Cherry Hill, N.J., was my hometown from 6 months to 12 years old.
The town is in close proximity to Philadelphia and typical of suburban society (I'm told it's become quite "metropolitan"). Summertime always meant a two-week family vacation — all five of us together and, occasionally, our dog. (When I was 5, and "decidedly" too young to be towed all over Washington, D.C., our dog accompanied my parents, older brother and sister. I was given a "special trip" to my parents' good friends and neighbors.)
I don't intend to sound ungrateful — I looked forward to our vacation every year. No matter that I was delegated to sit straight, sit still (yeah, right) and stay small on the middle hump of the sedan's backseat for my brother and sister's convenience. Or talked into "making a fort and camping" on the uncomfortable, ungiving, hot, nonshock-resistant floorboard at the feet of my conniving siblings.
It wasn't their fault. They were teenagers and we usually drove for two days to our annual waterfront rental in some part of the U.S., which included Virginia, South Carolina, northern Michigan and Maine.
Cherry Hill is not a coastal town and I remember vividly feeling the excitement about visiting the shoreline. I could smell, taste and hear that atmosphere long before we arrived. When we were getting close, we would roll down the car windows and I would climb over one of my siblings to stick out my head into the sun and wind — like our dog would.
I inhaled deeply to experience the salty air and that indescribable — yet recognizable — scent of the beach (everyone who has experienced it knows what I mean). I could hear the ocean waves breaking even if we were still 10 miles away. And, being a kid, I already tasted the cotton candy and kettle-cooked popcorn available on the boardwalk.
Those sensory memories is what intrigued me to meet James Lilliefors, who recently published his third book, America's Boardwalks, from Coney Island to California. It was a selfish interest at first, because there aren't any boardwalks in Southwest Florida — at least not the kind containing nostalgic carnival games with weird-colored stuffed animal prizes; amusement rides where the thrill is in hoping the greasy, old metal parts hold together; foot-long hot dog and sauerkraut vendors; puka shell necklaces or braided-rope bracelets; silk-screened T-shirts with an image of David Bowie or an inane saying like I'm with Stupid; and, of course, white cardboard boxes of saltwater taffy.
Lilliefors, or Jim as friends call him, has lived in coastal towns most of his life. Born in Los Angeles, his family moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Maryland. He talks of his parents taking him to various seaside towns and strolling the boardwalks, experiencing sensory overload — in an exciting way.
I recall, as many readers of his book will, the same notion — by the sight of crowds, smells of food indigenous to this culture (pizza, French fries, bratwurst, ice cream), the sounds of calliope and step-right-up-and-try-your-luck music, mixed with children's exclamations of false bravado while being shaken, thrust, dropped or jerked — all in the spirit of an amusement ride.
But there's more to boardwalks than that, as Lilliefors expounds on. Boardwalks are testaments to our nation's individuality and a yearning for the comfort and simple, but important, values of eras gone by. People continue to visit seaside towns with boardwalks for the "nostalgia and timeless excitement," as Lilliefors states. He prolifically describes boardwalks as "a state of mind, a place in the imagination."
In America's Boardwalks, Lilliefors explores much more than the Fun House side of this culture. The fact that these monuments still exist almost the same as when they were created is remarkable. Boardwalk towns do not necessarily keep up with our changing culture, where American travelers expect to find Starbuck's, bottled water from Fiji, organic produce and meat, and personally observed, freshly made sushi available in any town they visit.
America's Boardwalks is emphatically not a coffee-table book. Lilliefors' focus became philosophical — and posed a darn good question: "What accounts for their longevity (they're now more than half as old as the U.S.)?" He chose 12 U.S. boardwalks, "not because they were 'the best' but because they were a good representative" of divergent American towns, sharing the same goals — to improve the economy and raise the hopes and spirits of residents and visitors.
Each of the 12 chapters is dedicated to one of the chosen sites. The boardwalks represented are Asbury Park, N.J.; Atlantic City, N.J. (the earliest structure, which opened June 26, 1870); Cape May, N.J.; Coney Island, N.Y.; Daytona Beach, Fla.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Ocean City, Md.; Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Venice Beach, Calif.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Wildwood, N.J.
Some towns have tried to revitalize or upgrade, while maintaining the charm and attraction of the past. Lilliefors says there is a conflict regarding whether a boardwalk should be honky-tonk or go upscale. As he states, the boardwalk was — and is — a place "to escape, to watch the parade, to feast, to fall in love."
This former reporter/writer for the Washington Post, co-founder of two Maryland beachside newspapers (and still owner of one of them), feature writer for the Naples Daily News and senior writer for the Philharmonic Center for the Arts for the past nine years, examines the history and individuals behind the development of each boardwalk, its current state and plans for the future.
Lilliefors spent a year revisiting these enduring ocean-side carnivals rolled out like a red carpet with strolling sun-kissed guests wanting to be noticed while taking note of their fellow revelers. He documents the boardwalk's creation and pontificates on the future of each institution. Each chapter overflows with historical accounts and personal stories of the visionaries and visitors of these American beach icons.
America's Boardwalks includes archival photographs as well as artistic and colorful shots taken by Lilliefors. Although a successful writer, Jim wasn't a photojournalist by trade. Fortunately, Lilliefors received photography lessons from a colleague at the Phil before he started this journey.
Leaf through this book and I swear you'll smell the saltwater on the ocean breeze and the homemade confectioneries created by Laura's Fudge in Ocean City, N.J. (no relation, just a cool coincidence when I was young, wearing my baby-blue satin athletic jacket and scoping boys with whom I might ride the Ferris wheel).