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Eisenhower Chubby Checker Wildwood 1950s

Introduction

Back in the '50s and '60s, the beach resort city of Wildwood, New Jersey was known as "Doowopolis" thanks to its seemingly never-ending strip of glitzy neon motels (aka "Doo Wop Motels") with their wild & far-out fantasy themes, over-the-top diners, honky-tonk boardwalk, lots of partying teenagers, and a vibrant summertime music scene where the top up-and-coming performers of the day debuted their harmonic tunes, rock-n-roll hits, and body-twisting dance crazes that would take the world by storm! We had just won the war (World War II, that is) and we were a young, free, optimistic, and entrepreneurial society free to dream and imagine the future - a brighter one, of course.


OK... actually the term "Doowopolis" wasn't really coined until the late 1990s when, while some of the same could still be said about Wildwood (minus the "up and coming" part - and perhaps with a more dystopian view of where things might be headed), that tired-and-worn legacy of the great American mid-20th-century at the southern tip of the Jersey Shore was being newly re-discovered by a new generation of architects, designers, dreamers, historians, students, curiosity-seekers, and would-be entrepreneurs that sought to help preserve, promote, celebrate and build upon the unlikely "freeze-dried" legacy that quite literally made Wildwood a living museum of 1950s & 1960s American design, architecture, lifestyle, and pop culture.


As of the late 1990s, it was said that Wildwood was home to the "largest collection of mid-20th-century commercial architecture anywhere in the world!"

It's the 90s, go for it. (Meme)

It's the 90s - go for it!


What to do with it all? Well, Wildwood in the 1990s was a town in need of an overhaul, or at least a bit of a facelift. It had its dedicated stalwarts for sure - in many cases, the families (and descendants of families) who had started vacationing there during the heyday of the '50s and '60s and wanted to keep the tradition alive. Wildwood was still a great place to bring the family for a day (or 2 or 3) at the beach, a stroll along the boardwalk, a ride on one of its world-class roller coasters, and maybe a stop at one of its "I went here when I was a kid!" kind of pizza joints, ice cream parlors, or touristically tacky seafood restaurants. But it had become a "rough around the edges" kind of place. Not so bad, but not so great, either. The kind of place that "new money" tended to pass by (and "old money" never really visited in the first place). But oh, those motels. Those glorious, garish, over-the-top motels.


Comparisons were being made to towns like Miami's South Beach, where preservation and restoration of its formerly run-down, neon-lit Art Deco district was key to its revival as a vibrant destination in the 1980s - and similarly, Cape May, New Jersey and its Victorian architecture which took a similar path starting back in the 1970s when those rows of gingerbread homes we all identify with Cape May today had fallen into disrepair and disregard, and were on the verge of being bulldozed. Wildwood in the 1990s? Would it happen here next? Were we on the verge of becoming "America's hippest resort" as touted on the Doo Wop architectural walking tour maps that were being handed out to visitors by 1999?


Big ideas were discussed, lofty plans were drawn up, and a wave of excitement and enthusiasm not seen since, well, maybe 1963, swept over the island. The vision? Wildwood as a sort of international mecca of American pop-culture design & history by-the-sea (with great beaches to boot). Who wants to be just another dime-a-dozen seashore resort when you could be one-of-a-kind instead? 


Picture a revitalized historic district jam-packed with lovingly restored "Doo Wop" motels with all their neon lights lit brightly once again, combined with a wave of new development (hotels, resorts, restaurants, retail, etc...) meant to complement and evoke the style & spirit of "Doo Wop" (or "Neo-Doo Wop" as it was being called) leading to a resort landscape like no other in the world. Wildwood would be a celebration of a most unique period in American history that no one (and nowhere) else could quite capture so well, nor so authentically stake a claim to. Unfortunately, the dreams were relatively short-lived.


Sadly, the creative energy and optimism of the late 1990s met head-on with the fear, greed, and pessimism of the early 2000s and the real estate boom, bubble, and bust that would ensue. Unfortunate events like the dot-com crash, recession, and 9/11 would lead to fundamental changes in the American economy (and society at large) that some would say still persist to this day.

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The 2000s: When everything changed

For example, in the wake of 9/11, in an attempt to stave off fear & uncertainty in financial markets, interest rates were cut to near-zero by then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, as a way of trying to prevent markets from doing what they otherwise might have done (and had started to do) under such circumstances - crash hard. However, what was perhaps intended as a temporary "stopgap" to get us through those few weeks & months of particular danger & despair, instead became the seed of a seemingly permanent shift in the way the economy & markets function, and in the way Americans think about (and invest) their money.


Combined with loosening lending standards and lax regulation, this "easy money" philosophy continued throughout much of the 2000s, setting the stage for the global financial crisis of 2008 (when the bubble burst), and then only becoming even further entrenched under Greenspan's successor, Ben Bernanke, in the crisis's wake, with policies such as "quantitative easing" - or essentially, printing money to cover the losses - continuing on into the 2010s & beyond. Unfortunately, these policies had unintended effects all across the economy - particularly in the real estate & housing markets - and Wildwood was no exception.


Enter the era of reckless borrowing, excessive debt, dollar devaluation, and asset-price inflation taking the place of traditional investments in real, tangible, forward-looking, job-creating businesses that once made real people real money by producing or operating real things valued at "real" prices. Enter the era of rampant speculation, declining fundamentals, increasing inequality, big-bank bailouts, moral hazard, and perhaps the end of traditional American values and business ethics as we once knew them?


Hard work, prudent savings, and legitimate risk-taking - things that gave the American working & middle classes their shot at success in the post-World War II era - were no longer rewarded, and no longer in vogue. The optimistic long-term view (i.e. hope in a better, brighter future - hence the incentive to work hard, save money, and invest & innovate in what's to come) was replaced with the pessimistic short-term view (our best days are probably behind us, so might as well just borrow today whatever's left from a darker tomorrow, and take the money and run - hoping tomorrow never comes). Fast forward another decade or two since then - does any of this start to sound familiar?


