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Redneck Riviera redux

In his book “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera,” Harvey H. Jackson III writes with obvious feeling about how “people from the lower South created a coastal playground, a place where they and their families could get away from constraints and restraints of home and job and school and responsibility but without going too far — physically or culturally — from where they were.

“It is the story of how those who were already there, and those who came later, turned ‘fishing villages’ and ‘bathing beaches’ into tourist destinations for millions, places where parties were pitched, dreams were dreamed and fortunes were made and lost. And it is the story of how people keep coming, searching for something new, something old, something upscale and something sleazy.”

If you click on the Redneck Riviera category over on the right side of this blog, you’ll find several previous posts on the subject. More than two years ago, an excerpt from what was to become Jackson’s book ran in the quarterly “Southern Cultures,” and I wrote about it.

Later that year, I wrote a post about how I felt guilty for having been among the masses who canceled their reservations in the wake of the BP disaster. We had been scheduled to go to Orange Beach in Alabama that summer. Instead, we went to Eureka Springs.

Last summer, I wrote about our Redneck Riviera excursion to Seagrove Beach in Florida.

Seagrove Beach is where Jackson wrote the introduction to his book last summer. He has a 1950s-built family vacation cottage there named Poutin’ House South.

Jackson, a well-known historian, teaches at Jacksonville State University in the hills of north Alabama. Yes, that’s the school the Arkansas Razorbacks will play to start the football season in a couple of weeks, the place where Jack Crowe landed after being fired by Frank Broyles as the head Hog following that infamous loss to the Citadel on the Saturday before Labor Day in 1992.

Jacksonville is also in the part of Alabama that produced one of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg.

Bragg also has been known to write lovingly about the Redneck Riviera.

Bragg, who has a home at Fairhope, Ala., on the east side of Mobile Bay, wrote a piece about that area three years ago for Smithsonian magazine.

“I grew up in the Alabama foothills, landlocked by red dirt,” he wrote. “My ancestors cussed their lives away in that soil, following a one-crop mule. My mother dragged a cotton sack across it, and my kin slaved in mills made of bricks dug and fired from the same clay. My people fought across it with roofing knives and tire irons, and cut roads through it, chain gang shackles around their feet. My grandfather made liquor 30 years in its caves and hollows to feed his babies, and lawmen swore he could fly, since he never left a clear trail in that dirt. It has always reminded me of struggle, somehow, and I will sleep in it, with the rest of my kind. But between now and then, I would like to walk in some sand.

“I went to the Alabama coast, to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, to find a more forgiving soil, a shiftless kind that tides and waves just push around.”

Like Bragg, I grew up far from the coast, in the pine woods of southwest Arkansas. My sister and I would beg our father to take us to the Gulf Coast, and he would oblige by heading south, but only as far as Biloxi.

We never knew the whiter sand and bluer water was a bit to the east in Alabama and Mississippi. For a second consecutive summer, we shared a house with my sister and her husband at Seagrove Beach, reliving those warm Biloxi memories.

To this day, I like to spend a night or two in Biloxi on the way to Florida. We’ve been stopping with our boys — now 19 and 15 — since they were babies. Again this year, we made sure our first meal on the coast was at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House and made it a point to speak to Bobby Mahoney on the way out the door. It’s a family tradition.

We were thrilled to learn that just weeks before another family favorite, McElroy’s, had finally reopened at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor, almost seven years after having been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina (known in those parts simply as The Storm). We ate there the second night in Biloxi.

In between, we had lunch at the White Cap, another old favorite that came back bigger and better after Katrina.

We stayed on the Gulf Coast side of U.S. Highway 90 at South Beach, which was built as a condominium project but is now a suites hotel. Our accommodations couldn’t have been better — a corner suite on the top floor with floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed us to look out on the Gulf and down the beach.

In his book, Jackson (a south Alabama native) concentrates on the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle, though there’s no doubt that the Mississippi coast is part of the Redneck Riviera (how can it not be if none other than Jimmy Buffett just opened a casino there?).

