold dozens had been torn down over the years. (In one vacant lot on Ocean Avenue, the local preservation society had salvaged and displayed a few of the neon signs from motels since demolished.) They are pretty much identical, differing only in location and name, and one would think this would make them depressingly banal and interchangeable. But they struck me as strangely hopeful, and that feeling was reinforced with each new iteration of the same model that I came across. In their sameness came not a refutation of the personal uniqueness of the people who chose to stay in these motels—an ersatz individuality that is largely oversold ideologically and exploited by marketers as a source of insecurity and misery (are you unique enough? have you discovered the real you? how can you be sure if you are not displaying it at all times through a highly personalized set of belongings and experiences? shouldn’t you buy more stuff to become more unique? Hmm?) Instead they evoked an egalitarian feeling that everyone was confident back then of receiving the same standard treatment; that the worth to the patrons of these places was not rooted in laying special claim to some thing or place but in having the opportunity to partake in the vacation spirit embodied by the town as a whole. The sameness in the environment allowed for actual differences among everyone—differences taken for granted, the peculiarities that aren’t dependent on marketing and goods and identity displays—to show through. It was simply assumed, I imagine, that such stuff as identity mongering was irrelevant in the face of the opportunity to go on the beach, to swim in the ocean, to confront the ceaseless waves. In other words, these cookie-cutter motels conjure a sense that leisure was once beyond the reach of invidious comparison, that pleasure isn’t a matter of differentiating our identities or proving our creativity or individuality at all. There is nothing particularly creative or inventive about enjoying the beach, but it is all the more enjoyable for that. You can do what everyone else does and it’s okay. It’s even liberating—at least now, when identity and personal branding is so foregrounded.
But it’s hard to be sure the original clients of the motels felt that liberation in the same way. We are at the other end of the transformation of subjectivity that for them had only just begun, so liberation for them may have been precisely that birth into branded identity that we are beginning to experience as a prison. It’s the elaborate, now-campy names of these places that make me wonder about this—especially the accompanying signs, with their neon and their futurama fonts, seem like cartoonish, hyperbolic attempts at branding something that has no particular distinction.
Their superfluousness, the gratuitous nature of these names feels significant. Unnecessary on the face of things (many similar accommodations in other seaside towns are content to have only a street address) the garish names were, at that moment in time when the motels were being built, of critical importance to builders and customers alike presumably. The names were something extra that didn’t make the places themselves special, but signified that an effort was being made to market something to a class of people who had been mostly ignored by advertising. In a loud, unmistakable way, the names called out to the new mass-market consumers and sent the message that an expense was being made on their behalf, that unnecessary ideas were being called forth, to amuse them for a moment, to make them feel that they were going to stay somewhere where ordinary rules did not apply: places where, for example, doors were painted sky blue and palm trees had blue leaves.
The names and extravagant signs became requisite amenities, along with heat in the rooms and color televisions.
The ham-fisted attempts at branding seem primitive and quaint now, and seem to preclude the possible of their being aspirational, of generating insecurity. For us, they do the opposite of making us proudly and earnestly self-aware; they conjure a time when branding seemed kitschy and fun, impossible to regard seriously and thus allowing us to transcend it all. But they must have had unironic significance in the 1960s, a resonance similar to the unnecessary but ubiquitous names for housing subdivisions built during the recent real estate boom—nicely lampooned in this post about Denver’s exurbs. Maybe names such as these will seem campy (and not awful) to subsequent generations:
The naming protocols signify a token effort to mask a fundamental contradiction, to make mass-produced “luxuries” come across as bespoke. They are fumbling efforts at establishing social capital where none is to be found, and thus readily strike us as wrong, as embarrassing, as shameful, as violations of some natural order. The faux-pastoral, crypto-aristocratic aspect of the subdivision names exposes what they are trying but failing to do, they indicate how the developments are trying to graft themselves on to a social order that would have forbidden their very existence. The resort motels, at least, attempt something different with their branding, something that to me speaks to the optimism of the era—each an oasis unto itself in a lush profusion of oases without a desert. They don’t try to appropriate a class-inflected language and approximate an old dream of country-club exclusiveness. Instead neon signage is used to invoke an aesthetic never before seen.
(Las Vegas is probably the ultimate example of this style, and Learning From Las Vegas, the manifesto by Venturi, et. al., is the standard reference for its significance.)
The opportunity for a mass-produced aesthetic that is its own thing, outside of the war of class signaling, seems to have passed us by. We can only return to the dawn of consumerism with nostalgia for its promise, mingled with despair for all its wrong turns since then. It promised to indoctrinate us all into the pleasures of owning and belonging and instead made us more conscious then ever before of the many things we can’t have, the many places we don’t belong, convincing us all the while that there can be no recompense for unfulfilled desire, no vacation from the yearning for more. A week at the Armada by the Sea will never suffice to make us forget ourselves.