Somewhere between South Jersey’s suburban towns and its popular seaside resorts lay a network of train tracks draped through the forests of the state’s seven southernmost counties. From 1933 until 1976, they bustled with passengers escaping to beach towns up and down the state’s coastline from crowded and sweltering neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden. The growth of private car travel and the opening of the Atlantic City Expressway in the mid-1960s reduced rail offerings to the shore down to just the Atlantic City Line, which still operates today. But at least a few times a year, you can take a ride on some of the historic tracks that ignited the Philadelphia region’s love affair with New Jersey’s southern beaches.
A lot of my mental energy is taken up thinking about transportation. Specifically, about how the shift from dense, urban living in the first half of the 20th century gave way to sprawled out, distant living in the second half of the century that resulted in a wide array of social and physical ills, such as the soul-deadening sameness of the suburbs that so many people my age are currently turning away from. So it’s fascinating, and a bit depressing, to look at artifacts from the time in the state when our old downtowns were thriving and we weren’t yet obsessed with car-dependent sprawl. This map of the old Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, active from about 1933 to 1976, is one such artifact.
As you can read about in such works as Leigh Gallagher’s excellent post-mortem The End of the Suburbs, the radical transformation of the American landscape was facilitated by a post-war housing boom that coincided with the mass production and affordability of the automobile. People were escaping dense, dirty cities in search of cleaner pastures. While the urge was understandable, the result is that we went from one extreme to the other without stopping to figure out if there was a happy medium in the process. As a result, our cities decayed as we built highways, strip malls, and massive sprawling developments. (It would be inappropriate to not point out that the decline of American cities was also intensified by the resulting negative stigma that the city-leavers held for their old residences and those who stayed, as can be seen by the widespread practice of redlining and, even now, the efforts of states like ours to keep the rich people in rich towns and poor people in poor towns.)
In the process of this outward expansion, we decided we no longer had use of passenger rail and massively scaled back its offerings, if not wiped it out completely. My parents fondly remember taking the Seashore Lines train down to Cape May for the weekend; my memories involve being incredibly bored stuck in traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway and the New Jersey Parkway going to and from the shore. What hand-wringing we perform to this day whenever we go to Ocean City, Wildwood, or Cape May, all stuck on highways in our SUVs, those supposed vessels of freedom.
Which brings me back to this image in the context of our present-day world. It’s incredibly vexing to see what used to exist as local governments are trying to bring their downtowns back and plans abound to bring back passenger rail service along those old freight lines in South Jersey. As the baby boomers who so bought into suburbia leave the state for greener pastures and thought leaders in the state work to retain and attract millennials, I can’t help but think that we had this all figured out for several decades before we went to the extreme and abandoned the old world for the new in our own state. As property taxes continually rise to support the sprawl and all of the functionally unsustainable infrastructure that goes with it, we could do with some retrospection into our past to see what worked and why for so many New Jerseyans for so long.
Like many kids who grew up in South Jersey, my parents took me down the shore every year. It was nothing particularly fancy; we went wherever we could afford for a week. I was probably less than ten years old when I got my first taste of the beach, the amusements, and the wonders of the New Jersey shore town boardwalk. Pretty much since that first visit, I was hooked, and I’ve been back every year since. To say that I, along with so many other tourists, take the shore for granted seems like an understatement. We’re so used to the ice cream shops, the pizza places, the arcades, that we sometimes think of as a separate, perfect place, apart from the wider world at large.
Or at least I did until someone on Twitter brought the shore town I’ve gone to for a decade and a half crashing into my every day world view. On June 28th, well into the vacation season, Baltimore walkability advocate PedestrianError tweeted:
“I’ve often wondered why so many people choose walkable vacations spots year after year, but choose to buy homes in sprawl.”
This really stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been a proponent of urban, walkable environments for years, but I never stopped to think about how the shore towns I grew up visiting play directly into this passion. When I really started thinking about it, it all made sense.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you get off the parkway (or the train) and into a shore town’s downtown area is just how many people you see walking around. At the height of the season, tourists clog the sidewalks, spill out onto the roadway, make their way down the boardwalk, and walk to and from the beach. Think about the intersection of JFK and Landis Avenues in Sea Isle City, 96th Street in Stone Harbor, Washington Street in Cape May (one of the only successful pedestrian-only streets I’ve seen in the United States), or the boardwalk in Ocean City. These are areas of extreme walkability, where you can park your car for the day, or walk from your hotel or rental, and explore shops, restaurants, and attractions for hours on foot.
