After a long dusty drive last weekend in a car packed to the gills with a week's supply of materiale for the family vacation at the shore, the first sign that caught my eye after rolling over the bridge from the mainland was for real estate. No surprise there. This 18-mile barrier island counts real estate as its top product, with little irony attached to the certain fact that any number of storms can detach its mortgages and tear-downs and reams of listings from reality.
It really is all just sand, buffeted by Atlantic waves. Nevertheless, real estate dominates and there are dozens of agencies up and down the boulevard. And in recent years, the easy credit balloon propped up more than the odd fishing shack: tearing down humble two-bedroom cottages from the 30s and 40s and replacing them with four-story monstrosities of particle board and pastel paint became the norm. Several "architects" addicted to the window trade and columns that hold up nothing in particular plied their "design" trade here like so many salty Albert Speers building beach palaces into the sky to make up for shortcomings elsewhere.
In any case, back to that sign - which should have stopped traffic and caused any mortgaged property owner here to spill that grande half-caff when emerging from the bridge traffic. "Ask for our foreclosures list!" it read. "Many new properties added!"
This place was real estate heaven for a decade. Buy something small. Tear it down, Build a monster. Sell it. Repeat. Yet you felt that if the bubble burst, it would be places like this one on the East Coast that would be hit hardest. You could pretty much smell the exotic jumbo mortgages around here, like you can low tide over by the bay. This place was leveraged to the max. And it's true that the bubble lies like a fallen kite on the beach - every street has for sale signs dotting its lawns and driveways. Even the monster cottages - bizarre ideas executed by crazy people stoked on easy credit, ideas that have basically destroyed the haven of my youth (though the beach remains beautiful) - are for sale, marked down. Many are half-completed.
I find myself grumbling as I make the run for sun tea at the coffee shop or wine at the package store, shaking a virtual fist at these ugly towers in towns that had almost no zoning. That and telling the kids what it used to be like. But I guess you can't hold back progress. Or the sea.