"Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over Little Eden tonight/ Forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July."
With those words Bruce Springsteen begins to paint a picture of one aspect of life as he knew it on the Jersey Shore. For better or worse we've also been subjected to MTV's version of life on the "Jersey Shore." Let me give you a better picture of life on the Jersey Shore as I have experienced it.
This is a more realistic story of life at the Jersey Shore and how an unwelcome visitor changed that life for years to come.
The "Jersey Shore" consists of approximately 120 miles of some of the nicest beaches on the East Coast. From the Gateway National Park at Sandy Hook in the north, to the Victorian charm of Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey, the New Jersey beaches offer a place to unwind and escape from the hectic pace of life in the metropolitan area. I'm a life-long resident of New Jersey. I have cherished memories of spending a week each year on the wide expanse of beach at Wildwood Crest, with its powdery white sand, vacationing with my parents and sister. Walking the five miles of amusement filled boardwalk, being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of all the rides, the games of chance and the concession stands.
When I grew up, got married and had a daughter of my own, we, too, looked forward to renting a place "down the shore" only a little closer to home, on the barrier island called Island Beach. There are two barrier islands that protect the mainland of central New Jersey; Island Beach and Long Beach Island. Originally they were one island, but a hurricane in the Forties breached the island forming an inlet into the Barnegat Bay. My tale will focus on the island to the north, Island Beach, and to one community in particular: Ocean Beach Unit Three.
Life on Island Beach, from Point Pleasant Beach in the north to Island Beach State Park in the south, varies from small motels, family friendly boardwalks, and day beaches, to the more, young adult life style as portrayed at Seaside on MTV, to the thousands of small summer cottages in between, there's something for everyone. Starting when my daughter was about five, we would rent one of those summer cottages for a week in Ocean Beach Unit One.
The developers of the Ocean Beach communities had bought tracts of vacant land in the late forties between the incorporated towns of Lavallette (1887) and Bay Head (1886). The houses in these well-established communities were larger, many were year round residences, and were considered beyond the means of the average worker. The developers chose a different marketing plan for their community. They would build smaller cottages, designed to be summer residences that the masses could afford. The first development, Ocean Beach Unit One, began in the early fifties. The cottages consisted of two small bedrooms, a kitchen and living room separated by a counter on which meals were served, and a small bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink. The house sat on a small lot, the back yards were approximately three feet deep and there was room on one side of the lot to park one car. The setback on the road side of the house was one foot and the front door faced the parking spot. There was also a covered patio which was situated in the back corner of the footprint of the house. All the houses sat on the left side of the lot. The street was paved with black top, which made footwear necessary during the summer. The bedrooms and the bathroom were enclosed with quarter inch plywood for privacy. The rest of the house was open to the studs and outside sheathing. They were put up for sale for the price of $2,895 and hundreds were sold. Some for vacation homes, some for rentals, and some, with a little work as year round residences.
When those sold out, the developers began Unit Two. The lots were a little bigger and so were the houses. But basically they offered the same no-frills, family-friendly beach experience as Unit One. Hundreds more were sold; and then came Unit Three.
By the time they got to Unit Three, the developers, after hearing feedback from the owners of the first two units, increased the size of the house and the lot; making room for cars to be parked two abreast and if pulled up to the back of the driveway a third car could be parked sideways in the driveway. The house layout was basically the same. If you picture a detached oversized two car garage with the back right hand corner built as a covered porch, you pretty much have a good idea of the house. Once again each house sat on the left side of the lot and you had an eight-foot deep backyard. They built over a thousand of these summer cottages in Unit Three. They also built a three bedroom version of the house on the beach front where, because of land restrictions, they could not fit an extra street so the lots were deeper. Almost all the streets in the Ocean Beach community ran perpendicular to the ocean and ran from the ocean front houses to the bay. In Unit Three all the roads were unpaved, consisting of hard compacted dirt and sand. The beachfront was completely lined with houses, with a road running parallel to the ocean connecting all the streets. On the bayside of the island several streets ran into the bay like fingers, providing the owners of those houses with bulkheads for docking their boat.
The main thorough fare on the island is State Route 35, which runs North and South for the entire length of the residential portion of the island. It is a concrete road, one lane in each direction on the northern third of the island. When a railroad right of way became available, the State shifted the south-bound lane to the right of way and made it two lanes south-bound and converted the original road to two lanes north-bound. Thousands of cars travel these routes every day during the summer.
It was in Unit Three, during the summer of 1984, that we signed a contract to purchase our beach house. It was the first time that we rented a house for two weeks. My daughter was ten years old. We had such a great vacation that we decided that we really wanted to buy a house at the beach someday. We stopped at the Ocean Beach Realty Office to drop off our rental house key, with the intent that I would drop off my business card informing them that I was looking for a "handy man special" to buy.
"Here are the keys to a house that might just be what you're looking for, the broker said. I don't have permission to sell it yet, but take a look; it's only a few blocks from here. See what you think."
The three of us piled into my car and drove to the house. We pulled into the vacant driveway and stood in front of one of a thousand similar houses, assessing its worthiness. It looked OK on the outside; needed some paint and some caulking, but not too bad. We opened the door and stepped inside what once was a covered porch. At some point in the past the owner had enclosed the porch and, from the looks of it, had made it a third bedroom. OK, you enter the house through a bedroom; that can be fixed. We opened the door to the rest of the house and entered the living area. The rest of the house was exactly as they must have bought it, a shell. We were shocked to see the studding and sheathing on the outside walls; the plywood around the bedrooms, the concrete floors with small area rugs; the back door, with its single round port hole; in the bathroom, to the right, the toilet and sink, to left a small shower with a shower curtain. It was dark and dingy, over cluttered with furniture that was old and too big for the space. It was just perfect. After a little discussion of all its potential; we headed back to the realtors office.
"Well, what do you think of it?"
"It's just what we are looking for."
Now we asked the 64 dollar question. "How much do they want?"
"They are thinking about listing it for $65,000, but if you offer $62,000 I'm sure they will take it. Now I just have to get their OK to sell it."
He got on the phone, and after a few minutes he called us back into his office and informed us that they had agreed to our offer. He explained that if we put a binder of $500 as a deposit; he would have the paperwork drawn up. We had to get a lawyer and he would forward the paper work to him. We all shook hands and my wife and daughter got into her car and I got into mine and we headed for home. All the way home the thought kept going through my head, 'Can I really afford this? What the hell have I done?'
Being a CPA, as soon as I got home, I went to my office and cranked out the numbers. We'd have to clean out our savings and eat at our folks a lot, but it was doable. What troubled me worst of all was that the current mortgage interest rate on a twenty-five year mortgage was 14 7/8ths percent. Ouch, it was like purchasing a house with a credit card. 'Well, ' I thought, 'I'll have to combine this mortgage with my primary residential mortgage as soon as the rates drop.' We didn't close on the house until late November due to some legal issues. We also had to be approved by the home-owners association. During our meeting with president of the association he told us something that I never thought of, or experienced.
"You know, in the early sixties you would never have been allowed into the association. This was a very WASP-orientated area; no Italians allowed. Times have changed of course; now several of the board members are Italian."
.... There is more of this story ...