SEAGROVE BEACH, Fla. — I had not been long at the coast this spring before I got the news.
The Panama City News-Herald announced it: “Panama City Beach is not the ‘Redneck Riviera’.”
It was not the first time that coastal communities tried to distance themselves from a moniker that attached itself to Alabama’s sandy shore and spread eastward, across the Florida Panhandle, until it reached St. Andrews Bay and Panama City proper.
Along this line, people from the lower South found a place where they could shuck off hometown restraints, take a break from job and responsibility and relax.
Although these folks differed from each other in many ways, they shared a “glorious lack of sophistication” that comedian Jeff Foxworthy claimed was the defining characteristic of a “redneck.”
Beach businesses catered to these visitors with attractions and amusements. They operated state fair-type rides and staged sideshows for families with children. “Hangouts” entertained the teens. Oyster bars awaited the gastronomically daring, beer joints quenched many a thirst and, of course, there was the beach.
Unsophisticated, of course, but for the most part it was orderly and law-abiding.
This was the Redneck Riviera of the 1950s and 1960s. Panama City Beach was its epicenter.
In the 1970s and 1980s, people arrived at the coast more sophisticated than their predecessors, people wanted more than a week in a cheap motel, a beer on the beach and a carnival at night. They wanted to shop at places that sold something other than air-brush T-shirts, eat at restaurants with white table cloths, and drink wine instead of beer. If all these amenities were available, they might even buy a place down there.
So it followed that counties and communities began to cooperate to attract this more sophisticated clientele.
Tourism councils and chambers of commerce got into the act and a new kind of “Riviera” was born, one that was a quite different from came before.
So, why are communities like Panama City Beach still trying to distance themselves from a gloriously unsophisticated past that is, for the most part, gone?
Because there exists in the American mind another image associated with redneckery, an image of people who are not just “gloriously unsophisticated” but who also are at odds with civilized society, people who flaunt the rules that decent folks follow and expect the forces of law and order to ignore them.
And one of the times these folks seem to take over is spring break.
It may seem odd that the one time of the year when the coast is invaded by people who are generally better-educated and more affluent than earlier visitors, the invaders are accused of returning redneckery to the Riviera. But they are. And because spring break is giving Panama City Beach a reputation civic leaders find incompatible with the image they want to project, officials have vowed to clean it up.
You might say that PCB is getting what it deserves. When Daytona Beach chased off spring-breakers, PCB welcomed them with open arms. Clubs offered all you can drink parties. Marinas sponsored “booze cruises.” The good times rolled.
Until this year when Sean Hannity of Fox News delivered an “unflattering national report” that “exposed” the drinking, drugs and sex at spring break, Panama City Beach.
Locals residents crowded City Hall to demand that something be done. Business owners, however, were wary. Spring break, they pointed out, was an essential part of the March economy, and they reminded city fathers that “many Daytona Beach businesses regret driving [breakers] away.”
Businesses carried the day. Although the City Council approved increasing the number of police patrolling the shoreline, adding some K-9 units and requiring everyone drinking to have a valid ID on their persons, business interests blocked sterner measures like a no-alcohol-on-the-beach ordinance or a rule prohibiting coolers.
This pleased some, but not the one council member who voted for stricter regulations.
“I just feel strongly that we need to make some decisions to bring the beach back like it was intended to be,” the councilwoman told the News Herald. Then she added that Panama City beach is “not the Redneck Riviera.”
Well, maybe not now, but once it was. More to the point, spring break and its excesses were never much of a problem when the gloriously unsophisticated made up most of the coastal clientele. It seems to me that those upset with spring break excesses, and I happen to be one of them, should long for the days before chambers of commerce and tourism development councils decided it was a dandy idea to invite college kids to party in PCB.
Instead of denying that their beach was ever part of the Redneck Riviera, we might do well to bring back a little of what it once was before “progress” and “promotion” swept it away.
Time to ride the “Tilt-a-Whirl” again.