After the fourth

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by Hardy Jackson

Back in 1988, I wrote a piece for the Atlanta Constitution and without knowing it, set out on a journey that nearly a quarter of a century later, resulted in The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera.
In that book I chronicled the changes that occurred along the coast during the years since World War II.
What I described in that first writing was how the recently created town of Seaside, with its coded architecture, controlled design and programmed activities, was attempting to make a place for itself among the older, laid-back beach communities that surrounded it.
One focus of Seaside’s effort was the Annual Fourth of July Parade.
Before Seaside, the parade was a semi-spontaneous event in which folks with beach buggies decorated them with red, white, and blue stuff and drove on the sand from Seagrove Beach to Grayton Beach and back. Or not.
Then parade participants and spectators adjourned to various houses for post parade mimosas and other appropriate fare. It was simple, unscripted.No bands, no floats, no organization, no mess.
When the road from Seagrove to Grayton was finished and paved, the parade moved off the beach and to a route that took it right through Seaside.
In its early days, Seaside went out of its way to be like the other beach communities.  It hosted a little outdoor weekend market whose “slung up” appearance was criticized by some and praised by others.  The Shrimp Shack café became a local hangout.  Its dusty streets and cracker cottages fit right in with the dusty streets and concrete block bungalows next door.  It wasn’t Redneck Riviera, but it was close.
Then, as I wrote back then, things in Seaside began to change. Quaint beach cottages gave way to townhouses that looked like they belonged in Charleston and Savannah.
These were joined by multilevel mansions with nooks and crannies, villas with gingerbread and scrollwork, gazebos and garrets.  All around, I grumbled, “were architectural carbuncles painted colors that never appeared in nature.”
Locals worried.
They worried that soon there would be trendy restaurants with Atlanta prices and menus that appealed to tourists who usually vacationed in St. Simon’s, Hilton Head, or Pawleys.
They worried about traffic.  Despite claims that Seaside would be a community, it quickly became an attraction, with events to entertain the folks attracted to  it.
They worried that Seaside would spread and the beach road would be crowded with upscale resorts that overwhelmed the coast and excluded the locals.
And they worried about the parade.
For as part of its effort to join the community, Seaside took it over.
Thus it came to pass that rusted-out beach buggies driven by laid back  locals were replaced by floats sponsored by businesses and such, along with decorated cars hauling politicians to the post-parade political rally in the Seaside amphitheater.
The new parade reflected the town that ran it – organized, efficient, upbeat, and a little uptight.  Fourth of July, I observed, had been “Seasided.”
Then I made a prediction – which a historian should never do.
I predicted that, this transformation would not last, that in time, the beach life would win back the parade..
I felt that when Seaside became a real community, the residents would eventually be indistinguishable from their neighbors, and that the parade would revert back to its old self.  Maybe not entirely, but the coast was a way of loosening the uptight and calming the excitable.  Eventually things would return to what they once had been – or close to it.
Folks, I was wrong.
Seaside has not become a real community.  It has become a commercial enterprise. And the parade reflected that.
Standing in front of my house on the Fourth, I watched floats and folks and folderol flow by in a stream of advertisements praising everything from yogurt to dentists.
Although sprinkled among the floats were a few entries that captured the old spirit they were overshadowed by those that were essentially commercials. Now more than ever the parade reflects what the coast has become.
And yet the parade was fun.
People on the floats and marching along beside them threw candy and beads to spectators.  Spectators smiled and sweated and cheered when cheering was appropriate.
Children were delighted. And when it was over the crowds drifted off to their respective residences to eat and drink and consider the rest of the day – which for me included a long nap.
That night communities from Destin to Panama City Beach and beyond filled the sky with pyrotechnic beauty that reflected off the water.
Our dogs, safe inside and away from the noise, contentedly chewed their “pig’s ears.”
No, the Fourth isn’t like it used to be. Neither is the Redneck Riviera.
And most folks seem OK with that.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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