Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Why Jekyll?

Why we live where we live is an interesting question.

I was riding home the other day and thought about a question I get a lot, from visitors, friends, and people online - "Why do you live on Jekyll Island?"   And when I got home, there was an e-mail in my inbox from a reader with the same question.   So it is kizmet.  I have to write a blog posting about this.

To begin with, why do we live where we live?  It is a question - a fundamental one - that few of us choose to ask ourselves.  We live with our parents - as I did - for the first 18 years of our lives.   And then many of us live in "our hometowns" - which is to say, where our parents lived, or in the immediate environs, at least for a while - or for the rest of our lives.  And, again, this is a pattern I followed - living near or around my hometown until I was about 25 years old.

For some people, the story ends there.  They live where their Mother squirted them out as a squalling baby and never move more than 30 miles from that spot.  A bank manager in Ithaca, New York confided to me that he had never left Ithaca in his 35 years of living, other than to fly once to Orlando, which he didn't think much of.   In fact, he rarely left the county he was born in.   Places like Rochester or Buffalo were deemed to be exotic, far-off places that one could never visit.   And growing up in that area, I can attest to this myself.  It is very easy to become insular and comfortable with one single spot - and never want to leave.

For others, they leave home to go off to college at age 18, and then move somewhere for that first job at age 22, and end up living somewhere based on job opportunity more than anything else.   And for many, the story ends there - they live in the same place they got their first job, and never leave.   They forget the reason why they moved there, and just assume it is where they should live.   And again, my life followed this pattern in part, as I moved to the Washington, DC area to go to work for the Patent Office - and spent 20 years there in the rat race, chasing the dream.

I realized, after a while, that places like that were a place to make money, but not necessarily where you would want to settle full-time.   Yet, I know a lot of retirees who live in Fairfax County, after doing their 20-30 years with the government.   It's all they know, and they have no inclination to leave, even though the cost of living is high, the traffic is insane, and in the summer, there are "code red" days where the air is deemed unsafe to breath, particularly for elderly people.   I mean, what's not to like?   Perfect place to retire and get old, right?

But a funny thing happened in the 1990's.   The Internet.   And yes, to the dear reader who sent me a writing style guide, that is a sentence fragment.   For God's sake, don't ever apply a writing style guide to any of the "great authors" - you'd go insane.   I'm not saying I'm a great author, of course, but sometimes you have to bend the rules of grammar to make a point.  And that's the point.  And you should never start a sentence with "And" - one of my worst habits.  Or But.

Anyway, the internet allowed me to work from anywhere.   From my spare bedroom, or my camper, or from a cabin in the woods - so long as we had internet service, which you can get via satellite from the old Hughes Aircraft Corporation and its successors.  After an airplane crashed into the Pentagon, some "sniper" dude started gunning down people at gas stations or the parking lot of the Home Depot, and then another nutjob started sending anthrax through the mail, we decided to Escape from Fairfax County and find somewhere else to live.

We already had a condo in Florida, so that seemed like a logical place to go, at least part-time.  We bought an elaborate house on a lake in New York - forgetting about the high cost of living there and the primitive mindset of most Central New Yorkers.   On the way back from Florida, we stopped at Jekyll - a vacation waypoint we had been coming to for over 20 years at that point.  We had even made an offer on a house ten years' previous, but it never went through.   This time, almost on impulse, we bought.  And that was over a decade ago.

In retrospect, it was kind of a rash decision, but we have no regrets.   We bought at the height of the market, and today our house is worth.... what we paid for it.   But it is hard to make money on your personal residence anyway - and besides we really cleaned up on other properties we owned.   So I can't complain too much - not when others have been foreclosed upon in other parts of the country.

But the question remains, Why Jekyll?  Why here?   And the answer is complex.   It certainly is not a place for most people - and in fact, many people dislike it strongly.   When we made the unsuccessful offer on a neighboring house 20 years ago, Mark was still unsure about the place.  "I don't know," he said, "This place is kind of creepy and quiet!"

"Ain't it GREAT?" I replied.   It took him another decade to appreciate the "creepy and quiet" thing - again the sniper, anthrax, and crashing airliner made him appreciate it more.

But others, it seems, need noise to drown out the deafening silence in their lives.  They want a busy place with lots of traffic to fight.  Some folks just love to drive in traffic, it seems, zoning out and weaving between cars like they are pylons.  I realized later in life that it is kind of a white trash thing to enjoy - like most motorized sports.   The sensation of movement and speed is fascinating to babies and small children.   You get older and driving a car seems more of a chore than a treat - particularly when you are boxed in on all side by other cars.

And still others want to be near "shops" and restaurants - which we have, but not in the plethora that other locations have.  We don't have miles of divided four-lane highways, with the Flintstone's-like repeating scenery of car dealers, chain restaurants, fast-food joints, big-box stores, and condominium developments.   Some people apparently like that sort of thing.  Someone must - most of America has turned into that.   To me, it is frustrating annoyance, driving 1/4-mile at a time between stoplights, awash in a sea of angry SUV drivers.   Why on Earth would anyone choose that?

