Monday, December 10, 2007

Down the Shore with...James Lilliefors

Back in August, I went to the Rutgers University-Camden library to delve into the history of the South Jersey Shore towns. One of the books I referenced, which I wrote about, was America's Boardwalks: From Coney Island to California by James Lilliefors.

Even though the book is about a lot of different boardwalks, Lilliefors chapters about Jersey shore boards are fascinating (hint, hint, making the book a great gift for shore fans), and helped me with my research. So let's welcome him to the blog today as the "Down the Shore with..." interviewee.

1. How did you come up with the idea to write a book about boardwalks?
I’ve enjoyed boardwalks all of my life. I grew up two and a half hours from the nearest one (Ocean City, Maryland) so there was always a delicious sense of anticipation in traveling there and, once we arrived, a feeling that boardwalk life was a little more wild and free than the lives we were leading back home. Later, I lived in Ocean City for about 10 years, editing the town’s newspaper, and became interested in the boardwalk for different reasons – not just as a place to hang out but also as an enduring part of Americana. The first American boardwalks date back to the early 1870s – and there aren’t many things in this country that have survived so long. As I traveled to other boardwalks, primarily in New Jersey, I began to discover common denominators. Early boardwalk towns represented an intoxicating alternative to urban American life, offering cheap, exotic products and pleasures that couldn’t be found at home; they were also refreshingly democratic, inviting visitors from all social and economic strata to join the same parade. These traits are still at the heart of the most successful boardwalks today. It seemed that the phenomenon of America’s boardwalks hadn’t really been written about, and it interested me.

2. You write about three towns I cover in my book: Atlantic City, Wildwood and Cape May. I have to admit I found the Wildwood chapter most interesting. Do you think the town really has a shot at holding off developers and saving all that great Doo Wop architecture?

Unlike its remarkable beach – which, as you know, actually grows each year – Wildwood’s Doo Wop movement appears to have eroded a bit. It’s a terrific idea – preserving those space age and tropical-theme motels, which could give Wildwood a look unlike anyplace else in the country. It’s sort of akin to what South Miami Beach did with art deco. But the economic realities have sometimes gotten in the way – there’s more money to be made in tearing down motels and replacing them with condos than in refurbishing 50- or 60-year-old buildings. On the other hand, Wildwood has some real visionaries and, as I discuss in the book, some exciting plans on the drawing board. I’m optimistic about Wildwood, one of my favorite boardwalk towns.

3. You’ve obviously seen a lot of boardwalks and learned a lot about their history. Why do you think they are so popular – still – today?
Unfortunately, not all of them are. Since I wrote the book, the Pavilion in Myrtle Beach and Astroland in Coney Island have shut down. The ones that are still thriving are able to strike a balance, carrying on traditions while staying current, offering the latest music and fashion fads, for example. They’re both hip and nostalgic, in other words. All of the successful boardwalks have food traditions that go back decades – Mack’s pizza and Douglass Fudge, in Wildwood, for instance. Fralinger’s Saltwater Taffy, in Atlantic City, dates to the 1880s. But, really, the appeal of the boardwalk is largely sensual and a little intangible – the spinning lights of pier rides reflecting on the ocean, the smell of frying funnel cakes and caramel corn in the sea breeze, the sounds folding into one another, the excitement of so many people sharing space on a warm summer evening.

4. What is unique about the Boardwalk in Atlantic City?

Mystique. It has a remarkable history, which it could do more to promote. A.C. is the first and most-famous Boardwalk, the most valuable property in Monopoly, and a place that is coming back from some rough times. It’s inspiringly resilient (and I haven’t even mentioned casinos).

5. Wildwood?
Wildwood has more amusement rides there than at any other boardwalk, giving summer nights there a perpetual carnival backdrop. It’s wild and whimsical, a lot of fun.

6. Cape May?
Unlike most New Jersey boardwalks, Cape May’s is for walking, not for people-watching or letting your senses be bombarded. It’s “the anti-Wildwood,” as one business owner said. When I was doing interviews for the book, I spent a few days hanging around Wildwood, then drove down to Cape May one afternoon, walked the length of the boardwalk and was struck by how enchanting the place is.

10. And what happened to poor Ocean City? That’s one of my favorites.
Ocean City has a wonderful boardwalk, with lots of great amusements. Several boardwalk towns call themselves “family resorts” and really aren’t – but Ocean City, New Jersey clearly is. When I began putting this book together, I decided not to write about the “best” boardwalks but to present a cross-section that seemed to best tell the tale of America’s boardwalks. I also decided to limit the number to 12. As it is, there are more boardwalks from New Jersey than anywhere else, which is fitting because Jersey is the boardwalk capital of the country. But I wanted to include other examples, so there are two from California and others farther south on the East Coast. Nothing against Ocean City (unless it's a hot summer evening and you’re thirsty for a beer).

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1 comment:

Jesse O. said...

The interview on Boardwalks piqued my curiosity. Do you write at length on matters Atlantic City? I manage a blog devoted to Atlantic City political activity, The Atlantic City Scoop, http://cityofatlantic.wordpress.com. It would be nice to feature you in a non-political piece.