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The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera An Insider's History of the Florida-Alabama Coast (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 110-112 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0035

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The shores of the Gulf Coast have grown crowded with resorts since the Second World War, but historians, until now, have lagged in studying this development. Harvey Jackson combs the beaches of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle to recount not only the history of the coast but also of the Deep South as the region became more urban and prosperous. The havens built by and for white southerners represent a regional transformation. These vacationers "found a way of life, a culture and context, much like the one they left back home—segregated (where blacks existed at all), small town, provincial, self-centered, and unassuming" (2).

Jackson's narrative combines thorough research, drawn largely from memoirs, newspapers, and interviews, with accounts of his own family's history. Ever since Jackson's grandmother—an Alabama native—purchased a lot in Seagrove Beach in 1954, the family has trekked to the shore. So tightly knit are the markets and cultures of this area that arguments for Alabama annexing the Florida Panhandle date to 1900. Jackson possesses first-hand knowledge that captures much of the "local lore" (26). For instance, he carefully mines the lively history of the Flora-Bama Lounge and its famed mullet toss, started in 1984, for insight on vacationers, while also recounting his own experiences at the bar. This blending of analysis with personal experience is most striking in Jackson's examination of the Green Knight Lounge, which opened in Destin in 1973. Here, the Trashy White Band entertained customers for decades with songs tinged with racial connotations. Jackson's accounts of listening to the band while watching audience reaction nuances the controversies stirred by the band's lyrics, showing that the songs demonstrated "[i]ntrospection and irony" in a region transitioning after the Civil Rights Movement (113).

The Gulf Coast, according to Jackson, was a white haven. Although "little racial tension" erupted, this reflected demographics as only two coastal counties— both in Alabama—claimed an African American population greater than 20 percent (67). These residents typically lived on inland farms. Although few African American southerners of this era possessed the wealth to enjoy a vacation, Jackson nevertheless identifies scattered refuges for African Americans, such as Johnson Beach on Perdido Key and Wingate Beach near Pensacola.

Jackson reveals how, in the handful of decades after 1945, the many newly born "communities had begun to take on individual characteristics reflecting, for the most part, how businesses there made their money" (56). Gulf Shores and Panama City eyed the family tourist trade. Destin and Orange Beach catered to fishermen by offering charter boats, a few motels, and seafood restaurants. Jackson identifies "'island' getaways" such as Okaloosa and Pensacola Beach and, lastly, "residential resorts" like Seagrove and Grayton, where profits came from constructing cottages and renting long-term to summer visitors (57). Though differing in focus and wealth, each budding resort prospered from vacationers who were "part of Dixie's new middle class—though some just barely" (57). Even so, Jackson notes the "general absence of religion" among these vacation communities (81). The restraints of piety washed away in the surf.

Jackson's wide-ranging examination addresses such topics as the persistent liquor sales to minors during Spring Break, the economic impact of Eglin Air Force base and its role in attracting retirees to Ft. Walton who actively resisted tourism, the fate of salty fishermen squeezed out of Destin harbor by real estate developers, and the role of wealth and political connections in making efforts to reroute highways successes or failures. His insightful local histories are solidly contextualized within the turmoil of the 1970s oil crises, boom and bust of real estate bubbles in the 1980s and 2000s, and the perennial threat of hurricanes. Over the decades, but especially after the 1970s, Jackson notes that developers increasingly "designed for people who wanted something a little more upscale, a little more 'plush,' than what was available a decade before" (93). After Seaside's communal design inspired architects in the 1980s, numerous other developers adopted the "Seaside-inspired (or at least exploited) concept" called New Urbanism (145). His study concludes with the U.S. Supreme Court's 2009 decision sanctioning beach re-nourishment programs over...

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