Thursday, May 13, 2021

Help! I'm Being Gentrified!

Our little island is being gentrified, but there ain't much you can do about it.  And it ain't all that bad, either!

When we moved here, right after the recession started, the Jekyll Island Authority made bold plans to re-make the island.  Nothing had changed much since 1970, when much of the island infrastructure was built - the houses, the hotels, the shopping "plaza" and the convention center.  It was like living in a mid-century-modern time-warp.  But it was all kind of shabby and run-down and visitation was at its lowest in the history of the island as a State Park.

So they tore down the hotels - almost all of them, other than the Club Hotel, of course, and the Days Inn, which was always popular.  And what is now the Holiday Inn was closed and gutted for remodeling.  We lost something like five hotels almost overnight - and our Waffle House, which was crushed by a falling oak tree in a storm.  The Waffle House people took a pass on rebuilding it - it was not very profitable.  They cashed the insurance check and went home. One by one, businesses and restaurants closed. And because of the recession, none of it was rebuilt for almost a decade.  It became what I called, "Georgia's Abandoned Island."

It was marvelous.

We had the whole island to ourselves.  The average age here was 74, which we lowered by at least a year when we moved here.  Mark was 41 and I was 46, and all our new friends, who were "old enough to be our parents" (as they constantly reminded us) told us we were "too young" to be living here - as if there was an age requirement like the height requirement for the rides at Disney World.  "I have children your age!" one said, to which I replied, "Sorry they're such losers!" That wasn't a very popular thing to say.

But the island was in stasis.  Most of the residents were retired Yankees - typically husband-and-wife retired school teachers from New York or some other generous pension State. The island was very "low key" and everything was run on a shoestring budget.  Our fire department was staffed by volunteers. The garden club would raise money to place benches along the bike path.  When Christmas rolled around, we'd all go down to the Jekyll Island Club and make wreathes and garlands with greenery harvested by the Authority staff.  The Club Hotel would provide urns of hot coffee and box upon box of donuts.  Then we'd go and decorate all the historic buildings. The Authority staff would dust off the rusty light displays and set them up.  It was pretty amazing.

At the South end of the island was the recycling center.  You took your cans and bottles and newspapers and cardboard there and sorted them - the glass I think even by color.  If you had some old piece of furniture or something to throw away, you left it there, and some other island resident would pick it up.

Further South was the blockhouse for the Jekyll Island Cable Company - started because the mainland cable companies refused to come to Jekyll and the hotels needed cable for their guests. Old Matellivision computer consoles ran "blue screen" scrolling text channels, which advertised everything from various island events, to lost dog notices. It was all pretty small and human-scaled.

Our gas station was a tired affair and always looked like it was closed.  Some local "Good Ole Boy" ran a car-waxing business out of the service bay, but that was about it.  This sort of typifies the low-expectations of that era, I'm afraid.

We had a marina - with a sketchy collection of live-aboard boats, plus a few more abandoned boats in storage or on racks.  We traveled to Key West once in our boat, and someone there saw "Jekyll Island" on the stern of our boat, and said, "Isn't that the place with the crappy restaurant at the marina?"  And we had to nod our heads and say "yes."

Well, all that is gone now.  The Christmas decorations are now artificial and put up by the authority staff.  The Club Hotel does their own decorations. We have curbside recycling and no one leaves an old sofa at the recycling center anymore.  We get a hefty monthly bill from Waste Management, too! The fire department went from volunteer to part-professional to all-professional and we  are now assessed an annual $650 "fire fee".  There is talk of tearing down the fire department and building a new "public safety building" by the old putt-putt golf course (which survives only because it is profitable). 

Jekyll Cable is gone, although you'll find remnants of the old buried cable in your backyard.  We now have Comcast - well, my neighbors have it, those who haven't gotten disgusted and gone to Dish Network (and they end up disgusted with that as well).  The old shopping plaza, which was literally starting to smell bad, is gone, replaced by a new fancy "downtown Jekyll" with multiple shops and stores.  The old grocery store is still there - no longer an IGA - selling $8 jars of pickles and more t-shirts than groceries.

New restaurants have opened up - and stayed open.  We have a critical mass of people now, to sustain multiple restaurants, and the new clientele, mostly from Atlanta, has higher expectations for cuisine.  Gone are the days when the local restaurants would close early due to lack of business.

Our new gas station is a multi-pump affair and probably the busiest place on the island. It has a convenience store and a Dairy Queen (wait time for an ice cream cone: one hour.  Avoid at all costs!). The fuel prices are at least in line with the mainland - no more price-gouging going on.

The new convention center is spectacular - and as unbooked as the old one was.  Indian weddings seem to be a major draw, but even the Georgia State Bar still meets in Amelia or South Carolina (traitors!).

