By Lenore Vickrey
When chilly winter days keep you indoors, what better way to warm up than to read a book about Alabama’s Gulf Coast? Jacksonville State University history professor Harvey H. Jackson III has published an affectionate look at that very area, The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera, that examines the history and culture of the stretch of coast from Mobile Bay and Gulf Shores to Panama City.
A native of Grove Hill in Clarke County, Jackson had an early love for the beach area that began during childhood visits, and today he considers it his second home. His affection comes through in the 300-plus page work that, as reviewer Theresa Shadrix notes in The Jacksonville News, will make you want to go to the Alabama coastline “even if you’re not a redneck.”
Jackson first read of the term “Redneck Riviera” in the New York Times in 1978, when writer Howell Raines of Birmingham wrote a story about how former Alabama and then pro-football quarterbacks Kenny Stabler and Richard Todd spent their off-season on a “stretch of beach that some Alabama wags call the Redneck Riviera.”
The term itself had been in use in the Orange Beach area for years, Jackson says, and the story goes that there was a local musician and lounge owner named Madison “Shine” Powell who sang a song about it. Jackson was later told that Stabler, a frequent patron at Sam & Shine’s, himself coined the phrase and then Powell wrote the song. Murky as the history of the term may be, it has endured.
Some Gulf Coast residents like it, while others resent it, and that diversity of opinion is illustrative of what the book explores.
“Everyone pretty well accepts the fact that that’s what it’s called,” Jackson says. “In some cases, it’s just like tourist attractions that have always been there. It’s been manipulated. Like at Lulu’s (the popular coastal restaurant owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy Buffett), they’ve got ‘redneck caviar’ on the menu, which is really a type of salsa, but Lulu’s is anything but redneck.”
“Part of what the book is about is how people, in a sense, tried to disassociate themselves from the name,” Jackson told WELD, a Birmingham newspaper. “On the other hand, you’ve got people who are tremendously proud of it and very affectionate about it. You’ve got developments like Sandestin, which advertise, ‘You’ve heard about the Redneck Riviera. Well, it is no more.’ Then you’ve got places like the Flora-Bama, the Green Knight in Destin and a number of other places that have always sort of thrived on the redneck, sort of outlaw-ish image.”
The “rise” of Alabama’s Riviera, Jackson says, really started after World War II. Before then, Orange Beach and Gulf shores had survived “on fishing and a trickle of tourists from not too far away, vacationers who came down to swim a little, fish a little, drink a little, eat raw oysters, buy something tacky at a local shop and generally do things they could not do back home.”
But after the war, more people came, bringing with them the culture of the post-war rising middle class who coordinated their trips with their children’s vacations. “Efficiencies and cottages were especially popular, for restaurants were few, and to most visitors they were places for the occasional treat, not for every meal. So they came loaded with groceries, and many a family lived the week on fried bologna sandwiches and what they caught in the Gulf.”
As the tourist economy grew, the season between Memorial Day and Labor Day became a lucrative time for local businesses. By 1960, the migration of students on spring break had begun, fueled by the release of “Where the Boys Are” in movie theaters that year. What was once hundreds of students had grown to thousands invading the beaches, and the coast saw yet another tourist season born.
To accommodate the expanding tourist market, more and more motels were built, Jackson says, usually one or two-stories high with less than 100 units with a café or bar. They were close to putt-putt golf, an amusement park or the “Hangout” “where in the summer teenagers danced and short-lived romances flourished.” There was a “nest of honkey-tonks that included the Pink Pony Pub at the Gulf Shores end and the Flora-Bama at the other.”
This was the “Riviera” that Raines found in 1978, and Jackson says, “There was no more beautiful place on the planet.”
Readers have told him some of their favorite parts are the chapters about spring break that reminded them of the fun they had as teenagers. “They’d been on spring break, they understood that,” he says. “A lot of people also identified with the two bars I mention that were typical of the area, the Green Knight and the Flora-Bama. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was a sort of ‘redneck chic’ associated with them.”
Then came the storm
A year after Raines wrote about the region in the New York Times, on September 12, 1979, Hurricane Frederic hit the Alabama coast with 120 MPH winds and a record storm surge. “Much of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach washed away,” Jackson remembers. “After the hurricane, coastal folks learned what is now general knowledge. Storms destroy, but they also clear the ground for builders to build. That is what happened on Alabama’s redneck Riviera.”
Credit was easy to obtain and banks were all too happy to help Baby Boomers who wanted their little piece of sand, Jackson says. Developers built condominiums and resort hotels and in less than 20 years, the coastline had vastly changed as Gulf Shores and Orange Beach became the destination for more than 1 million tourists. Many of them were, and still are, “snowbirds,” northern residents seeking warm weather in the winter at prices less than they’d have to pay further south. Condo and cottage absentee owners liked winter income from rentals, and in many cases the “snowbirds” have come to resemble those same middle class southerners who arrived on the beaches after World War II.
Jackson notes that the presence of the snowbirds “were just one more indication of the slow and steady reinvention of the redneck Riviera, a change characterized by the emergence of more sophisticated resort communities filled with upscale second homes and high rise condominiums, along with the economic infrastructure to support and entertain owners and renters.”
The building boom didn’t last, of course. Jackson notes towards the end of the book that the economic recession hit the coastal real estate market particularly hard as speculative investors quit investing and the condo market collapsed. Yet as prices fell, bargains began to pop up and real estate companies have begun to note the “return of more traditional clients,” Jackson says, perhaps signaling a return to the Redneck Riviera of old. He quotes Sheila Hodges of Meyer Real Estate in Gulf Shores who notes, “Baldwin’s coastline has always been a blue-collar vacation spot, and we’re seeing those buyers returning.”
Reaction to the book has been very favorable, Jackson says. “All the reviews have been good and no one’s called me up and said, ‘You sorry son of a gun.’ He’s done several booksignings in Baldwin County and even corresponded with folks who found themselves in photos in the book. He’s not particularly kind to developers in some of the chapters, and was nervous when one came up to him at a booksigning. “But he told me, ‘you got it right on the nose!’”
In the spring of 2010, Jackson was just about ready to wrap up his project, putting the finishing touches on what he thought would be the final chapter on a Supreme Court case involving renourishing the beach. But on April 20, an oil rig off the Louisiana coast exploded and sank, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Jackson’s book was delayed a year, as the final chapter now had to deal with the effects of the BP spill on the region, its economy, its people and their lives.
It wasn’t a chapter he wanted to write, but it had to be included as part of the evolving history of the region. But sales have gone so well that the book is in its second printing. A paperback edition is due out this spring.
And it would be just fine with Harvey Jackson if, the next time he strolls down the beach on Alabama’s coast, he sees row upon row of beach chairs whose occupants have their noses stuck in his book.
The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera is available at bookstores, through the University of Georgia Press at ugapress.org, or at amazon.com.