A Review of Harvey H. Jackson III, The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast (Athens, Ga., University of Georgia Press, 2012)
[NOTE: I first read Hardy Jackson’s book in 2012, and it stirred in me a desire to travel the stretch of beach towns along the Gulf Coast between Gulf Shores, Alabama, and Panama City Beach, Florida. When we finally decided to make that trip, I began re-reading Jackson’s book, carrying it along as a sort of “Bubba’s Baedeker.” I’d recommend this practice to anyone interested in visiting the “Redneck Riviera,” whether or not you happen to like that label. Oh, and to learn why some folks do not cotton to the “Redneck Riviera” tag, read on.]
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As in so many other areas of American life, World War II affected the development of resorts along the Alabama-Florida Gulf Coast. These towns featured very crude facilities before the war, yet those who visited liked what they found, places to relax among people much like themselves but which also gave them room to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Thanks to the G.I. Bill and other government-sponsored measures that bestowed upon World War II veterans the thanks of a grateful nation and helped usher them into the suddenly enlarged American middle class, returning servicemen and their families could afford a few days at the beach after the war.
As the decades passed, the veterans aged, as did the society of which they were a part. Some “beach” locales changed in ways that made them almost unrecognizable to members of the “Greatest Generation” and their children. The grandchildren of the World War II generation’s “Rednecks” dominated the “Riviera” by the twenty-first century, and their idea of a beach resort was quite different from their elders’.
This is the story Hardy Jackson tells, with an unbeatable combination of historical research, reflection, and humor. Jackson’s focus is on Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama, and Fort Walton, Destin, and Panama City Beach in Florida. His “control town” is Seagrove Beach, Florida, where his family has owned a “beach cottage” since 1956, where he spent his summers growing up, and to which he retired a year or so ago .
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In the immediate post-World War II years, the Gulf Coast’s beach towns created the tacky veneer that would eventually earn them the sobriquet of the “Redneck Riviera.” Still, tourists came, probably because of the tackiness.
Despite damage wrought by the occasional hurricane after WWII, neither developers nor many local residents wanted to hear about “saving the dunes.” Early on, in other words, tension arose that has yet to be resolved, between residents suspicious of the federal government and its suspected designs on their property, on the one hand, and that government’s role in improving life there in all sorts of ways, on the other.
This was a world before air conditioning, at a time when roads were primitive. The dreams of area entrepreneurs were modest at first. For example, C.H. McGee, founder of Seagrove Beach, Florida, where the Jackson clan early on bought a cottage, promised an affordable, whites-only (but no “white trash”) development. Only those in search of “wholesome” activities need apply—those who wanted a more adventuresome lifestyle were urged to look elsewhere.
Yet, as crude as the early towns might seem now, veterans and their families descended on the area, and, as postwar optimism set in, developers began to salivate at the coast’s future prospects. In Jackson’s view, “Two different sets of tourists, classes if you will, were taking shape, and in time they would create two different coasts, each in its own image.” (62)
From the 1950s through the 1960s, the coastal towns had it lucky. Visitors seemed happy with the “tacky resorts” that had sprung up, and those who made a living by serving up tackiness were able to keep labor problems from getting out of hand. The biggest challenge was to find—or create—tourist-worthy “events” throughout the year, not just during the summer months. One such event, “Spring Break,” became a money-maker that nonetheless gradually drove local boosters crazy because of the excesses of some of its participants.
Meanwhile, efforts by well-meaning adults to provide “wholesome games” for teens and to ban beer “only confirmed what the students already believed—that adults didn’t have a clue.” (75) And, while hurricanes in 1965 (Betsy) and 1969 (Camille) damaged the Florida-Alabama coast less than they did other areas along the Gulf, residents began to wonder “what if. . . ?”
The transformation of the Florida-Alabama Gulf Coast began, by Jackson’s reckoning, between the early 1970s and mid-1980s, thanks to the Arab oil embargo (1973), the Federal Reserve System’s efforts to reduce inflation (1974), and hurricanes Eloise (1975) and Frederic (1979). All these events produced tighter credit and physical damage to the coastal towns.
