The most endangered species native to Florida’s Panhandle and Alabama’s Gulf Coast might just be the redneck. But before the last beer-swilling, mullet-tossing Good Ol’ Boy abandons the beach to the condo and McMansion “cottage” crowd, Harvey H. Jackson III set out to chronicle the making of his habitat in all its tacky glory.
The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera is an affectionate and often droll history of what the tourist development folks would prefer we call The Emerald Coast. Jackson, a history professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, brings a personal love for the Florida Panhandle and Alabama Gulf Coast to the story — his family has been vacationing in Gulf Shores, Ala., and Seagrove Beach, Fla., since he was a child in the 1940s.
He calls the book his “account of how people from the lower South created a coastal playground, a place where they and their families could get away from constraints and restraints of home and job and school and responsibility but without going too far — physically or culturally — from where they were.”
Jackson traces the development of the region from the little fishing villages like Destin of the 1920s to the temple of tacky and spring break debauchery Panama City Beach became by the end of the 20th century, chronicling the rise of concrete sculptures and goofy golf facilities and the notorious bars like the Flora-Bama where oceans of cheap beer have been consumed while the Trashy White Band played under a ceiling strung with women’s bras.
“Tacky from the start with more tackiness to come, the resorts were soon joined by the independent promoters who knew just what folks from the lower South would pay to see, and in 1946 the Snake-A-Torium opened, just in time for Christmas,” he writes.
Jackson also pokes fun at the periodic efforts of some Gulf Coast business people and developers to gussy up the region’s reputation.
“As if to confirm this transformation, in 2002 Panama City Beach tourist promoters came up with a new slogan — ‘White Sand, White Wine, White Necks,’’’ he writes.
Parts of the book get a bit tedious, with the ever-evolving cast of developers who may be different in name only to South Florida readers. These folks shaped how the Florida Panhandle and Alabama Gulf Coast developed, but their stories are well-known, at least in outline. But Jackson knows his subject. He not only watched many of the changes in the Panhandle unfold but also understands the attitudes and prejudices of the people from Atlanta and Birmingham and Jackson who have made it what it is. And he’s happy to poke fun at them, too. These are the folks who were attracted to the town of Seaside, and built their enormous cottages there, after the magazine Southern Living, “the how-to guide for Dixie boomers seeking to shake off redneck roots,” did a feature on the development.
Along the way the “turtle people” have come into conflict with the folks who were accustomed to leaving their chairs and tents on the beach over night, just like they’d always done. The people of “The Beach” — another preferred moniker the tourist councils came up with — have debated whether they really wanted to be promoting the “simulated sex” contests and cheap beer to spring breakers. And bit by bit, the culture of the region, where people came because they could do what they wanted, without much interference from the government, changed.
“Where earlier tourists were loose and laid back, the newer ones demanded order, organization, and in some cases an investment opportunity,” he writes. “All along the Riviera it was much the same. Redneckery — that lean, mean, hard of hand and piratical of glance redneckery — was in retreat.”
The book ends with the BP oil spill and the deep ideological conflict it caused for the politically conservative region.
“Over the years, Baldwin County (Alabama) and the Florida Panhandle stood out as some of the most conservative sections of their states, if ‘conservative’ meant believing that lower taxes would limit government and a limited government would leave citizens alone to make money and live well,” he writes. “Now all but the most libertarian had to face the fact that the oil rig disaster might have been prevented if the federal government had enforced drilling regulations and requirements and if a private company, in this case BP, had not been allowed to put the public at risk for profits.”
The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera is a fun romp through a place that has long been dedicated to fun but it also dips its toes into the cultural conflicts the region has experienced — a bit history, a bit social commentary and a good read.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.