By Sam Burnham
A final few takeaways from the trip to 30A.
I was able to make many observations of this area, both in the book and on the ground. So many of the towns along the coast have lost the real identity of what they were. The charm of the little Southern towns are gone. All that remains are modern edifices of the real estate market - condos, strip malls, and chain restaurants.
But along 30A I found more than a pleasant strip of sand and some decent seafood. I found something real and the hope that this can happen in other places.
One of my favorite things about the trip was seeing the beach towns by bicycle. Our beach house came with a few bikes and I took time in the mornings to grab one and do some exploring. Some of the times I was alone. Different family members joined me on other outings. 30A has an excellent bike path that travels along the right of way between each town. The scenery along the path is beautiful and each town is bike friendly. Taking a bike encouraged me to look around and little more in each place. Most of the pictures that have been featured in this series were taken from that bicycle.
Perhaps one day we will have a few rural towns in Georgia that are connected by bike so that residents and visitors can easily venture to nearby towns to enjoy shopping, dining, or entertainment with the neighbors.
People actually live in these towns. As bizarre as it may sound, many of these houses are full time homes. This is not just a vacation get-a-way. There are schools, churches, and businesses for the benefit of permanent residents. Some even have their own post office. The parades, the boat races, the festivals, all this is in the keeping of community and the love of the hometowns. These towns are what they are because people love them, care for them, protect them, and do what they think is best for them. They've rejected the kind of development that might take away that charm that many of the others lost long ago. They haven't sold out to developers or chain stores.
This would be good to see happen in some small towns as well. I'd love to see several of them thrive and grow healthily while avoiding the sort of generic development that has marred so many Southern towns. If people enjoy living there and people enjoy visiting, that should be a sign of success. Develop wisely and in ways that fit in to what is already going on in that town and don't bulldoze every hint of nature. Let beauty live there.
30A has shown me that the trick to revitalizing small towns will be to not lose the sense of community. The people who already live in small towns must never be overwhelmed in their own homes. The idea is to benefit them, not run them off or price them out of their own market.
So 30A is a bit of home on the beach. Harvey Jackson said people go to the coast to do things they can't do back home. Maybe one day we'll be able to bring a little of that stuff home with us and enjoy that sentiment all year long.
.By Sam Burnham
We got to see so many places on our 30A road trip. Many towns along the way, in south Alabama and inland on the Florida panhandle, were the same kind of towns we have discussed in our small town revitalization brainstorming. But I want to draw a spotlight on one place in particular.
On my very first venture into town I was a bit surprised at what I found. It was a piece of old Florida, fresh from a history book. The small cottages, the scrub oaks, and the short spiky palms had me wanting to search for some local resident frying up fish and cooking cheese grits. The small homes are placed along the roads between 30A and the white sands of the beach.
Hotz Avenue has just enough business to make Grayton more than just a housing development but not quite enough to qualify the street as "downtown". Hotz runs roughly 2 1/2 blocks from the south end of Defuniak St at the Wash-A-Way Hotel until dead ends into the boat ramp on the lake at the eastern end of town. This stretch of nominal pavement is home to a few places where a local or a tourist might locate a cold beverage and a bite to eat. There was some foot traffic in the area the evening we rode though. There was activity but no one acting stupid. It was a right pleasant environment.
I mentioned the Wash-A-Way Hotel. This is not the Peachtree Plaza nor is it the Hyatt Regency Savannah. This hotel was built in the 1890s. It may or may not have earned its name when the 1926 hurricane washed it off its foundation. It may or may not have earned that name from any one of numerous other possible explanations. My sources suggest that the locals were, neither then nor now, concerned with exactitude or the accuracy of small details. Truth and folklore tend to blend somewhere in the middle and at some point disentangling the two is just more work than it is worth. Just pick one you like and go with it. I'm going with the 1926 hurricane. The building was there long ago, is there now, and is called the Wash-A-Way. There are photos of it on stilts and on the ground. It's on stilts now - this I can confirm. You can see the water from the building and it would make for a great retreat to get some reading and writing done...so long as you don't spend too long listening to jazzy tunes and sipping drinks at the Red Bar.