Jackson writes that the desire “to make money off tourists forced Gulf Coast folks to reconsider their attitude toward local government and the authority, bureaucracy and taxes that came with it. Ultimately they would give up their freedom from civic oversight in exchange for better roads, better tasting water, a dependable sewage system, fire protection and law enforcement.

“Many would not like what they got in return, but the deal was made nonetheless. Woven into this are accounts of the pioneers who found ways to cater to the desires and urges of visitors and investors and in the process reshaped the land and the landscape. They turned tourist courts into condominiums and bulldozed palmetto and scrub to make way for houses and communities that some would herald as the future of urban design and others would criticize for their clawing conformity.”

Indeed, there are few places in the South more upscale than the beaches of south Walton County in Florida. We always make it a point to escape what we call “the beautiful people” for what we refer to as our “redneck day” in Panama City Beach — ice cream and miniature golf, capped off by an early dinner (it has to be early to beat the crowds) at Capt. Anderson’s, a place that claims to sell more seafood than any other restaurant in Florida. I order the grilled pompano, and it has never been better than it was this year.

The massive advertising campaigns paid for by BP the past two years seem to be working. I knew that instinctively as I waited more than an hour in traffic just to get through the tunnel at Mobile.

This was a banner summer.

“Area business leaders see strengthening economy” read the headline on the front page of the Sun Herald at Biloxi.

A headline eight days later in the Press-Register at Mobile read: “Beach rentals may set records.”

“The beach is back,” the story said. “July rental bookings are hotter than the record-setting July 2007 numbers, according to leasing agents.”

Here’s a sample of what folks on the Alabama coast told the newspaper:

Emily Gonzalez of Kaiser Realty in Gulf Shores: “We haven’t seen these numbers in five years. Our biggest issue now is availability. We have a lot of weekly rentals, but people want weekend rentals and we are basically sold out.”

Bill Bender of Bender Realty in Gulf Shores: “It’s the best summer we’ve ever had. We’re booked solid for the rest of July. We’ve already doubled our projected growth revenue for August.”

Former Gulf Shores Mayor David Bodenhamer: “Traffic is a good problem to have. I’d rather worry about the traffic than the oil spill.”

The newspaper reported that “the traffic congestion on the beach roads to and from the Gulf, the two-hour waits at local restaurants and the occasional rain have not dampened spirits of the crowds.”

Even the spring was good. Over to the east in Walton County, tax revenues this March were up 33 percent from March 2011, up 58 percent from March 2010 and were 31 percent higher than the previous record set in 2008. The economic impact of tourism in Walton County was an estimated $1 billion in fiscal 2011. Bed-tax revenues have experienced double-digit increases every month for more than a year.

School started this week here in Arkansas, and the annual migration south to the Redneck Riviera has ended for all but those couples without school-age children or grandchildren.

We already dream of next summer’s visit.

In the meantime, Jackson’s book, which was published earlier this year by the University of Georgia Press, is well worth the time you’ll spend reading it if you’re fascinated by the region.

“At the end of this story, mice and men, turtles and tourists, rednecks and real estate tycoons have found themselves facing the same situation,” he writes. “When the BP/Deepwater Horizon well blew and oil spewed into the Gulf, everything that walked, crawled, swam or soared became threatened. Optimism, already dampened by recession, disappeared.

“As the extent of the disaster became known, a few people along the Redneck Riviera began to wonder if the compromises made to find the petroleum that fueled the cars and planes that brought people to the motels and condos were worth the danger offshore drilling posed to their way of life. However, most, in true coastal fashion, avoided alternatives that might involve sacrifice and restraint. Instead they began to press the governments they so often held in contempt — local, state and federal — to make a company once praised as a fine example of free-market capitalism clean up the mess and reimburse coastal interests for what they lost.

“Though it was a time for serious soul-searching, the fact that so little of that was done may be one of the clearest indications of how attitudes that shaped the coast at the beginning of this story still shape it.”

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