A Wildwood Poet Speaks Her Mind

(Editor’s note: The following is a series of responses from Wildwood resident Kathleen Graber, a professor and poet whose 2010 collection ‘The Eternal City’ was a finalist for the National Book Award, to a request from this blog for a poem about the Boardwalk. Included also are the editor’s comments to her.)

Dear Bob,

Thank you so much for thinking of me and for your genuine devotion to Wildwood.

I was born in 1959, and I grew up on Schellenger Ave. I worked on the Boardwalk for four decades, beginning when I was eight years old. My parents owned a series of businesses there. Before that they owned The Off-Shore Motel, which you pass when you exit the Parkway at Mile 4. My husband and I operated a music shop on the Boardwalk until 2009. My current permanent residence is still on Burk Ave. I attended Glenwood Avenue Elementary School and graduated in 1978 from Wildwood High School. I also taught in both the high school and in the Crest Memorial School in Wildwood Crest. All of this to say that my perspective on the town is very different from that of even the most frequent visitor. It is different from the view of my seasonal neighbors, some of whom have owned their vacation homes for many, many years. It is radically different from the views of recent developers.

The Wildwood I knew as a child is irrevocably gone. I am referring not only to the physical structures but more importantly to the existence of a very vibrant, self-sustaining, year-around community. This fills me with so much rage and grief and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of a largely visionless local government that I try to reflect on it as little as possible.
Hence, as you can imagine, Wildwood rarely features in any prominent or positive way in my poems. Here is the one that perhaps addresses the city most directly. It begins with a quote from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius about the barbarians (the Quadi and Parthians), who were constantly besieging Rome during his reign.

POEM

Remember the Quadi and the Parthians. Never allow them
into your life. Last night at work, before I knew it–while I was busy
selling a t-shirt, the one with the glow-in-the-dark skeleton
in the electric chair, to Canadian tourists–an addict convinced me
to keep an eye on his six year old son. Slurring something
as simple as “Don’t let him go nowhere,” he turned & stepped
into the congress of night-strollers on the boardwalk.

 

Having visited the blog site, I could see that this hardly seemed appropriate. Another poem that comes to mind describes empty lots filled with beer cans and the twisted frames of aluminum beach chairs. Lots still marked by the foundation debris of the old buildings that were hastily razed to make room for projects that were then, in fact, never built. It goes on to list small motels that vanished in this way. In another I recall a crowd of tourists standing on the beach at dawn, cheering as a fire destroyed a whole block of the Boardwalk between Cedar and Lincoln Avenues.
When I purchased my current home, it was surrounded by small wooden bungalows with hydrangea-filled yards. I now look out my living room window directly onto a massive television screen visible through the sliding doors of the vinyl-clad condominium unit whose various decks—for no architectural reason I can imagine—face the street rather than what would be its backyard. Someone has recently put a single planter of geraniums at the curb amid the expanse of cement driveways.
This is obviously a very painful subject for me. I don’t mean to be unkind in anyway toward you, who seem to be engaged in wonderful promotion for the city. It is only that I wanted you to understand why I don’t have an suitable poem to offer.
Best regards,
Kathleen

 

Dear Kathleen:

Wow! What to do? Junkies on the Boardwalk? I feel like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” unwilling to admit for the record to what I know to be true. Granted, Wildwood has its dark corners and unending political stupidities and cupidities — Ernie Troiano is as much a friend as a politician can be to someone not from here — and seemed to be trying to ruin itself during the late “boom.” BUT I’m sure you’ll agree that there are still people who find a kind of magic, if you will, here that is extant nowhere but whatever Jersey Shore town one embraces. The powers that be can’t mess up the ocean or the beach completely and thank God the Boardwalk will always have a honky-tonk heart.

I’d kill for a phrase like “congress of night-strollers.”

Would you have any objection to our posting this letter in its entirety? That way we get a poem and a comment.

Best,
Bob Ingram

 

Dear Bob:

I have no objections to your publishing the letter. I know that there are many people who embrace the town. I embrace the town, but my embrace is perhaps too proximate for magic. I hold it as tenderly as I can, in fact. I hold it as one would hold anything very old or very ill. I think there are certainly folks who will tell you that I have not been the best sort of citizen, and that is true. It has been very hard in the current economy to spend as much as I’d like in Wildwood. My house could really use a lot of work!

I am a college professor. I teach in the graduate creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. I would love to teach at a college in South Jersey and live full-time in Wildwood, but there are only a few colleges nearby and no openings at the moment.

As far as the powers that be being unable to mess up the ocean completely, I’d point to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the polar ice caps as counter evidence, though I don’t blame that solely on any Wildwood city official past or present! It would be a great step forward, however, if they would simply allow the dunes to reform themselves.