Prioritizing debt & credit over savings & capital; trading & flipping over investing & income; gambling & grifting over planning & productivity; money supply growth & asset price inflation over real economic growth & rising wages; "short-termism" over "long-termism";  pessimism (or worse, nihilism) over optimism, and ultimately, fly-by-night speculators over creative, hard-working entrepreneurs? Not a recipe for a brighter future, as we see it. Not in the Wildwoods. And not anywhere else.

The Future Was Bright! Until heads got dumb...

Back to the early aughts...

With interest rates pushed to their lowest levels ever (for that time, at least) real estate speculators started descending on the five-mile island of the Wildwoods in numbers never-before-seen. And it all happened so quickly. Their interest? The Wildwoods' relatively-neglected (at least compared to its neighbors) beachfront property, and its potential for speculative residential development - not its world-class collection of Doo Wop architecture, nor its once-and-future tourism economy.

Those motels? Seen just a few years earlier as the key to reviving interest in the resort and re-building an entrepreneur-led, job-creating tourism economy for the 21st century, the "Doo Wop" motels were now seen as "blighted boxes" taking up valuable space, just waiting to be cleared away to make room for the endless rows of beige-and-gray look-alike condominiums (that were the antithesis of Doo Wop, but excellent liquidity sponges for all that low-interest debt) that could now be built (cheaply) and sold (quickly) to countless unsuspecting would-be buyers (very expensively) who would surely be lured in by the promise of "no money down", "low interest rates", and "never-ending appreciation". It was the can't-miss investment of a lifetime for a certain kind of buyer who thought - if only I looked more like my "tasteful" upper-middle-class neighbor, I'd be rich! - or that's how they sold it, anyway. And local politicians, along with local builders, amateur investors, and ultimately, taxpayers, sadly, fell for it.

The big dreams and visions for Doo Wop (save for a few extra plastic palm trees "planted" here and there around town, and a handful of dedicated motel owners still trying to make it work) were quickly cast aside by some of the same people who previously advocated for them, in order to accommodate and participate in the latest new "gold rush" of condo development that was surely the *new* new way forward for the Wildwoods (a quick pivot from the "new thing" to the "next new thing"). Once all-too-happy to be on the receiving end of all the attention & publicity Doo Wop was generating for their businesses and their community, many were now becoming fearful that too much attention might make it more difficult for them to "cash out" on the suddenly-more-profitable opportunity to leave Doo Wop in the dust (and who can blame them?)


In a span of just a few short years between roughly 2002 and 2006, plans for a "Doo Wop District" became a distant memory, almost as quickly as they first became a dream just a decade earlier, as more than two-thirds of the island's historic "Doo Wop" motels were demolished (with no one doing much of anything at the local level to try and stop them). At one point during the latter stages of the 2000s housing bubble, the borough of Wildwood Crest (where the highest concentration of historic motels once stood) was noted as having the "highest number of demolition permits issued by any municipality in the entire state of New Jersey."

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The trouble with preservation...

To be fair, historic preservation can often be a complicated and controversial topic. On the one hand, there are those who advocate for preserving history at all costs, and by whatever political means necessary (think heavy-handed regulations like the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission or even the Victorian Historic District a few miles south in Cape May, NJ) where individual property owners have somewhat limited rights in the face of centralized planning and/or community will ("Communism!", some might yell). On the other side of the coin are those who advocate strongly for private property rights, free markets, and independence from central planners - i.e. "if I want to preserve my property, that's great, but it's my choice and my choice alone - damn those communists!" 

The political ethos of the Wildwoods has historically fallen much more into the latter category. And perhaps understandably so - it was the "free market" American entrepreneurial spirit (and dreams of local, individual builders and entrepreneurs) that led to the development of the motels we all love from the '50s and '60s in the first place. Without that "free market" there may have never been a "Doo Wop" era to begin with, or at least not one so brash and unabashedly exuberant. For better or worse, and perhaps following along with the trajectory of American politics & culture since then (less exuberance, but still plenty of brashness), if this was an Eisenhower town in the '50s, it's probably more of a Trump town today.


Indeed, at the height of the 2000s condo boom, an argument often cited in opposition to any attempts to "legislate" the preservation of historic motels was - "This is America! Nobody can tell me what to do with my property!"  Try telling some of these same people to take a vaccine or wear a face mask during a pandemic, and you'll probably get a similar response (and quite frankly, we can't necessarily blame them - or at least, we can sympathize with their sentiment, if not necessarily with all the outcomes). 


After all, no one wants to be told what to do by some bureaucrat - not with their property, not with their body, and certainly not with their hard-earned money - right? This is America, after all, right? Or is it?


(and no, we're certainly not here to debate the politics of COVID-19...)

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It may be worth asking:


Did the demise of Doo Wop coincide with the demise of hope, opportunity, and optimism for the American middle class? Is it too late to bring back the spirit of either or both? Did something break with our money, our markets, our morals, our moorings - our whole societal & economic model -  that has made it seem ever more difficult (if not downright impossible) to get that old-fashioned optimistic feeling back? What to do with all those hard-working, big-dreaming (and vacation-seeking!) people all across America and the world?

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A better tomorrow takes a lot of hard work.


Our belief? Life is better for everyone when creative, hard-working people with big dreams are given the opportunity to bring their dreams to life. Our goal? To bring back that spirit of opportunity - and the great, big, beautiful tomorrow that comes along with it...


...to be continued... stay tuned for more!

Inspired by the story of Wildwood, New Jersey.

The "Doowopolis Manifesto" -
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