The Redneck Riviera

The Redneck Riviera halfway between Destin and Panama CityI have to confess it was only twenty years ago, after completing a book on the Mississippi Delta, that I began to understand the true importance of such noteworthy sociocultural enclaves to a fuller, more textured appreciation of the South as first, a place of many parts, and second, a place all the more remarkable for it. For some time now, we have had the benefit of some excellent writing about the Low Country South, the Appalachian South, the Cajun South, etc. Now comes a new and most worthy addition to the bibliography of special southern places that focuses on a narrow strip of sand, scrub, and asphalt stretching along the Gulf Coast from roughly Gulf Shores, Alabama, to Panama City, Florida, and known more with affection than condescension as “The Redneck Riviera.”

If ever a book found its ideal author, “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera” surely did in the person of my old friend Harvey H. “Hardy” Jackson. Hardy’s attachment to the RR goes all the way back to the mid-1950s when his Grandma Minnie bought herself a lot and built a little cement-block cottage in Seagrove Beach, Florida, about halfway between Destin and Panama City. Hardy has provided me with most of my education about this alternately boisterous and idyllic little kingdom, and I’ve got the scars on head, limbs, and liver to prove it. However, anyone who might think that I am saying nice things about him or his book just because we are friends or I owe him money (Best I can recall, more’n likely, it’s the other way around) can go here or here or here to see that I am not exactly riding solo on this bandwagon.

Besides, Hardy was nowhere around when I got my real introduction to this little sliver of the world. That would’ve been along about 1988, when the fun family Cobbs decided to vacation themselves at Gulf Shores. Leaving our teenager and a couple of his pals to their own devices and God knows what else, Mom and Dad opted for an adults-only excursion to a legendary watering hole squatting darn near right on the Alabama-Florida line and thus known officially as “The Flora-Bama Lounge, Package, and Oyster Bar,” although so far as I know, no one with any real acquaintance with the place has ever bothered with anything beyond “The Flora-Bama.” The FB’s reputation for the wild and woolly definitely preceded it, and sure enough, the ambience was decidedly white-working-class-after-a-twelve-pack up to and including all of the bras dangling from the ceiling, each suggesting an evening when somebody, perhaps everybody, had gone home with a story to tell. However, the real persona of the place didn’t really come through until, standing on the back deck, we observed what looked to be two thirty-something females doff their bikinis and make a rather elaborate production of rinsing them out in the same churning sand and surf from which they had just emerged, before donning equally skimpy shorts and tops and heading straight for the back door of the Flora Bama. Upon entry, they proceeded directly and un-self-consciously across a densely populated room to the bar, as layer after layer of Bubbas played Red Sea to their Charlton Heston. Not surprisingly, however, they were speedily re-enveloped by a swarm of these eager hyper-hormonal young swains who simultaneously tossed pickup lines at them and elbows at each other as they bid to escort these fair damsels into a promised land flowing full and free with the best that Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing had to offer. After experiencing considerably greater difficulty in making my way across the room for a refill, I asked the barkeep if he had ever seen anything like what had just happened, and his barely discernible shrug suggesting “not since last night” told me that I might as well have “candy-assed professor” stamped on my forehead.

I’d like to think I maintained my cover a little better a few years later when Hardy took a bunch of us to hear “The Trashy White Band” perform in Destin at a dive called The Green Knight, where entering and departing patrons were saluted by a larger than life statue of same. As for the Trashy White Band, much of their repertoire isn’t printable here or anywhere else where even the faintest whiff of decency survives, although many’s the time in a heated faculty meeting, I’ve wanted to launch into their most requested number, “I’ll Be Glad when You’re Dead, You Son of a Bitch, You!” The Green Knight went nite-nite about twenty years back, but, the Flora-Bama, its fame enhanced by the now legendary annual interstate Mullet toss, still stands as a resolute citadel of what historian Pete Daniel calls the “low-down” dimension of southern culture, and by golly, I’m looking forward to a return visit this fall when the Southern Historical Association meets in Mobile. [The Missus says I’m not going to the Flora Bama without her. I say there is strength in numbers, although I’m not really sure that this actually applies when the rest of the contingent are also representatives of the candy-assed professoriate.]

One reviewer of Jackson’s book suggests that the Flora Bama symbolizes “the resilience” of the Redneck Riviera. Burned down by a competitor in the 1960s and “gutted” by Ivan in 2004, today it remains a “socially egalitarian demilitarized zone.” That metaphor is apt in many respects, but the rowdy, raunchy aspects of the area’s social scene hardly do justice to the realities of a place where the newest additions to the Lower South’s emerging post-World War II white middle class established their family vacation traditions in largely unadorned cottages in little communities like Seagrove, where trailers and outhouses were verboten but hanging swimsuits and towels on the front porch to dry was just fine. The kids could chase each other and scream to their hearts’ content under communal adult supervision, and the smattering of local eateries could satiate your hunger for any kind of seafood, so long as it be fried.

