Class Matters at the Jersey Shore

I thought I would stray from Philip Vickers Fithian’s early American world to blog a bit about the economic and cultural diversity I am seeing here at the Jersey shore, one of America’s first vacation resorts. I have written about this topic before in op-ed pieces, but I do not think any of this material is available on-line.

We have spent the last several days in Ocean City, New Jersey, a largely white, middle-class, culturally Christian vacation resort located just south of Atlantic City. The place caters to families. You cannot purchase alcohol in Ocean City, which explains the very large liquour store located at the foot of the bridge leading to the island.

The way of life in Ocean City is pretty easy to describe. Vacationers spend the morning either eating at one of many small breakfast joints or taking their bikes to the boardwalk, which permits riders until noon. Then everyone heads for the beach to see how many umbrellas can be jammed into a single plot of sand. In the evening, families hit the boardwalk. Between roughly 6pm and 10pm this wooden thoroughfare is jammed with people sporting college t-shirts, eating Kohr’s frozen custard, and waiting in line to get a pizza at the famous Mack and Manco’s. There are very few rides on the Ocean City boardwalk. It is mostly lined with shops–two commerical bookstores, a Christmas ornament shop, clothing stores galore, and a variety of restaurants and refreshment stands. The consumer culture in Ocean City is predominantly middle-class.

Last night we ventured out of our cozy middle-class haven and headed south to Wildwood. The change could not have been more striking. Wildwood became a vacation resort roughly around the same time as Ocean City, but its appeal has always been to a more ethnic, working class crowd. In fact, it is not unusual to hear long-time Ocean City vacationers make subtle and derogatory comments about how they never visit Wildwood.

Wildwood is known as the Jersey shore’s “doo wop” or “honky tonk” center. It is filled with 60s style beach hotels complete with fake palm trees, aqua doors, and pink roofs. The boardwalk has its share of t-shirt stands, body piercing shops, arcades, games of chance, and places where you can buy sausage and pepper sandwiches or fried Snickers. (My wife claims that the Hot Spot Restaurant, owned by Greek immigrants, has the best gyros she has ever tasted). With two large amusement piers filled with rides, there is an active youth culture here. The people on the Wildwood boardwalk have more color in their faces than those in Ocean City. Last night I heard at least five different languages being spoken by the strollers I passed. There is a vibrancy and life in Wildwood that is missing in Ocean City. It is far more representative of American life.

I have been reflecting today on what this all means. My grandparents always came to Wildwood because of the large Italian population that vacationed there in the post-war years. (There is also, for reasons still unclear to me, a very large group of French Canadians who come to Wildwood every summer). Yet most of my grandparent’s children and grandchildren have decided to vacation in places more like Ocean City. There is certainly something to be said here about both the class dimensions of the Jersey shore and, more generally, the relationship between social class and where a family, over the course of generations, tends to spend their vacations.

Am I on to something here?

One thought on “Class Matters at the Jersey Shore

  1. Hi Jon,You are onto something here. Like your grandparents, mine and my parents spent many happy times in Wildwood during most of the 20th century. The thing is the Wildwood of today is not the Wildwood of the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s.Wildwood was dependent on the middle class for its success and most of the middle middle has moved up or died out. If the city fathers and business people had elected to Wildwood preserve the culture that made it so popular for almost four decades, it still would be thriving. There would have been some tough years (and there were anyway), but Wildwood would have come back bigger and better than even.Instead, the places that made the island were torn down: the motels, Hunt’s Pier, Playland, the nice breakfast and family-owned dinner places that served those wonderful shore dinners, to name a few. The city parks in Wildwood are no longer maintained. The rooming houses that gave North Wildwood and Wildwood some character and color have been bulldozed and replaced with sterile condos.Places like Ocean City and Avalon mostly have maintained their identities and kept up appearances. The boardwalks may be a little sedate, but they still have nicer shops. They don’t cater to baser tastes and don’t look like a bit of Baghdad. What does chain link add to the Boardwalk scene anyway?Personally, I prefer Stone Harbor and Avalon because the beaches are easier to access, and Wildwood resembles so little of what I remember and loved about it.Michele Picozzi Paterson


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