And why are they so walkable? Because they essentially have the same dynamic as dense city cores. They are very densely packed with things to do and see, often in a mixed-use environment with apartments or condos on top of shops and restaurants. Storefronts are right up against one another, with no setback from the sidewalk, meaning you can hop from one to the other effortlessly. There are very few parking lots, because the land is too valuable to merely let empty boxes sit on it all day. So parking is tight and always metered, forcing high turnover to maximize how many people can visit an area in a day and to incentivize arriving by foot or other means. Basically, the commercial districts in shore towns are the opposite of the suburbs, where single-use zoning prevails and shops are far apart, forcing you to drive to get around. And what do people do in the face of this extreme shift in their built environment? They go crazy for it, every year, for generations.
If you look at the numbers, this all makes sense. The summertime populations of these shore towns turn them into microcosms of urbanity. Take Sea Isle City, for instance, whose population increases from a few thousand in the off season to around 40,000 from June through August. This brings the town’s population density to around 15,800 per square mile, putting it more on par with Patterson or Jersey City than a sleepy barrier island town. It’s a similar story with Cape May, which hits around 18,000 people per square mile, or Ocean City, with around 12,000 people per square mile. These towns swell to densities far above those of most of the states towns.
With this urban density comes the kinds of things we’re only just now seeing in cities in the US but which have been a part of the shore for decades. When I started thinking about how shore towns adhere to many of the principles of new urbanism, I thought immediately of the sharing economy. Think, for instance, about how such a high percentage of people who go down the shore rent their places for a week instead of buying, since the price of a shore home and the maintenance thereof is insanely prohibitively expensive in both time and money. This results in a massive sharing of physical spaces for a week at a time. Or think about renting a bike to get around. While bike share programs have only just begun to pop up in American cities, renting a bike has been a part of the shore for as long as I can remember. There are huge common spaces throughout the shore towns in the form of squares showing outdoor films in the evening, soccer and baseball fields, basketball courts, and of course, public beaches for everyone to use.
Maybe this is why, when I got older, I fell in love with urban spaces. When our week was done at the shore and we made the traffic-clogged drive back to our suburban town, I immediately felt the lack of liveliness, of exciting things to do, of places I could go near my house. Going to the shore served as a window into what’s possible when you put a bunch of people somewhere they really want to be. I’ve never lost that love, and it might be in no small part thanks to a few islands off the coast of New Jersey.
I did something last weekend that few people I’ve talked to apparently know you can do. I had known for a while that it was possible, but I’d just never gotten around to it. It’s something a little bit unintuitive, but in the end, pretty rewarding.
I took a train down the shore. Tucked behind the ShopRite on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, there’s an NJ Transit stop for their Atlantic City rail line that runs between Philly and the shore town. There are nine stops in all: the line begins at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and hits Pennsauken (which features a link to NJ Transit’s Riverline between Camden and Trenton), Cherry Hill, Lindenwold (which has a transfer to PATCO), Atco, Hammonton, Egg Harbor City, Absecon, and finally Atlantic City. The trip took about an hour from Cherry Hill, which is comparable to driving, or shorter if there’s bad traffic on the roads.
Now, it’s not for everyone. It only goes to Atlantic City; shore staples like Ocean City or Wildwood remain at the mercy of Expressway and Parkway traffic. But being able to get to the shore on a train was liberating. There was no hunting for expensive parking in a casino lot or garage, no fighting everyone else on the road who had the idea to go down the shore on a nice day. We got off the train right in the thick of the city’s attractions. Once you leave the station, you’re presented with The Walk, an outdoor mall of over 100 regular and outdoor shops and restaurants. You’re just a few blocks from Ducktown, home of the famous White House Sub Shop, which gets its bread from the also-famous Formica Brothers bakery located across the street. If you’re down there to gamble, a decent selection of casinos are close by. The boardwalk is just past that, with its usual New Jersey shore town boardwalk things. There’s also the Pier Shops at Caesar’s, a three story mall on a pier with a restaurant level that includes Steven Starr’s Buddakan and The Continental, where we had dinner. A few blocks south is boardwalk hall, which has concerts and the occasional hockey game or circus. And of course, there’s the vast beach, complete with lounges and bars.
Honestly, Atlantic City is a great day trip destination even if you don’t like gambling. And as NJ Spotlight reported last week, Atlantic City is in fact looking to expand its DO AC campaign to include promoting as many non-gambling attractions as possible, and with good reason. Since several of the states that surround New Jersey have legalized gambling, the city can no longer rely on its exclusivity for a constantly high revenue stream. And now that New Jersey itself has legalized online gambling, it’s about time the city started focusing on other ways to support the massive tourism industry the city was founded on. If you decide to go down this summer, I know a great way to get there.