And again, most people never think of where they live as a choice.   In fact, when they retire, many people make the first choice in their entire lives as to where to live, and it scares the shit out of them. Many choose to stay put where they are - they know their way around, and all of their friends and family are there.   And I guess that is a logical choice for those reasons.   A lot of people who live here, for example, keep one foot in their "hometown" by being snowbirds.   Still others will eventually "go back home" up North when they become infirm, so they can be close to the "grandbabies" and whatnot - which again, can be a logical choice, particularly when you need someone to look after you.

Many folks like the idea of the planned retirement community - safety in numbers.   The Villages is a case in point.   And it is nice there - you can buy a house for under $200,000 - and there is a lot to do, to be sure.  But it is a huge place, and getting huger by the minute.   Eventually, it will encompass all of Florida, at the current growth rates, in about 100 years.

So why Jekyll and not all these other places which have ready access to big-box stores and casual dining emporia?   Well, it is quiet here.  It is a State Park, but not in the sense that we have smokey-the-bear-hat rangers in green uniforms.   The island is run by a benevelent dictatorship known as "The Authority."

Respect My Authority!

As such, it is a hybrid between a State Park, an environmental preserve, a vacation beach resort, an historical site, and a housing development.   The island was taken over by the State after the war, when the Jekyll Island Club - the Millionaires' retreat - foundered.  I could go into all of the history about that, but it would take volumes.  Just read one of the June Cash books or go online.  But please, avoid all these weird "Creature from Jekyll Island" paranoid conspiracy sites that blather on about how the Federal Reserve "took all their money away".  One of the greatest things J.P. Morgan did, was force the government to form the Federal Reserve.  He was simply tired of being the go-to guy whenever the government needed a bailout.   Imagine the alternative if we had no Federal Reserve - we'd be asking Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos to bail out the economy every time it tanked!   But I digress.

For some reason, the island Authority decided to rent out building lots and encourage people to build homes on the island.  It stared as early as the 1950's, I believe, but it didn't take off until the late 1960's and early 1970's when most of the houses on the island were built.   Only 1/3 of the island can be developed, by State Law (this has changed a little bit, as the island has changed dimensions over time, but the thrust is the same - no mega high-rises are going to be built, despite the paranoid rantings of the "Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island" - please ignore them as well!).  So there are a limited number of homes on the island - about 600-700 by most counts.

As a result, the architecture on the island is "challenged".  Oh, sure, there are a few unique houses, a few "mid-century modern" classics (scary when things from your childhood are in antique shops, eh?) and a few oceanfront beach houses.  But for the most part, the houses on the island, particularly on the marsh side, are all of the same or similar designs, all from the same South Georgia Builder's Planbook.   Boring brick ranches.

When Mark's brother first came to visit, he called from the toll booth (yes, you have to pay to get onto the island, and this does keep out the riff-raff).   "How do I find your house?" he asked.   "Just take a left at the gate and drive down Riverview - it's the brick rambler on the right!"  we replied, and hung up, giggling.

He called back ten minutes later.  "They're ALL brick ramblers, Goddammit!" he said, "and they're all on the right!" - and we had a good laugh at his expense.

The houses are pretty well-built, but there are some things to look for.  They are built on a slab, which is fine - no basements or crawl spaces to deal with.  But since the water pipes are buried in the slab, and about 60 years old, they may need to be replaced, eventually.   If you are looking at one of these older homes, it is a plus if the homeowner replaced the pipes - usually by running them through the attic.

Similarly, the older electric panels, made by "Federal Pacific" are deemed by some insurance companies to be a fire hazard.   If the house you are looking at has a new Square-D panel, that is a plus.  Neither of these things is a deal-killer, in my opinion, just something to look for - a plus.

A reader asks why so many houses are for sale in some sections of the island.   "So many" being like, four.   And the answer is, people are dying.  An older generation - mostly retired New York State school teachers (you know, those underpaid ones) have passed on, and a new generation of younger people (meaning people in their 50's and 60's) are moving in.   And a lot of these older homes are in "original" condition - original appliances, windows, roofs, wiring, plumbing, etc.  The heirs of the owners want top dollar for them - and aren't getting it because of the condition.   If you love green appliances from 1970's, I suppose you could call it kitschy mid-century modern.  Most other people call it outdated and worn out.

A friend of mine bought one of those houses and has gutted it and redone it.  Yes, plumbing is now in the attic, not the slab, and a new Square-D box was installed.  Since the houses were well-built, all the interior walls can be moved and removed, freshening up the look and making the house feel more modern and open.

We bought our house after it had been renovated.  Sadly, they did not do the plumbing or electric.  Two chores still on my list!

There is new construction on the island, of course.   When we moved here, there was a row of motels and hotels on the beach - all tired and worn out.   In the next few years, five hotels were torn down (by my count) and only three were built in their place.   Two hotel sites were turned into housing sites.   "The cottages at Jekyll" has a number of townhomes, some on the beach.  "Ocean Oaks" doesn't have a view of the water, but ready beach access, and custom-built single family homes and duplexes.

