With summer officially here, some of your best beach reading this season may be found in a book about the beach. Jacksonville State University history professor Harvey H. Jackson III, better known to his intimates as Hardy, has turned his love of the Gulf Coast, particularly that sandy interval bestriding Florida and Alabama, into a definitive chunk of literature entitled The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera (The University of Georgia Press). For many folks this far inland, that colorfully monickered realm of cheap motels, sugary sand and joints like the Flora-Bama Lounge, is sacred ground. To learn more, we found the learned Hardy down on the beach and grilled him like a newly netted snapper:
Right now, I’m wearing a green shirt with no pocket; shorts and flip-flops.
What kind of headgear do you prefer?
Well, right now I don’t have any on because I’m in the house and my mama told me you never wear a hat in the house.
What brand of beer’s in the icebox?
I’ve got everything from Bud Light to Michelob Ultra — that’s what my wife drinks — and probably some Natural Light out there, too. I’m reasonably certain there’s some Miller Lite and there’s probably some Tecate.
And the most important question: fishing on the shore or fishing on the pier?
I seldom fish on the pier. I either fish on the shore or go out on a boat.
Very good. It sounds as though you qualify in all respects to speak with authority on this subject. Do we know where the nickname “Redneck Riviera” actually came from?
The name was bouncing around the Orange Beach area for a long time. There was a singer by the name of Shine who sang a song that had “Redneck Riviera” in it, I was told, but I was never able to find either the song or Shine.
But Howell Raines, a Birmingham boy who used to be the executive editor of The New York Times, was doing an article down there when he was following Kenny Stabler [and Richard Todd] in the off-season to see what they were doing, and he, as best I can tell, was the first one who put it in print. That’s the first time I found the term “Redneck Riviera” anywhere in publication, and it was in The New York Times.
It was a terrific article called “Living It Up on the Redneck Riviera,” and the name just stuck. People asked some of the Chamber of Commerce types down there what they thought about it. They said that they didn’t care, just as long as people came.
[NOTE: Raine's piece, “Todd and Stabler Offseason Game: Living It Up on 'Redneck Riviera,'” appeared in the New York Times, June 21, 1978.]
Part of what the book is about is how people, in a sense, tried to disassociate themselves from the name. 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 or outlaw-ish image. (Although the Green Knight’s gone and the Flora-Bama has slicked up a bit. But everything else has, too.)
Some have disparaged the area as a sort of strip mall with sea oats. What is the sociocultural significance of the Redneck Riviera?
It got started, really, after World War II. It was virtually deserted down here before that. People after the war were looking for something that they could go to, where they could get away, and, for the first time, you began to have the concept of vacations that were not something for rich people or people who were lazy.
People from the Lower South—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi—would come down here. Motels were cheap; they could rent cottages that had stoves in ‘em, efficiencies. They could bring their groceries down, and basically they could do things that they couldn’t do back home without maybe somebody looking down on them. And they could do it in a fairly exotic place.
There was no more beautiful place on the planet.
And it still is, even though you’ve got places like in Orange Beach that’s just a wall of condos, like the Phoenix development is. You’ve also got that wonderful Gulf State Park, and, out from Pensacola, you’ve got Santa Rosa Island, which is one of the biggest natural seashores in America. There’s a lot of the old, natural Florida.
What is gone, what is being pushed away, is sort of the old, unnatural Florida. It’s really hard to find a good honky-tonk anymore…and it’s really hard to find good fried mullet.
So, slicked up or not, is the Flora-Bama still the spiritual center of the Riviera?
Well. Let me define the Riviera for you, as I define it (it’s my book, I can define it any way I want to). I’ve got it starting at the mouth of Mobile Bay and going all the way to St. Andrew’s Bay at Panama City. It takes in both the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast. I didn’t include Dauphin Island, because Dauphin Island’s a different breed altogether. I didn’t include Mississippi, because Mississippi, with the gambling boats, has taken on a whole different culture. The other part I’ve picked out pretty much hangs together. It’s very similar in culture and context, and also, quite frankly, it’s the part I was most familiar with.