I was awarded a traveling fellowship from 2008-2009, which required me to leave the continent of North America for one year. Ironically, in the final months of my time abroad, I realized that I had unconsciously been replicating the only ‘home’ I knew. I kept renting places in deserted coastal towns in the off-season. I spent most of the fall and early winter on the southwest coast of England, and then I spent late winter and early spring on a small island in the Mediterranean, Gozo. Gozo obviously offers a much more dramatic landscape than Wildwood does, but it is primarily a completely deforested vacation destination for tourists from Malta, and in this way it felt very familiar. If I were going to pass one piece of legislation in Wildwood it would be legislation to protect whatever trees are left! I think it should be illegal for anyone here to cut down a healthy tree! If you want to build on a lot, you should have to build around the existing trees. They are that rare! And to think that it was once a real ‘wood.’

My second piece of legislation would be to move the high school into the new convention center. Let’s actually use the thing. It cost enough! The first rule of real estate (how good is the school district?) seems to never make it into the public consciousness here. Instead, my neighbors think we ought to just bus everyone to Middle Township for their education! They don’t have children who go to school here, who live here, and this is the fundamental problem with zoning that replaces single family homes with condominiums designed to be second homes or vacation rentals. There seems also to be a devaluing of culture at the expense of economic success. Wildwood has always been an entrepreneurial spot, but my parents also always stressed my education. I worry that the ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ have shifted something in our fundamental communal character, that we now look only at the bottom lines and no longer seek to cultivate rich interior lives or to design public spaces that are conducive to such cultivation. But these are not issues that readily occur to anyone who doesn’t live here. And I think the attitude of most officials has been that if you make Wildwood a good place to visit, it will be a good place to live. I think if we had focused during the boom on making Wildwood a good place to live, it would have been a good place to visit as a result. I don’t see now how to tear down a bunch of ugly townhouses, but we could certainly talk about making our schools terrific! I received a fabulous education here when I was a child; it’s not impossible for that to be the case again.

In truth, the town has suffered a demise, especially in the downtown area, that it not uncommon to many small American towns. It’s undoing is in part due to what we will likely one day call ‘the post-capitalist economy.” It is odd, nevertheless, that it has suffered its undoing so much more quickly and in so much more unsightly a manner than its immediate coastal neighbors (Cape May and Stone Harbor) while arguably possessing greater natural resources. There are a lot of America’s worst impulses on display in Wildwood. The frantic desire for self-reinvention may top the list.

Best,
Kathleen

Dear Kathleen:

This is good stuff and needs to be said and heard.

I’m 73 and prior to coming here permanently I lived in Narberth, an idyllic town, and traveled the country writing for a trade magazine for the supermarket industry. I saw the same
downtown malls, built with hope and optimism, faded and dirty, home to the homeless and addicted … Pacific Avenue?

Love the idea re the Convention Center, which has done well but is certainly not the Deus they predicted.

Could we post this letter, too?

Best,
Bob

Hi Bob,

I think that most of your readers will think I am a bit of a radical, but that’s fine. I want the most intelligent people I can find, people exponentially smarter than myself, more articulate and more imaginative, working to solve the massive problems that governments face everyday. I don’t want someone like me doing that! I want someone a thousand times more experienced and better educated doing that! Why anyone would want a ‘regular’ person weighing in on issues of tremendous scope and complexity escapes me!

I always believed that the convention center should have been built with this dual education/civic arena design in mind because we’ve been needing a new building for the high school for a long, long time and this seemed like an easy way to kill two birds with one very expensive stone. I have always felt that our youngest residents should have the best view of the ocean and the beach we can give them! If a view onto the Atlantic is not a daily encounter with the sublime, a force that both inspires and humbles, what is? I want to add that I have tremendous respect for the individuals who work in the public schools here. I know many of them. I’d like to see the community support them with aggressive funding and real vision. What I would really like to see is an initiative to attract a branch campus of one of our state universities. I can’t think of another single development that would address so many issues in so progressive a manner and that would alter so profoundly the trajectory of the town in the long-run. A small campus hub in the downtown area would be very exciting, and we certainly have resources that dovetail well with a number of disciplines (small business/tourism/hospitality/marketing, environmental studies, urban planning, and creative arts (I find it inspiring here!)).

The next to last sentence in my second note should read:

There ARE a lot of America’s worst impulses on display in Wildwood.

That’s probably the most insightful thing I said in all of this!

I hope that you will include your side of the conversation (edited as you’d like) as well. We are in such a terribly polarized political moment. But I would say that Wildwood is a case study in what happens when you aspire to ‘small government.’ I think that aside from a few large projects (like the convention center and sewage plant) the town has been built (from the start) on the idea that it is best to simply let people do what they want and that that independent spirit and capitalist ambition will carry the day. It is clear now, however, that profit motives (especially quick profit motives) are not always in concert with the deepest needs of a place and its people.

I remember the very beginnings of “urban renewal” in Wildwood. It was in the mid-1970’s. The father of one of my closest friends was quite instrumental in pushing for these initiatives. I recall him as a very smart, very high-minded man. I’d like very much to hear an urban historian explain this critical historical moment to me. In hindsight, it seems to have trumpeted a radical shift in the city that does not seem to have been for the best.

I really appreciate having had this chance to ‘chat’ about so many things that have mattered to me all of my life and to be a bit of an ‘armchair’ commissioner.

Best,
Kathleen