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The Redneck Riviera

With spring break having concluded in our state, I’m wondering how many Arkansans made an early run down to the Redneck Riviera last week.

Of course, summer will be the prime time for Arkansans to make that annual pilgrimage south to the Mississippi coast, the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle.

The spring issue of Southern Cultures, the excellent quarterly published by the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, contains an essay titled “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera.” The author is Henry H. “Hardy” Jackson III.

The essay is an overview of a book by Jackson that will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press. The book will focus on the Gulf Coast from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Panama City, Fla., since World War II.

Jackson, a history professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama (the place where Jack Crowe now coaches football), notes: “The Mississippi Coast, though equal in redneckery to any place on the Gulf, contains economic, cultural and demographic elements that set it apart from its neighbors to the east, so it was decided to save that area for another day — and likely another historian. The same factors led to the decision to leave Alabama’s Dauphin Island out of the book.”

In 1954, Jackson’s grandmother bought property in Seagrove Beach, Fla. Two years later, she built a cottage there. Jackson says that cottage has been his home away from home for more than 50 years.

I’ve never had the privilege of having a cottage on the Gulf Coast, but I’ve made plenty of trips there — both as a child and with my own children. Like many children in this landlocked state, my sister and I always wanted to go to the beach for our summer vacation. My father, who traveled the state selling athletic supplies to high schools and colleges, had no desire to travel any farther than he had to in the summer. If one travels due south from Arkansas, the first beach you hit is the one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

For us, Gulfport and Biloxi were what the beach was all about. The water in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to be gray. We had no idea there was such gorgeous blue water just a few hours to the east in Florida. But the memories were great ones. The rich folks stayed at the Broadwater Beach (I always loved the house in the Heights in Little Rock with its shutters and trim painted in the pink-and-blue Broadwater Beach colors) and ate at Mary Mahoney’s. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and ate at the Friendship House, the White Cap and McElroy’s. I mourned when Hurricane Katrina destroyed so much of what I had cherished as a child.

My own children have experienced not only Biloxi and Gulfport but also Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores, Pensacola Beach, Destin, Seaside, Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and Apalachicola (which is now my favorite city on the Gulf Coast, though a bit too far east to meet Jackson’s definition of the Redneck Riviera).

And, yes, we’ll be back this summer. We have our house reserved at Orange Beach in Alabama for a week in late July.

If I could afford it, I might just spend a few weeks each year at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear. I realize that’s on Mobile Bay, but who needs waves at my age? Our boys want the ocean, though, and we’re happy to oblige.

Jackson thinks the term Redneck Riviera first appeared in print in 1978 when Alabama native Howell Raines published a piece in The New York Times about how former University of Alabama and then pro quarterbacks Richard Todd and Kenny Stabler spent the offseason on the Alabama coast.

By the way, Richard Todd and his family once lived behind me in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood in Arkadelphia. Richard’s father was on the faculty at Ouachita Baptist University. Unfortunately for the Arkadelphia Badgers, the Todds moved away before Richard reached high school

At any rate, Raines confined his definition of Redneck Riviera to a small section of beach beginning just west of Gulf Shores and continuing east to the Flora-Bama, the famed bar on the state line that sits mostly in Florida to take advantage of that state’s more liberal liquor laws.

Jackson reports that you can find “Gulf Coast Riviera” references as early as 1941 when the WPA guide to Alabama was published.

“Raines’ Redneck Riviera was a scattering of vacation cottages, honky-tonks, picturesque if seedy motels, shacks on pilings and cafes that served smoked mullet, presided over by sunburned, bearded, beer-soaked refugees from civilization, driving rusted-out pickup trucks,” Jackson writes.

Jackson says that prior to World War II, there were a number of villages between Pass Christian, Miss., and Panama City that “survived on fishing and a trickle of tourists from not too far away, vacationers who came down to spend a week or so in the few ‘mom and pop’ motor courts. They’d swim a little, fish a little, eat raw oysters, buy something tacky at a local shop, and some, freed from hometown social restraints, would visit local nightclubs, dance and drink and get rowdy.”

The number of visitors to the Gulf Coast increased after World War II. The tourist economy grew and, according to Jackson, the season from Memorial Day to Labor Day soon became a “cash cow for locals.” Before long, upscale communities were developing for those who wanted to retire along the coast.

“As the region grew up, so did the offspring of these early pioneers,” Jackson writes. “Baby Boomers, the children of postwar passion, were part of the youth rebellion, with a Southern twist. Along with the Beatles and the Stones, they grooved to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. In the clubs they danced to the music they danced to at fraternity parties back in Tuscaloosa and Atlanta. Sometimes the bands were black, but the dancers were always white. … These bourgeois Bubbas and Bubbettes created the Redneck Riviera that Howell Raines saw and described.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Redneck Riviera became more and more upscale. The success of Seaside inspired others to build similar developments and, according to Jackson, “people who bought into that lifestyle were a far cry from those who bought into beach life three decades before. First with money from the hot stock market of the 1990s and then with low interest loans after the dot-com bubble burst, Babby Boomers began to buy into a coast that a Baby Boomer generation of  developers was developing to sell.”

Jackson continues: “So it was that the Redneck Riviera, which had been slowly dying as Baby Boomers aged, became an investment opportunity for some, and a place of calculated and carefully controlled leisure for others. Meanwhile, more and more of the sort of people who had come down to make the region what it once was found themselves priced into a shrinking selection of motels and condos, and the bars and seafood joints they once frequented became in-vogue eateries with designer decor and ferns.”

The destructive hurricanes of recent years, followed by the worst recession since the Great Depression, have changed things. Many of those gleaming condo towers now sit largely empty. The construction boom has ground to a halt. Jackson thinks this may actually help return the Redneck Riviera to its roots.

“As condo prices fell, cautious buyers began to emerge; people who were more interested in a vacation place that could generate a little money on the side than in a unit for quick sale and a quick profit,” he writes. “These folks, mostly from the Lower South, were much like their parents and grandparents who came to the coast in the ’40s and ’60s: white, middle class, and comfortably so, but with just enough redneckery in them to help keep places like the Flora-Bama going strong.”

I’ve always said I’m an Arkansas redneck at heart with perhaps a thin veneer of sophistication to use when needed.

At any rate, summer will be here before we know it. Jackson says that “though much of the old Redneck Riviera has declined and fallen dormant, from these seeds a new one may one day sprout and grow. There are those who hope so.”

Where are your favorite spots along the Redneck Riviera — towns, hotels, restaurants, etc.? Which ones have disappeared that you miss? Where are your favorite places to stop on the way down? After all, it’s almost April and not too early to be thinking of summer and the pilgrimage of Arkansans headed south in their packed SUVs through Pine Bluff, Dumas, McGehee and Lake Village.

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