As for the hotels, we have a fancy new Westin, whose pool bar serves amazing tropical drinks that I can no longer afford, which is OK by them, as they don't want "locals" hanging out by the pool.  We are less-than-welcome at the Club Hotel, which (under old management) used to host a "locals night" with discounted drinks and free appetizers.   I can't blame them for that - they have new rich friends who spend money and don't want to hang out at the lobby bar with a bunch of drunken island residents.

Speaking of island residents, while new hotels are springing up (and have sprung up) at least three of the former hotel sites are being converted (or have been converted) to housing.  New houses at "Ocean Oaks" and town homes at "the Cottages" - and now new condos by the marina.  We had 600 homes on the island before redevelopment, I suspect that number may nearly double.  Hope the wells don't run dry.

Speaking of the marina - it is under new management and the derelict boats are gone and the docking fees are up.  The restaurant is under new management and the food is good - although I can't really afford to eat there much.  There is a waiting list of people wanting to dock their boat there - willing to pay top dollar to do so.  But in the old days, the "Good Ole Boy" network set aside low-cost slips for their friends, some of which were living on boats as small as 18 feet.  It had to change.

The golf courses - all four of them - were getting kind of worn out, and the popularity of golf has plummeted in recent years.  Many newer courses have opened up on the mainland or on adjacent islands.  The golf course was a money-loser for many years.  There is talk of consolidating the courses into three, instead of four, and adding yet more housing and perhaps an eldercare center there.  We'll have to see how that plays out.

The garden club is no more - dissolved due to lack of interest as members aged out and died.  You can still have a bench installed along the bike path, complete with a plaque honoring your loved ones.  But it will cost you $3000 and will be installed by the Island Authority.   They are nice benches, too.  And more of them are popping up than ever before.

We have a new tollbooth that uses your license plate to collect tolls.  No more are there locals manning the booth with a wad of cash in their hand, with one $5 fee going to the Authority and every other going into their pocket - and of course, all their friends get in for free, right?  The Good Ole Boy network has been dismantled somewhat - there was a lot of theft going on in the "good old days" which is why many are lamenting its passing.

At a local restaurant, you could drink all night for $10, provided you tip the bartender $20.  And the island Authority wondered why they never made money (a former chef was supposedly caught stealing food and taking it to his own restaurant he ran on the mainland).  Everyone had their snout in the trough - and it was that way since the island became a State Park after the war.  The island authority contracted with the nephew of a State Senator to pave the roads - using free prison labor housed in the old dairy barn.  Shades of Cool Hand Luke.

So yes, the "good old days" are gone, but to some extent, that is a good thing.  The island was losing money and we can't just keep asking the State of Georgia to subsidize a retirement community for a bunch of New Yorkers, can we?   And many of the changes are for the better - like better food, for example.

But with change, comes loss.  Gone are the days when we could go to the beach, park ourselves on the sand all day and never see another soul. People are "discovering" Jekyll, and some of the "locals" aren't happy about it.  We were here first!  It is frustrating to be tailgated by someone who is anxious after a six hour drive from Atlanta - not realizing that they have already arrived nd the speed limit is as low as 15 MPH.  Worse yet, once they check into their hotel, they drive around the island at 10 mph below the speed limit (until you try to pass them, then they speed up).  Fuckheads from Buckhead, we call them.  Everyone hates tourists, even if they are one.

But change is inevitable, and the few lonely voices who wanted things to "stay the way they were" were largely off their rocker.  Things change over time, and fighting change is pointless, unless you have some alternative proposal.  Stasis is not an option, which is why the GOP is so out of touch.  Change may be coming too fast for many of us, but "going back to the good old days" simply is a non-starter.  And yes, some in the GOP want to go back to "the good old days" before 1865.

Our island is moving upscale, there is no doubt about it.  When we moved here, the Buick ruled the road, and we were one of the few people with a BMW and our friends down the way had one of the few Mercedes.  Today, the situation is reversed - high-end foreign cars are commonplace.  We have a wealthier clientele, and wealthier residents - many of whom own homes here but come to visit for only a few months or weeks of the year.  Full-time residents are declining in number, as they leave the island feet-first.  The lady who told me I was too young to live here has passed on.  So many of our friends here have - or are making their way to the final exit.

Will we ever leave Jekyll or be forced out?  It is hard to say.  We've been through this before - being offered staggering sums of money for our house in Virginia, our condos in Florida, and my office building in Old Town.  We took the money.  Right now, prices are pretty high and we could "cash out" although it would not realize a lot more than what we paid for the place.  Maybe this bubble has more legs in it yet - but I doubt it.  The conundrum of "where would we live, then?" is always a problem.  Florida is too crowded and the property taxes are murder. If we stay here, we are homesteaded and our taxes will drop to $800 a year when I turn 66.  It a very attractive trap!

But decrying gentrification is pointless.  Yes, there are so many new things here on the island - but I can't afford most of them.  The new museum is supposed to be nice, but I'm not paying $15 a head to see it.  The Turtle Center (and hospital) is interesting as well.  I saw it long ago - no need to go back at $10 a pop. The bars and restaurants are nice - but again, priced for vacationing clientele from the city.  We go once in a while, split an entree and have a glass of wine.