The movers and shakers in the region during this period, memorably described by historian Emory Thomas as “a new generation of raffish Rotarians, pirates with cash register eyeballs, and hard-handed matrons,” (94) had no problem using financial and natural disasters to kill off some of the “tackier,” more traditional motels, bars, and amusement parks. There was nothing sinister going on, just a cold-blooded realization by those whose properties had been damaged by Mother Nature that the costs of revival were too steep and the offers from those “raffish Rotarians” too attractive.
These developments produced changes intended to attract a more affluent–and less “Redneck”–clientele. Down the decades, this trend would produce “a sprawling complex of hotels, condominiums, golf courses, town centers, and attractions that were designed for the upscale and affluent.” (105) One example of this was what happened to developer Robert Davis’s vision of Seaside, which began as a romantic’s notion of a sort of “hippy commune” but evolved into a tourist attraction for “yuppies” who enjoyed living in a “gated community without a gate.” (115-119)
The term “Redneck Riviera” was popularized by New York Times journalist Howell Raines, but, not surprisingly, local developers did not like it and scrambled to find acceptable alternative labels. Tourist Development Councils strove mightily and brought forth such less than memorable terms as “Emerald Coast” and “Pleasure Island,” not to mention “The Beach.” And, while all this “branding” activity was going on, developments like Seaside were becoming victims of “affluenza,” where, according to Jackson, “prestigious communities exude luxury and privilege but also signal disturbing signs of vulgarity laced with antisocial overtones.” (140)
In the prosperous 1990s, the “Redneck Riviera” became too expensive for “average folks.” Instead, places like Seaside were dominated by those characterized by New York Times columnist David Brooks as “BOBOS—Bourgeois Bohemians,” a “well-bred, well-educated, well-careered, well-off ‘better sort’ who were environmentally aware, intellectually stimulated, health conscious, kid friendly, and family oriented.” They were, in short, “the ‘best’ of the baby boomers—affluent, acquisitive, self-absorbed, and socially progressive.” (153-154)
Meanwhile, hurricanes began to produce lots of what Jackson refers to as “involuntary urban renewal.” (156-158) And, once more, those whose property had been devastated sold out, which led to more condos, described by one observer as “the New Jerseyization of the Gulf Coast.” (159) The result was that the more condos that appeared, the less public beach was available, and the beach, after all, was what drew visitors to the Redneck Riviera.
“Snow birds” continued to arrive each winter from the Great White Northeast and Midwest. Meanwhile, controlling the excesses of Spring Break drove local officials to distraction, especially with the arrival of Joe Francis, who became (in)famous for his documentary series, “Girls Gone Wild.”
And, just when it seemed that things couldn’t get more difficult, the weather turned, with hurricanes Ivan (September 2004) and Dennis and Katrina (July-August 2005) arriving in full force. Not even hired consultants who suggested that the term “hurricanes” be replaced by “tropical occurrences” accomplished much in the wake of these disasters.
As if the “Great Recession” was not bad enough, BP’s oil rig “Deepwater Horizon” went to hell in a hand basket in the spring of 2010, threatening the beach itself, the reason folks had been coming to the Redneck Riviera for generations. This disaster also forced Professor Jackson to return to his research in order to ensure that his manuscript was “up-to-date,” and he does a fine job incorporating the whole sorry business into his text.
Jackson closes his narrative with a reflection on the 2010 Seagrove Beach Fourth of July parade. (292-293) He concludes that, despite the fact that “Politicians, prosperity, class, culture, and commercialism combined to stifle spontaneity and turn much of the Redneck Riviera into a playground for the affluent, the intense, and the opportunistic,” at least in places like Seagrove Beach “redneckery remained, to the distress of many who wanted it otherwise.” (295) And you can count Professor Jackson among those who support “redneckery.”
The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera is a solid work on a fascinating topic. Yes, Jackson’s “insider” status does occasionally get in the way of “scholarly objectivity,” imparting a sort of “us v. them” view of the influence of “Yuppies” on the region. Yet, while Jackson doesn’t pull his punches, he does try to be fair, and he succeeds more often than not. His analysis is clear, and leavened with wit; the book also is well-illustrated.
In short, the “Redneck Riviera,” by whatever name it’s called by those “pirates with cash register eyeballs,” has found its historian.