rambling: how an island evolved…

I used to love Avalon as a kid. I stopped going in my mid to late 20s because the more it got developed, the less I liked it.

When I was a kid there was the penny candy story on 7th street. A tiny cedar shake shingled general store down around 7th street that had penny candy. Once when we were really little a friend of our parents and their friends named Weezy gave us each $1 and told us to go “blow our minds.” Root beer barrels, Charleston Chews, Mary Janes, those little colored sugar dots on white paper, caramels, and more. My mother would maybe give us a quarter if we were really good.

When it rained at the beach it was like the sea and air met as one. I remember going as a little girl to the then tiny and old Avalon, NJ library. Not the new library that stands today, but the little old dark one which still stood in the early 1970s. When you went up the stairs and opened the doors they gave that old creaky and heaving sound. Inside the library was dark and had that beach smell of sand mingled with mildew. I remembered picking out well worn copies of Nancy Drew books to take home and read. Or maybe we would go to the Paper Peddler and buy a book or a copy of Mad Magazine (which my mother hated).

In those days, Avalon had really tall dunes and the island began at 7th street. The first few blocks of Avalon washed away before I was born. That was the famous Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which was truthfully a Hurricane Sandy-like storm. But the only a block of houses were swallowed by the sea at that time – 6th street. Below that had never been really developed because of tides. This 1962 storm was what caused the Avalon Hotel to be moved to 8th street. As a little girl I remember looking out over those beaches down by 7th street and wondering what the swallowed block of houses looked like? Was it a perfect bunch of houses just underwater like the fictional Atlantis, or a jumble of destruction? After watching the videos I discovered on You Tube which prompted this post, I learned more.

1970’s me photographed on the dunes probably between 10th and 17th streets in Avalon, NJ

When I was little, the dunes were magnificent. I remember going through the twisty beach paths with mountains of sand and dune grass and scrubby pines on either side and even some old beach (probably rugosa) roses. This is where I first fell in love with black eyed Susan’s and beach daisies which grew in and on the edges of the dunes along with other wild flowers and cacti. In the summers when I was little too you could often see the sea turtles come ashore and lay their eggs and then wait for them to hatch and see all the little turtles head for the sea.  It’s where I first fell in love with waxy bayberry bushes, and those memories are why I am trying to get a pair to grow in my own garden.

These videos done by the Avalon History Center are wonderful. It takes you back to the 1700s…and all the way through to today. And with the 19th century photos what I never knew before was how heavily forested the island was. Cedars and oak trees…and even cattle at one point. In the late 19th century there was a sawmill on the island that gave developers back then their wood for structures…and eventually deforested the island.

13th Street Cabin

By the 1970s when we first started going to Avalon because Ocean City even down in the gardens was getting too developed, Avalon was developing but there was still a lot of room and cool old houses. The grey monster a big grey stone house around 10th street, and the cute little yellow cottage around the corner. I was fascinated by the old houses, a lot of them literally humble cottages. My parents’ friends owned the historic cabin on 13th street once owned by Woodrow Wilson when he was at Bryn Mawr College.

Listening to the history lectures presented by the Avalon History Center I literally watched a time line of how a small community became overdeveloped over time, including a garish recent example known as the Utz house that is this utterly vulgar high dune gobbling mega McMansion that created such a battle it even made the New York Times.

The New York Times also featured the reminiscences of a beach goer long ago that resonated. Jen Miller is her name. She talks about her memories before it became a summer McMansion boom town:

“On a hot August afternoon in the late 1990s, I waited at Donnelly’s Deli in Avalon, N.J., for our family’s sandwich order. This was a rare treat. We were a bologna-and-cheese-on-white-bread kind of family, loading up the car with beach chairs and boogie boards and a basket of towels for the drive to the Avalon beach from our trailer at a campground a few miles away.

But on that day, near the end of the summer, when my mother was tired of fixing our family of six a summer’s worth of beach sandwiches, we went to this one-story, brick-front deli that smelled like chips, sweat, pickles and meat, to let someone else do it for us.

In 2005, Donnelly’s closed, and the building was torn down — along with the rest of the block. In its place now is a three-story retail and residential building whose first floor features a Lululemon and a Lilly Pulitzer, both open for the summer only….The erosion of local character that I saw take over the South Jersey Shore is underway there too.

But who cares, other than some old, nostalgic saps like me? Someone who on a recent cold spring day walked around town worrying that Circle Pizza and Avalon Freeze would go the way of the deli, to make room for a strip mall I could see in any other wealthy town in the country?”

~ DOMESTIC LIVES Memories of a Jersey Shore Town, Before a Boom By Jen A. Miller
June 16, 2017

I totally get her sentiments. I am one of those who remembers communities in the proverbial “way back when” of it all for lack of a better description. But what we see happening in and already has happened in quaint beach communities is happening on an even larger scale out here. Farms and estates and any open space getting gobbled up for condos, townhouses, and housing developments of all shapes and sizes where it’s crap, not quality construction and it’s packing them in like lemmings. You can’t even garden in a lot of these communities.

Watch these videos. It’s a cautionary tale as well as being a very well done history of a place I once loved…before McMansions and trying to make it the South Jersey Hamptons. The difference is in the Hamptons, they actually DO historic and open space preservation, it’s just ungodly expensive.

Oh and don’t forget to check out the news about the high rise in Miami that had half the building just collapse overnight. Surfside. Some news report said something about what the building was built on and how it was sinking. (see this story HERE.) This news is a cautionary tale of development for sure, and it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

And some day in a time far far away, maybe some historical society will be doing oral history videos and presentations where we live, and will talk of a time before pipelines arrives, and development gobbled up all the forests, farms, open space, and little hamlets.

Thanks for stopping by.

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