The bike path is still free - although increasingly we are seeing more and more e-bikes on it.  But it has been expanded and widened, too - something that was long overdue,  Today, we saw the queer site of 20 people, all dressed alike, riding Segway Scooters on the path - which is not allowed.  While I can see that an e-bike might be a good thing for an 80-year-old with mobility problems, the folks we are seeing, riding these motorcycles (and some are quite motorcycle-like) are all young wealthy people from the city.  Something is lost there.

The beach is still free as well, and you can ride you bike on it, and have a picnic and string a hammock between dead driftwood trees.  But again, there are far more people these days - the Authority has had to add more parking spaced by the beach and reduce the speed limit to 25 as there are so many people walking in the road.

Of course, there are other improvements as well.  The acres of beach parking lots have been replaced with more eco-friendly parking areas, divided up by trees and green space, so that it is more intimate and the drainage doesn't all go into the ocean or marsh.  New picnic pavillions have been installed, each with its own barbecue grill.  We go there and grill a hamburger or sausage and the locals think we are crazy.  "Why barbecue at the beach, when you have a backyard?" they ask.  "Because it is at the beach, and I don't have to clean the grill" we reply.  People get it in their head that these things are for "visitors" and not residents - but visitors rarely use them as well.

A quick trip to the beaches of Florida puts this all in perspective. We are hardly crowded.  And we aren't "priced out" of the neighborhood just yet.  Others, however, who came here and rented places, or stayed for four months in the campground, are starting to feel the pinch.  The current campground manager (who used to rent our house, before we owned it) is nearing retirement.  He filled the campground with "Snowbirds" by offering attractive monthly rates.  It worked, too - the campground used to be pretty empty in the winter when we would come here back in the 1990's. 

Today it is full - and the Authority is limiting how long you can stay.  Everyone out by March 31st!  Or something like that.  It is profitable, though, and they plan on expanding it - further.  But many of our campground friends are grousing that they can no longer spend November through April here, but instead, only three months, unless they want to pay a lot more.

It remains to be seen if our Canadian friends will return post-Covid. They might find themselves squeezed out - of a lot of places.  Snowbird destinations in Florida that were popular with Canadians are filling up with the new generation of "CoVid Campers" and unless they all decide that RVing is a bunch of hooey, it may be very crowded next fall.

If it sounds like I am complaining, I am not.  I am just reporting the facts - reality - and reality is value-neutral.  How you interpret reality is how it works out.  And from our perspective, redevelopment of the island was inevitable and necessary.  It couldn't just keep on the way it was, falling apart and run-down, for long.  The State of Georgia couldn't keep subsidizing our retirement homes forever.  And as every inch of waterfront in America is "discovered" by an ever-increasing population, over time, it was only a matter of time before our overlooked island was revisited.  You can't stop progress, anymore than you can stop a freight train by standing in front of it.  I mean, you can get run over, but that's about it.

So, gentrification hits our little island, and you know what?  It ain't all that bad.  Yes, we lost something along the way, but we also gained something as well.  It is up to you to decide whether what was lost was worth what was gained.  But bear in mind that it is human nature to long for the past, and to over-value what we have versus what could be.

It is funny, but when I mention we live on Jekyll Island, some folks I talk to say that they came here - years ago - and leave it at that. "But it's changed!" I say, because I know what they are thinking: what a dump!  And yes, it pretty much was.

So, overall, progress is a good thing, even as it leaves some of us behind.  But the folks "left behind" are the old generation - one foot in the grave.  The heads of the "Coalition to Hate Jekyll Island" - who I have written about before and waste all their energy hating these developments (and accomplishing nothing) are all over 70, many over 80, some even over 90.  In other words, almost dead.  We have to make room for the next generation, whether we like it or not, and the next generation isn't gathering together to make evergreen wreathes for Christmas, because they all have jobs to go to.

It is like Ms. AOC.  I don't like her, or her politics.  But she represents some of the younger generation, and I will be long dead before she has any real power in Congress.  It is up to the next generation to decide how to run the country, not me.  So long as they don't screw up my Social Security, that is!

Similarly, the folks moving to Jekyll these days are all younger - in their 50's, even older than when I moved here (and remember, I was told I was "too young" to live here, at the time!  Fuck you, grandma!).  This new generation of residents - many part-time - are younger, more urban, more Southern, and wealthier than the previous generations.  In a few years, it will be "their" island, and they will have their own clubs, their own traditions, and their own institutions.

And that's OK.  We have to let the past rest in peace.  Appreciate it for what it was, but realize it could not be sustained forever.  Life is like that - we have to let go of the past and stop trying to "preserve" our childhood, or things from our childhood, or friendships from childhood - or things of that nature.

Because when you get down to it, when you cling to the past, you forego the future.  And the future can be so much better.  At least historically, this has been the case, in the long-term.