- - Friday, May 4, 2012

By Harvey H. Jackson III
University of Georgia Press, $28.95, 325 pages

Historian and author Harvey H. Jackson III grew up in “lower Alabama” or, as some say with a smile, “LA.” For decades he has been a part-time resident and full-time observer of the Gulf Coast from Mobile Bay eastward to Panama City on the Florida panhandle - a strip of seashore dubbed the “Redneck Riviera” by New York Times Editor Howell Raines in a 1978 article about the offseason antics of NFL quarterbacks Ken Stabler and Richard Todd.

Whether or not you have an attachment to the Gulf Coast, you’ll find much that is interesting and entertaining in “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera.” Mr. Jackson takes us from the prewar days of the 1920s and 1930s through World War II and the region’s rise as a middle-class vacation destination and on across decades of development and hurricane-wrought devastation to the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The author has done his homework, through years of research in local records and newspaper archives and countless interviews both formal and less so. Indeed, the 25-page “Essay on Resources” that concludes the book is a treasure trove of references on the region. Mr. Jackson’s personal perspective enhances rather than interferes with his analysis, and his lucid, often pithy writing makes this book an engaging read.

The early chapters describe a “simpler time” before “the War.” There were small fishing villages, barrier islands and coastal towns with little electricity or communications, few roads or connecting bridges and no air conditioning. On the Alabama coast, there was the Orange Beach Hotel, opened in 1923 and offering rooms with “electrical lights and running water but no indoor toilets.”

The few “vacation homes” were “propped on creosote poles” and had screened-in sleeping porches. Alabama’s paved roads went only as far south as Foley, 15 miles from the Gulf, with the rest of the journey on “a teeth-rattling, wooden, corduroy road and over a one-lane pontoon swing bridge.”

A talented storyteller as well as a scholar, Mr. Jackson tells of some colorful characters. Take Col. Wayman, the founder of Navarre, a small town “east of Pensacola.” He “chased off his ex-wife” and “warned her that if she came back he would shoot her. … She came back. He shot her. But having warned her, local law enforcement figured she should have known better,” so he went free.

From the beginning, hurricanes have loomed large in the history of the Gulf states. In 1947, the Alabama beachfront got its first neon sign, and the storm surge of hurricane “Number 6” pushed sand into the Gulf Shores Hotel to within six inches of the first-floor ceiling. The hotel owners “ordered more sand bulldozed in, covered the first floor, and turned the second floor into the first” in hopes that being higher, it might be safer the next time.

Each major hurricane brought waves of environmental and economic change along with the wind and water. Eloise (1975) marked “the beginning of the end” for some of the beachside amusement parks that once provided “popular redneck recreation.” Frederic (1979) brought “a 15-foot storm surge” to the Alabama coast, literally clearing the way for the high-rise condominiums that soon sprouted along the shores of Orange Beach. Opal (1995) “devastated the beach and dune system” and Ivan (2004) destroyed countless homes and buildings on the waterfront and well inland. Other storms had varied but substantial effects along the coast.

Mr. Jackson takes us through decades of interplay between economic and environmental concerns. We read of sporadic and generally unsuccessful “no-growth” initiatives, the delays in development occasioned by the designation of beach mice as endangered species and property disputes over beach access, and beaches expanded through accretion or artificial “nourishment.”

An abiding theme is the love-hate relationship between the coastal citizenry and all levels of government. This is illustrated in unforgettable fashion by the debacle of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when some localities essentially revolted against federal and state authorities over bureaucratic and ineffective clean-up programs.

The rising property values and social turmoil accompanying the influx of “the affluent, the intense, and the opportunistic” have changed the place over time. So have the emergence of Spring Break season and the continuing recession. And despite it all, one still finds a persistent “redneckery,” generations of folks “not unlike the people who had always slipped down to the Redneck Riviera.”

Mr. Jackson might not agree, but I find the role of the Flora-Bama bar symbolic of the resilience of the Redneck Riviera. Burned down by a competitor in the 1960s, “gutted” by Ivan in 2004, today it remains a “socially egalitarian demilitarized zone,” home to the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss and to barrooms festooned with bras tossed by festive females. Is this a great country or what?

Ray Hartwell, an Alabama native, is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer.

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