Alas, the same economic progress that had made a vacation or vacation cottage in the area a possibility for so many Deep South families would soon be threatening its unpretentious, laid back ambience. Jackson lays some of the blame for this on the 1960 film “Where the Boys Are,” starring Connie Francis and ol’ Mr. Tan Man himself, George Hamilton, for a massive outbreak of spring-break fever, which suddenly made it “cool” for southern collegians to undertake annual pilgrimages to beaches theretofore thought to be a mite frigid for serious partying in March. Although local merchants and innkeepers indulged in all manner of obligatory tut-tutting about all the drinking and “casual sex,” behind closed doors, they were salivating to beat the band as the cash rolled in. In short order, Jackson writes, “What started as a rite of spring” would “become an event popularized and promoted to make a lot of people a lot of money.” The area had never been without its profiteers and schemers, of course, but the mammonism had really kicked in by the end of the 1960s, and the places where relative peace and quiet could still be had became progressively more difficult to find.

Sorely distressed by this trend, some locals actually saw a brief glimmer of hope that it might at least be slowed if not completely reversed at the begging of the 1980s when developer Robert Davis announced plans for “Seaside,” a planned development of shops, restaurants, and homes that he promised would mark “a return to the traditional seashore cottage design of yesteryear.” The idea of narrow streets and small lots was meant to encourage, or simply coerce, human interaction within the new community which, Davis insisted, was to be a “real town” where folks young and old might still get “in touch with the real pleasures in life.” Unfortunately, a venture that smacked of a sort of upscale version of what the good folks in Seagrove and other less pretentious communities had been enjoying for more than a generation wound up as what strikes me as a smug yuppie enclave whose residents and regular tourist visitors turned every visit to the beach or the market into a Ralph Lauren/Lilly Pulitzer fashion statement. Soon the Seasiders were putting up signs and hiring security personnel in order to ensure that their relatively downscale Seagrove neighbors, with their Wal-mart flip-flops and cut-offs stayed among their own kind. As for friendly front-porch chitchat within the confines of Seaside itself, the deafening roar of the air conditioners would have drowned it out had anyone been fool enough to sit outside under a tin roof that was itself struggling not to melt away under the unforgiving gaze of a broiling summer sun. Ironically, what was purported at the outset to be a place that harkened back to the era of greater human interaction and community had quickly begun to give off what one travel writer felt was a decidedly ”plastic/Stepford Wives” vibe.

There would be other, bigger additions to this genre, including Watercolor, a much larger and more amenitized development bankrolled by the St. Joseph Paper Company. While promoters for ventures like Watercolor (whose designers had helped to lay out a Disney development near Orlando) and Seaside fell over themselves in emphasizing their not-always self-evident “traditional” aspects, as Jackson notes, “the tradition they followed was that of the status-defining enclaves on the north side of Atlanta and the south side of Birmingham, which were home to Dixie’s new elites.” The Redneck Riviera has quite a track record of bouncing back from the cyclonic assaults of Mother Nature including Eloise, who de-roofed Grandma Minnie’s cottage in 1975, and Ivan, which leveled the Flora Bama in 2004. Happily both have been restored, and in fact, as Jackson deftly shows, the necessity of rebuilding after these natural disasters has in fact spurred the process of growth and economic modernization on several occasions.

There is always the chance of ol’ Ma Nature showing the locals that they really haven’t seen anything yet, but as Jackson manages to reveal without being especially preachy about it, the major menace to the special qualities of the Redneck Riviera has for some time been the humans who wish to popularize, exploit, or stake exclusive claims on its natural riches and appeal. This reality became indisputably apparent in April, 2010. As no less an entity than the Supreme Court itself mulled over claims of some Destin beachfront homeowners that their property lines extended all the way to the water line and thus they were entitled to opt out of public projects aimed at restoring the area’s seriously eroded beaches, an explosion at a British Petroleum drilling site off the coast of Louisiana quickly raised the threat that all parties to this dispute might soon find their beloved beaches soaked with oil. The ominous approach of a gigantic, environmentally poisonous mass of oil provided both backdrop and storyline for the last chapter of Jackson’s book, wherein he captures masterfully all the anxieties, both economic and purely emotional, that enveloped the area while he was wrapping up his manuscript. The feelings that surfaced as the slick drew nigh underscored the abiding affection of old-timers like Jackson himself for this place, which had survived so many outrages, natural and human, and now seemed to be facing the kind of devastation from which there might be no bouncing back.

When, (wouldn’t you know it?) the area had managed to escape or beat back the worst of the threatened despoliation, local promoters were all for a blowout Jimmy Buffett concert at Gulf Shores, aimed at showing that the Redneck Riviera was once again open for business. Steeped in the area’s history, Jackson does not miss the irony in an image-conscious local writer’s complaint that a subsequent appearance of blue-collar fave Lynyrd Skynyrd would simply attract “every toothless redneck from a hundred miles,” each one packing his own eats and a cooler full of “Busch and Natty Light,” meaning that the only real hope of making a buck off the event might be to “open a cheap cigarette and Confederate bandanna shop.”

Despite such snarkiness in some quarters and a little rain besides, the concert ultimately “went off without a hitch,” Jackson reports. Clearly pleased to find a reason to believe that some of the old spirit and persona of a place he has loved so long and well might yet survive, he concludes with the observation that the audience for Lynyrd Skynyrd actually “looked a lot like the one that had gathered to hear Jimmy Buffett. . . . and not unlike the people who had always slipped down to the Redneck Riviera. They were the children, and in some cases the grandchildren, of beachgoers who over the years came to the coast to swim, fish, ride rides at the amusement parks, dance at the Hangouts, listen to the Trashy White Band at the Green Knight, and throw a mullet at the Flora-Bama.”

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Photo: From by Hot Tuna's flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.