August 24, 2009 -- One of the rhetorical tricks Santa Monicans Fearful of Change like to use when expressing those fears is to claim that Santa Monica is just a "sleepy beach town" and to decry a proposed change as contrary to that.
No matter that Santa Monica was founded to be the great port for the region, or that it attained its current population almost 50 years ago when it was a blue-collar industrial town, or that since it lost much of that industry it became a center for office and post-production jobs; it's more romantic to define Santa Monica not so much by the beach it has, and the relationship it has to that beach, but by notions of quaint villages on beaches with economies based on taffy and clams.
It so happens that as the concluding act of my vacation, I spent last week at a genuine sleepy beach town -- Spray Beach, New Jersey.
|The beach at Spray Beach, Long Beach Island (Photos by Frank Gruber)
To be exact, Spray Beach is not a town itself, but a neighborhood in Long Beach Township, which covers part of Long Beach Island ("LBI"), an 18-mile-long barrier island on the Jersey Shore north of Atlantic City. But collectively, LBI is the sleepy beach town of a sleepy beach town dreamer's dreams.
We are familiar with the statistic that the population of Santa Monica, about 85,000 at the last census, can double or triple during the working day, and on a huge beach day there may be more hundreds of thousands on the beach. Well, the year-round population of LBI is less than 10,000 -- but during the summer it's about 100,000.
But even with the 100,000 people, the place still seems sleepy to me.
There's one supermarket on the island, and one movie theater. There are many places, however, that sell taffy and fudge, clams and crabs, and bait and tackle. The island has, obviously, about 18 miles of beaches, and an equal amount of frontage along the bay between the island and the mainland, and so those 90,000 beachcombers are spread out.
What contributes to the sleepy-ness of LBI is that there are not many hotels or motels, and not even that many restaurants. Most of the visitors stay in houses they own or rent by the week or month. Families from Pennsylvania and New York have been doing this for generations, to escape the heat and humidity of summers back east. (My wife has vivid memories of the eight-hour drives her family took from western Pennsylvania to LBI when she was a kid in the '50s and '60s.)
|Typical old beach house on LBI
A riotous time for these families seems to be steaming clams, boiling Jersey corn, and cooking up bluefish.
The beach houses sit on tiny lots on streets set in a tight grid pattern -- the island is only four or five blocks wide in most places -- behind protective dunes (and even so, the island has been ripped apart quite a few times by hurricanes). People walk to stairways over the dunes to get to the beach.
|Long Beach Island -- house behind a dune
It's as if the beaches of Malibu were accessible to mortals. (The township does, however, charge a fee of $20 per week to use the beach -- you get a badge to pin to your swimsuit. But this seems to be a reasonable way to pay for lifeguards when you have so much beach for so little population. The beaches, unlike Malibu's, are public.)
Speaking of hurricanes, Saturday, the day we left, there was one -- Hurricane Bill -- off the coast in the Atlantic. Although it didn't threaten to make landfall, it sent some beautiful clouds our way.
|Clouds from Hurricane Bill
There's no question that LBI has had a lot of development; over the years, you notice that although there are height limits, bigger houses continually replace smaller ones. But LBI remains sleepy because it's so far from any big population centers -- from the closest, Philadelphia, it is almost a two-hour drive over a mostly two-lane road. LBI has no choice but to be a beach town and only a beach town.
So -- no big insights in this column. Santa Monica and Long Beach Island both have beaches, but they're different.
Vive la différence.