The Jersey Shore is one of the state's jewels. It has the reputation of being a trashy area full of bros with spray tans, and there is some of that, but a lot of the shore is upscale with homes costing millions of dollars. The Shore has a northern part that attracts a NYC crowd and a southern part that attracts a Philadelphia crowd. It's an interesting dynamic because you can see sports teams allegiances change and hear accents switch over when you cross that line around Tom's River.
I'm partial to Southern Jersey because I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and my family is from Philadelphia, so our vacation was in Wildwood, NJ. Wildwood is way at the end of the shore, right before Cape May. In my opinion, a lot of the Jersey Shore has been overdeveloped and has turned into wannabe upscale areas with McMansions and condos. The Wildwoods are one of the few remaining shore towns where things are still affordable to working and middle-class people. I use the term Wildwood in a blanket sense, but it will refer to the four towns on the barrier island: North Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and West Wildwood. My focus for finding a house will be in Wildwood City, which sits in the middle of the island. North Wildwood and Wildwood City were founded in the late 1800s. Wildwood Crest followed soon after in the 1910s and West Wildwood in 1920s.
The towns had a few phases of building with most contributing classic and beloved architecture to the towns except for the last and current phase. The first pass is late 19th century and during this time there were some classic Victorians, some vernacular Victorians, small cottages and boarding houses. Wildwood doesn't have a reputation as a Victorian town like its neighbor Cape May, but it still has a good stock of late 1800s/early 1900s buildings it should be proud of. The town was founded by developers and they carved up the town into lots and tried to attract vacationers buy their home at the shore.
The next phase was in the early 1900s with lots of Craftsman-style bungalows, four-squares and simple cottages. Then in the 1950s/60s Wildwood hit another building boom which left the mark that most people associate with the area - the Doo Wop motels. Post-WWII, people were moving to the suburbs and towns were being stamped out with Levittown-style building techniques. Wildwood had a building boom with lots of motels stamped out in a similar mid-century style. The buildings generally were the same, but each motel would have its own unique signage (usually neon) and theme to make them appear different. The motels were modest, and allowed working class residents from Philadelphia and the surrounding areas a vacation place at the Shore. The Wildwoods were booming and not only was there the beach and boardwalk but also a big club scene with top performers. Wildwood even staked a claim as to being the town where rock and roll was founded since Bill Haley debuted Rock Around the Clock in Wildwood.
This is the period my mom grew up in and was vacationing in Wildwood from the Kensington section of Philadelphia. She kept the Wildwood tradition going and through the 70s and 80s -- we had 1 week a year where we'd take a vacation and it would be to rent a place down in North Wildwood. At the turn of the 2000s the Wildwoods emerged as a time capsule with pristine architecture from these different eras, mostly family-run business with few corporate chains, and an opportunity to keep the towns as something really special, but sadly things went in the other direction.
Many of the other shore towns had already experienced building booms and people were being priced out. Take Avalon and Stone Harbor directly north of Wildwood which features some of the richest properties in the state. Avalon recently had a mansion built with custom marble and now they are tearing it down to put up a new mansion - that shows you the level waste you have there. But Wildwood suffered a similar fate of other shore towns like Asbury Park or Venice Beach where you had some preservation through poverty. A lot of the rooming houses were housing drug addicts and dealers instead of vacationers. A problem is that the area is only viable for business 3 months out of the year, so if you are a landlord, you need to figure out how to generate income the other months. One option is to rent to Section 8 or other tenants who are on public assistance since their income is not seasonally dependent. I'm not exactly sure why that happened in Wildwood City, but it ended up having a reputation as being a sketchy town. North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest didn't go down that road with more families owning there, but their real estate values while a little higher, still stayed low due to Wildwood's reputation.
So coming into the late 90s/2000s, you can see why Wildwood was looking to change its image by removing blight from early 1900s boarding houses stocked up with addicts, but rather than embracing its past, it seemed to go full in on erasing the past by tearing down buildings and replacing with "luxury" condos. I don't think anyone was too sad to see the boarding houses go but the building boom continued by leveling tons of Doo-Wop motels and iconic family-run businesses and replacing with condos. The 50s era rooms are small by modern standards and so the motels were not as profitable as people want open floor plans with stainless steel appliances. They also don't want to eat at a family-run restaurant and would prefer the same food they can get at home like Dunkin Donuts.
The Crest and North Wildwood were always in better shape than Wildwood City, but they still were primarily populated with the early 1900s single family homes and Doo-Wop motels - still blue-collar but a notch above Wildwood City. These towns then seemed to shoot for luxury level and now you're seeing a 1920s bungalow worth 300K sold, torn down and replaced with a huge McMansion or condo complex.
So now the Wildwoods sit in this transition period where it could remain affordable, keep the modest homes and motels, support local family-run businesses and celebrate that history, or continue tear things down, replace with luxury housing, watch rental prices go up which forces out local businesses for more corporate chains and turn into a generic Jersey Shore town. My goal with buying an old house is to try to be one piece of resistance to the generic-trification of the area and hopefully work with other like-minded people to keep the spirit of Wildwood alive.