I can't think about the Wildwoods — that sandy clutch of towns along the five-mile island near New Jersey's southern tip — as anything but members of a family, with similar features, the broad, even growing beaches connected by that great spine of a Boardwalk. Yet each is somehow a distinct, unique version of the other. It's a collection of flirts and matriarchs, of immigrants and visionaries, of grit and luxury.
And always, of possibility.
In the early 1970s my parents, an industrious blue-collar couple from Manayunk, saw possibility in a Depression-era Dutch colonial on Pine Avenue. Behind this big house, ringing a concrete courtyard, stood three small cottages, which for nearly 30 years, they rented to a rotating cast of characters. It was usually young people, some looking for a vacation place and others who stayed the summer, working on the boardwalk spinning prize wheels or twisting custard cones.
For part of each year, my mother would install herself in that Wildwood house, the smell of her spaghetti sauce wafting through the wrought-iron air vents.
In the evenings, we'd all sit on the front porch, bodies sunken into aged, wicker rockers painted red, spectators to an ever-changing parade of people making their way to and from the beach and Boardwalk:
First, parents pushing strollers or holding the hands of little ones impatient for that moment when the Tilt-a-Whirl makes its first furious spin.
Next came the teenagers, hairsprayed girls dressed to impress boys in gold chains, and trying to make it home before curfew. Later, the strollers returned bearing overtired or sleeping toddlers, and the young adults headed out to the bars for the night, bound for the Stardust or the Playpen or the old Penalty Box, where the bartenders wore striped shirts and whistles like NHL linesmen.
The island's recent history has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster. A mixture of poor planning, mismanagement and changing tastes made the good times wane as the 20th century ended. Like an aging party girl, the Boardwalk became less fun and more tawdry, and Pacific Avenue's charms fell away like flakes of sunburned skin. Hundreds of condos went up, then sat empty when the recession hit in 2008.
Things are coming around again in the Wildwoods. Simple economics have led many people back to the island, and the city's leaders are carefully cultivating a fun, funky image that's more Key West than Fort Lauderdale.
Perhaps it sounds overly simplistic to say things just feel good again in Wildwood. But I catch the expectant look on my son's face each time we cross that bridge into town and the giant Ferris wheel comes into view, and I know.
I see the young families come pouring out of minivans into neon-lit hotels, and I feel it.