In the book, you contrast this milieu with the other kind of Riviera [New Urbanism visionary and developer] Robert Davis tried to build [in the planned residential community called Seaside]. Whatever became of his grand ambitions?
My house, which my grandmother built in 1956, is in Seagrove Beach. I sat up on my deck and watched Seaside come up out of the palmetto and the scrub. We called it “Pastel Hell.”
There are two ways to look at it. One, it is that sort of Truman Show, Stepford Wives kind of thing. On the other hand, it’s not a high-rise. It protects the beach. It’s cute as hell, but you can also get a decent meal over there, and not real expensive because it’s so family-oriented.
Now, the houses are expensive as all get-out. I’ve done a lot of [scholarly] work on Seaside; the development of it and how it was. It’s not what Davis set out to build. Davis’ll tell you right off the bat he wanted a real community. He wanted a place where people of all ages and incomes could live and love and have their being and enjoy, as he put it, “the indolence of the tropics.”
These folks aren’t indolent. People who come over here are hard working, acquisitive—they have risen to the top or are getting close to it. They have got disposable income and they’ll dispose of it. They don’t want fried mullet. They want sushi. They want to go to a place that’s going to have a white tablecloth. That’s the change in culture. It’s not good or bad, it’s just significantly different.
In part, it’s the result of an affluent baby-boomer coming-of-age down here, who came to the beach when they were kids when it was spring break, and now that they’re coming back, they don’t want to sleep ten to a room. They want air conditioning, they want somebody who can make a decent martini.
There was no place for redneckery in Seaside. Early days, I used to walk down there when the Shrimp Shack was literally just a shrimp shack. I got some of the best barbecued shrimp, and I’d run into people there who would have fit in pretty well at the Flora-Bama; construction folks and all that.
But Davis hit a gold mine. This development came when you had a number of people, basically the yuppies, who loved things like Seaside, and Seaside was there for them. Davis admits that the vision changed. It’s not a town in the sense of a place where people live; it probably doesn’t have ten full-time residents down there right now. But it’s a place where people can come and spend a week or a couple of weeks, and they can walk into what is sort of open-air theatre. I mean, Davis talks about this. He went over and he went to Italian holiday towns and saw how people interacted with each other in those settings, and that’s what he wanted for Seaside. And, to a degree, he pulled it off.
But I remember, when Seaside was coming on, you still had old Graydon Beach down the street, where you could still have a trailer and set your galvanized tub of iced-down beers outside. Is there any place like that left on 30A or thereabouts?
Well, there are a couple of trailer parks along here, and you’d be more than welcome to put your galvanized tub of beer on my deck. It’s different. My house has got air conditioning now. When I got married 25 years ago and brought my wife down here, she said, “I’m marrying you for a beach house.” When she saw what it was like, she was probably ready to call the whole thing off.
It’s very comfortable now. We’ve got internet, that type of thing. It’s modernized, it’s upscaled, and I haven’t seen a good bar fight in years.
Is it even possible to preserve the old beach culture, now that money, politics and such have decided to move in next door?
It’s hard, but you can find little enclaves of it. Some of it’s attitude, to be honest with you. Where I live down here, I can walk, and in five minutes I can be at the little village market, and I can get as good a shrimp sandwich as you will find anywhere on the coast. I can go the other direction and I can go to Bud and Alley’s and I can get barbecued shrimp stuffed with crabmeat, as good as you’ll get in any fine restaurant in the United States.
There’s a more diverse clientele, a more upscale clientele, and it’s not the kind that’s gonna redneck it up. You don’t find a whole lot of yard art. And if you do, it’s going to be high quality….
You know, Destin is no longer a little fishing village. Its economy is tourists. But there’s a coexistence that I like. The last time I went out fishing from Destin, I go out with Captain Mike, whose boat’s The Huntress. He’s got a topnotch mate, they call him Groovy, We were coming in, and sitting in the middle of Destin Harbor, on what the man who developed it called the most beautiful piece of land he ever saw—which he proceeded to build this monstrosity on—is this gigantic hotel/condo complex, legendary.
I looked at Groovy and said, “ What do you think of that?”