The Red Bar is the site of the old Butler General Store. The old place was run by Van Ness Butler, a high school principal from up the street about 30 miles who ran the school when it was in and, along with his school teacher wife, ran the store in the summer. The store served as the local jook joint in the evenings. Music, drinking and dancing were the regular activities, one of the only places such things were available in this remote area. It doesn't seem to have been a particularly rowdy place then, nor does it seem so now.
Mostly, I look at this area and see a lot of what I'd like to see in the small towns I have talked about in written dreams of revitalization. It is a town where the locals have managed to keep developers active building small homes that fit into their surroundings while keeping condo developers out altogether. Nothing is huge or overgrown there. The development seems to be in harmony with nature. It is a very bike friendly village that connects to the fantastic bike trail along 30A. I biked to Grayton Beach almost every morning just for the scenery and the laid back atmosphere.
Each 4th of July folks from Grayton team up to challenge folks from Seagrove (easily my second pick for a true Southern beach experience on 30A) in the Rags to Riches Regatta, where crews race 16' Hobie Cats from Grayton to Seagrove and back (or Seagrove to Grayton and back for the Riches to Rags in alternating years). It's getting hard to discern which town is riches and which is rags. as both places have reasonable architecture, some unpaved roads, laid back atmospheres, and seem to be less bourgeois than Seaside, WaterColor, or Alys. They also seem to be more content sitting on the porch watching the breeze than trying to keep up with the "fancier" locales.
Any way you look at it, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Grayton. It gave me some hope to know that such places are still out there. I would like to see more places with viable populations without being overrun with modern development and commercialization. If you are looking to spend some of your summer in such a place, I'd recommend Grayton Beach.
I'd like to thank Dr. Harvey Jackson for much of the information in this article. His book The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera (2012 University of Georgia Press) was my main source for historical information. Dr. Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and one of my former history professors there.
By Sam Burnham
Still sitting on the beach. It's summertime after all, so what else should we do?
Its hard to beat a good book while you're relaxing, sitting in your chair, and sipping on a cold beverage while the waves crash over and the slip up onto the sand in front of you. If such an outing is in your future and you are planning on spending that time somewhere on the Gulf Coast between Ft. Morgan, Alabama and Panama City Beach, Florida, I have just the beach read for you.
I just finished Dr. Harvey Jackson's The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera. You may have heard me mention Dr. Jackson before here on the blog. He was one of my history professors in college. He happens to have some first hand experience on "The Riviera" after many vacations and even several years as a resident. Add to that experience several years of scholarly research, interviews, several thousand encounters with genuine and imitation rednecks, as well as an undisclosed number of trips to the Green Knight and the Flora-Bama, and you have a well-informed volume, a detailed history of the Redneck Riviera.
He calls it a rise and decline because the story is a journey. It's an odyssey of sorts. A tale of how a few remote and hard to reach communities, in which sand fleas and beach mice outnumbered people, even on the 4th of July became what you see there today, some scattered small towns and several major cities filled with high rises and and folks doing what they couldn't do at home. It rose after World War II to become a playground for the working class. It was like the South of France, but Southern, blue collar, and probably a little tacky. Basically, it was nothing like the South of France. The decline may seem more like a success story to modern eyes but much of the area got a lot fancier, maybe a bit stuck up. It ceased to be what it was and became something else entirely. It became fancy, shiny, commercialized. To a plumber in Georgia or Alabama, that might just be decline.
My biggest regret with the book is that I read it after returning from our 30A trip instead of before. His narrative of the towns and the people who shaped them would have added a further level of interest to my experience there. The story really is intriguing and reads much like his lectures, informative but with no shortage of laughs. For those who aren't faint of heart, look up some of the songs he mentions, the sound of the Riviera or "trailer park rock." I dare you to give them a listen and see how quickly one gets stuck in your head. I've had the name "Old Milwaukee" run through my mind more this past week than in my previous 42 years.
At several points in the book I could hear him giving his Southern History and Culture disclaimer. He warned us each semester that there would be times in his lecture that we would think he was beating up on the South, perhaps even hated it. But then he assured us that he loved it dearly, and presented it honestly. I really got that feeling from this book. It's a fair and honest telling of the story of The Riviera, warts and all, told by someone who loves it. As I mentioned in my previous post, I grew up visiting Atlantic beaches and my gulf experiences have been both positive and negative. But I can tell you that reading this book, I can't help but love the place. I'm sure if you give it a read, you'll feel the same.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire