- The Rise and Decline of the Redneck RivieraThe Northern Rim of the Gulf Coast since World War II
"I'm just here for the beer."—Kenny Stabler
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It was in 1978 that "Redneck Riviera" first appeared in print. Probably. And in the New York Times no less. That was when Times reporter Howell Raines published a piece that told of how former University of Alabama and then pro-football quarterbacks Richard Todd and Kenny Stabler spent the off-season on a "stretch of beach that some Alabama wags call the redneck Riviera." Raines, a Birmingham boy who one day would become executive editor of the Times and a popular author in the bargain, could turn a phrase with the best of them, and there are those who think he coined it.1
The "stretch of beach" to which Raines was referring, the stretch he defined as the Redneck Riviera, began just west of Gulf Shores, Alabama, and continued east to the Flora-Bama, a bar that still sits mostly in Florida to take advantage of more liberal liquor laws, but where enough hangs over into Alabama that the slogan "Doing it at the line" was and still is taken as a challenge by many.
One finds Gulf Coast Riviera references as early as 1941, when the wpa publication Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South described the area as a collection of "little fishing villages that remind the visitor of the southern coast of France." However, there is nothing to suggest that Raines or any of the other "wags," much less Stabler and Todd, saw any similarity between the Alabama coast and the Côte d'Azur, because by 1978 there wasn't any. Raines's Redneck Riviera was a scattering of vacation cottages, honkytonks, picturesque if seedy motels, shacks on pilings, and cafés that served smoked mullet, presided over by sunburned, bearded, beer-soaked refugees from civilization, driving rusted-out pickup trucks. It was where people could say, as Stabler did when a reporter asked if all the stories about him were true, "I live the way I want to live, and I don't give a damn if anybody likes it or not. I run hard as hell and don't sleep. I'm just here for the beer."2
And yet, without knowing it, Raines was giving his readers one of the last glimpses of a way of life whose days, or at least years, were numbered. But that is getting ahead of the story. Although Raines was writing about specific people at a specific place in a specific time, truth be told there were many "redneck Rivieras." And they shared a common history. In 1941, all along the northern rim of the Gulf Coast, from Pass Christian, Mississippi, to Panama City, Florida, there were a score or more of little villages 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 night clubs, dance and drink and get rowdy.
After the war their numbers increased. Driving down on military-improved roads, they came mainly from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, and brought with them the culture of the rising southern white middle class. Children of the Great Depression, they were hard-working and frugal, but wartime experience [End Page 8] had taught them that life was short and to be enjoyed. Raising their Baby Boomers, they coordinated trips with the children's vacations, and beach-folks expanded accommodations accordingly. Efficiencies and cottages were especially popular, for restaurants were few and, to...