He looked at me and said, “More people to fish.” So it’s a very practical group of people.
It was very interesting to work on [the book], because there’s still a sort of freewheeling atmosphere down here. Even the people who are trying to sell every inch of land have that sort of devil-may-care—I refer to them as “raffish Rotarians with cash register eyeballs.” There is a sort of redneckery in that.
The ones who were flipping condos back before the crash, there was, in one case, a condo that changed hands five times before a nail was driven. It was Wild West, it was speculation. People were making money, but the person who was holding the keys at the last minute, he lost it all.
Like the world’s worst game of musical chairs. But you mention charter fishing. How do you calculate the effect of the BP spill on the local attitude?
I was coming down here that summer to do the final touches on the book. I already had an ending for it. There was a Supreme Court case over renourishing the beach, who owns the beach and all of that. It was going to be the perfect ending, and then that oil well blew.
It delayed the publication of the book by at least a year, because I had to write another chapter on that.
It was dismal at first, it really was. This area, where I am, got very little oil, but from Pensacola west, it was bad.
The bad thing was that, even though we didn’t get a lot of oil in here, offshore, it was in big masses. The dispersants were being put on it, and you don’t know what’s worse, the oil or the dispersants.
[The charter boatmen] couldn’t fish, then they couldn’t sell the fish, so they became what they call “vessels of opportunity.” They went out and spotted the oil and helped clean it up, that sort of thing. That held body and soul together, but these people are fishermen. That’s not what they want to do. They want to catch fish.
We’ve got a problem anyway, in that the government has limited the snapper season down to 40 days. You go to any captain down here and he’ll tell you that there’s snapper out there aplenty. It is ironic that they stopped the fishing because of the spill, and what they accomplished was that the fish didn’t die. They built up the stock. Now we’ve got fish all over the place out there, but you can’t fish for them because they’ve cut the season down to 40 days.
The research people out of Dauphin Island say that the stocks are as big as they’ve seen ‘em in years, yet we’ve still got the limits on them. It’s so funny that you almost want to cry over it….
One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time on is the conflict over limits of government and how much government you want. You’ve got a wonderful example down here of people who want what government can provide, but are scared to death of what comes with it. Infrastructure—if you’re going to have tourists, you need roads. You need better sewage. You need all of these things, and government’s going to do that. But the way government does that is that it gets tax money, and that means your taxes are going up, and nobody likes that.
It’s interesting. This is still an area that’s very much in evolution….
The title of your book, The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera, suggests the motion of a wave. Do you think the Riviera will rise again?
Why don’t you get to the last chapter? That’s the last thing that’s in there. My answer is, yes, with a qualification. The qualification is, it’s always going to be modern. It’s always going to have upscale places, and even the places that are a little bit loosey-goosey, a little bit more inclined to be laid-back, are still going to be more upscale than they were 25 years ago. I don’t see that we’re going to have a bunch of people pull up their pickup trucks down here at the state park, put out the beer and have a party with Lynyrd Skynyrd playing over the stereo, because they’ve got a noise ordinance now….
You obviously have a lot of love for this part of the world. What would be your blueprint for a perfect day on the Redneck Riviera?
Offhand, I can’t recall a bad one. Y’know, get up. Walk down on the beach, throw the tennis ball with my dog, watch Libby the Lab run free. Pick up after her, then come back up here, eat some breakfast. Go back down, sit around, read till it gets too hot. Come back up, eat some lunch, take a nap. Go up on the deck, have a gin and tonic, watch the sun set and, if they’re having a concert at Seaside, sit on my deck and listen to the music.
This is the funny thing about writing a book on this place. I’ve spent a lot of time down here in the last 25 years, working on articles and essays, and I write a column for The Anniston Star. A lot of it’s had to do with this. Here I was in the history department at Jacksonville State. I have a colleague who’s a French historian; he says, I’m going to France to do research this summer. Nobody blinks an eye. I have a colleague who’s a German historian. He says, I’m going to Berlin for the summer, and no one says a word. I say, “I’m going down to Panama City to do research,” and they say, “Yeah, right.”
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to email@example.com.