Wildwoods start promoting their cheap motels New Jersey resorts trying to lure tourists back to beaches

March 01, 1998|By Evelyn Nieves | Evelyn Nieves,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WILDWOOD, N.J. -- The last campaign to try to lure the tourists back here promoted the size of the island's beaches, which are so wide that patrols regularly rescue bathers overcome by heat exhaustion as they trudge to and from the water's edge.

Before that, the mayor of Wildwood, convinced that Atlantic City, 30 miles north, was to blame for a faltering tourist season, decided to fight fire with fire: He brought in Chief Larry Snake of the Delaware tribe of western Oklahoma, who declared a 2]-acre parking lot sacred ancestral land in the failed hopes of turning it into a casino.

Now, the answer is the epitome of tackiness.

The newest, most ambitious promotional idea ever unleashed on this barrier island holding the towns of Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest capitalizes on its having the largest collection of screaming, kitschy '50s and '60s motels on five square miles.

A shift in attitude

More than 250 motels operate here, competing for attention with signs as loud as a chorus of kazoos. They give the Wildwoods a Twilight Zonelike feel of a place trapped in another era, and for the longest time, they have been blamed for keeping the island from reaching its full tourist potential. But lately, with the 20th century slipping away, there has been a definite shift in attitude.

The motels (as well as the island's aluminum diners and fluorescent boardwalk buildings) are beginning to acquire the historic cachet of original Levittown Cape Cods. Architects and design students from all over marvel at them. Historians write about them. Photographers and artists study their smallest details. The question, now, is how to make tourists want to flock to them.

To Steven Izenour, a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Fine Arts, the answer is plain: "Turn up the volume." He and nine students, in collaboration with professors and students from the Yale University School of Architecture, have unveiled the first half of a yearlong study for promoting the Wildwoods by exploiting the candy-colored, flat-roofed, low-rent parking garage-like commercial architecture - especially the neon signs, plastic palm trees and kidney-shaped pools.

"Wildwood has the greatest treasure-trove of '50s and '60s commercial architecture I've ever seen in one place," he said, after a two-hour public presentation of the plan here the other day. "It can be a counter-Disney. The kind of ad hoc funkiness of a place like Wildwood is what makes it so interesting. The more you have Disney, the more you need Wildwood."

The plan, endorsed by city officials, motel owners and just about everyone else who has seen it, plots the resurrection of Wildwood by such notions as making the motels' huge signs twice as big, making the plastic palm trees taller, adding loud, vintage commercial signs to the tops of buildings and painting buildings lots of bright colors.

'No place like Wildwood'

This isn't the first time someone has suggested promoting the island's gaudiness. A few years ago, a local group began tours of what it called the island's "doo-wop" architecture. (The tours were canceled for lack of interest, but "doo-wop" has stuck.) The Doo-Wop Preservation League, where the plan was presented, is dedicated to celebrating the anticlassic buildings that some people have advocated tearing down. But the Ivy League plan goes further, by suggesting that the aging motels do need some sprucing up.

To one motel owner, Lester Katsanis, that is an idea whose time is long overdue. "We've already done $25,000 in improvements," said Katsanis, a chemist who bought the Quebec Motel 12 years ago. "We've always said there is no place like Wildwood. We've got the cleanest water, the biggest beaches and the motels that are museums of Americana. People love them."

Still, he and Tony Totah, a marine biologist who owns a five-unit apartment complex, said a tourist plan should mention some natural wonders here as well. "We've got all kinds of marine life in our waters," Totah said. "We have whales, dolphins, seals, turtles. It's great to focus on the motels, but Wildwood is great in lots of ways."

Wildwood's mayor, Fred Wager, also wanted a wider focus of interest. "I think it's a great thing," he said of the study. "And I think there's a lot of culture here. We're creating historic districts all over. We have the cleanest, safest beach in the country. And we have more rides on our boardwalk than Disney World."

There is a peculiar habit here of comparing Wildwood with Disney at every turn, though the town is more reminiscent of pre-casino Atlantic City. It is, in every way, a summer place. Most of the stores - and motels - are closed until May, and more than a quarter of the population is currently unemployed. Buildings are boarded, streets are empty and seagulls waddle around with no fear of cars or people.

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