The hotels were replaced by houses, as people today rent houses for weeks at a time, when they go on vacation.  So houses made more sense than building more hotels - they would end up empty.

Attendance peaked on Jekyll in the late 1970's - until Disney World opened up.   Since then, it has gotten quieter and quieter - which old-time Jekyll residents were quite happy about.   But the island was losing money and costing the State of Georgia more and more each year.  So it was decided to tear down the dated hotels, the outmoded convention center, and the moldering shopping plaza and put something new and better in its place.   And this has meant more visitors to the island and "new people" - who are not retired Yankees, but rather more Southern in nature.  So the "Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island" was born - three couples meeting in someone's living room and starting scandalous rumors and generally saying negative things about the island and trying to shout down each improvement.

Crazy?  You bet.  One couple refuses to use the bike path, because they believe (without any logical foundation based on fact) that it is "ruining the ecology of the island!"   So they ride in the street instead, and will likely be run over, someday.    It is pretty sad to me, that someone so comfortable in life, living in such an idyllic place, can be so unhappy and run down the very place they live.  But again, it is this obsession with politics and conspiracy theories.  Oh, and the messiah complex - they are going to "save the island" for the rest of us.   I had one of these nutjobs tell me that I should be kissing his ass, because he and he alone "saved the island" from a proposal by Linger Longer Communities to build a medium-rise building on the beach.  What "saved the island" was the recession of 2008 which nearly bankrupted that company.   Talk about narcissism!

It is best not to get drawn into groups like that.  I mention this nonsense only that I realized that I finally understood what Genesis was all about.   The story of Adam and Eve isn't about original sin, or sex, or the shame of nudity or serpents and apples.   It is about two people living in paradise and then getting so used to paradise that they start finding fault with it.   God gets fed up and says, "OK, you two, go live in the real world!  See how much fun that is!"  And he tosses them out of paradise.

And I think these "Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island" people are the same way.  They are bored and don't have enough to do, and forgot how hard everyone else has it in the world.   So they pick apart paradise and look for flaws, real and imagined.  They pull at threads in the sweater until it is unwound and then say, "See?  I told you this sweater was no good!"

I am sure there are people like this everywhere - telling you how rotten Hawaii is, or whatever.   Just ignore them and make your own opinions on things.  And don't listen to wild and unfounded rumors - they never end up being true, and just get people riled up.

In the last decade or so, the island has undergone a transformation - for the better.  We have new hotels, a new convention center, and a new retail "downtown" - and a new gas station.   The place looks better and is attracting more visitors.   Nothing like Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, of course - the island simply doesn't have the capacity for that many people.  Even during the "busy" season (in the summer when we usually go away) the island is hardly crowded.   Remember, 2/3rds is undeveloped.  So it is not row after row of beach houses like in places such as Duck, NC.

The renovation has been an amazing thing to watch - and is still ongoing.

Today, we have a critical mass of people to really support the number of restaurants we have here on the island.  And we have a variety of venues to choose from, from the upscale Club Hotel, to the Westin, to the Holiday Inn and Hampton.   Again, the "Coalition" - Yankees every one of them - claimed that they were going to "save Jekyll Island for the average Georgian".   I found that attitude condescending.   The "Average Georgian" might not drive a brand-new Mercedes (unless they are from Atlanta) but odds are, he has a pickup truck that cost even more.   The idea that people want to go on vacation to some run-down poverty resort is just nonsense.  People go on vacation to spend money.  And there is nothing wrong with aiming higher in life.

Now of course, this means that we can't afford to eat at the Westin every night - or at the Club.   But every Wednesday, the Hampton has a happy hour with special appetizers for locals.  And the Bistro at the Villas-by-the-Sea has affordable entrees and a bottle of wine is only $10-$12 with any entree.  That's pretty affordable, even for the below-average Georgian.   So it is possible to go out and have a good time - but going out all the time?   Just not healthy anyway.   You eat out every night and pretty soon, well, you're picking apart paradise, because you are so used to being waited on.

Will I live here the rest of my life?  Probably not.   Eventually, we will sell our house and downsize to a condo or apartment with less room and less "stuff" to deal with, as we get older.   Something near a hospital and shopping - preferably within walking distance.  Something in a safe and affordable neighborhood.   We haven't found it yet.

The reality is, of course, you can buy a much nicer house on the mainland for half as much as here on Jekyll.   Maybe even with a marsh view or even a dock.   If you live here you have to want to live here, and that sort of becomes an interesting filtering criteria.

Last week, we were coming home from the Hampton Inn, after having a few drinks and some appetizers, and seeing a number of friends.  We took the golf cart the "long way" around the island, and the evening breeze off the ocean was lovely.   At times like that, you realize why you live here - because really, there is no other place quite like it.

But people are different, and some folks just don't get it.   And sometimes you see those folks here on the island - doing 50 in a 25 zone, because they're in a "hurry" to get somewhere on a 7-mile long island.   They'd be happier in Myrtle Beach, I think!