LBI: A World Apart

Summer crowds and chic amenities have encroached on Long Beach Island, but for most, it’s still a magic place.

Bob Curran has lived in Surf City since 1949. A retired policeman, he now does maintenance at Barnegat Lighthouse.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

It’s a late August night inside the Gateway Lounge & Restaurant in Ship Bottom. As the first of the evening’s bands begins its sound check on the small stage, Denny Harrington moves from table to table, coolly lifting his t-shirt to show friends and family his new tattoo. He got it this afternoon, on the mainland in Manahawkin. And he’s pretty stoked about it.

At 19, Harrington is quintessential Long Beach Island. His skin is bronzed with the effortless surfer-glow tan of a year-round islander; his head is crowned with a cool, ruffled shock of sun-bleached, blonde hair.

Harrington is what you might call LBI royalty—if not financially, then certainly by blood and reputation. He comes from a long line of Long Beach Islanders—the old guard, if you will. His grandmother summered here when she was a girl, back when LBI was still the Eden of the Shore. Eventually she moved to the island full time and opened the Country Corner Farm Market on 9th Street in Ship Bottom. It’s one of the first stops many visitors make when they cross the bridge that spans Manahawkin Bay. Denise Harrington, Denny’s mother, helps out in the market to this day.

Tonight is important—and bittersweet—for Denny. In two days he and his family will drive to landlocked Milwaukee for his second year at Marquette University. The new tattoo—a line of black script emblazoned at a slight angle over the upper right corner of his chest—is his way of remaining connected. It reads: Never turn your back on the ocean.

“It’s a reminder to stay in touch,” he says. “Because this is home.”

The tattoo could be the calling card for anyone who has fallen under LBI’s spell.

“You come here because you love the ocean,” says Denise, taking a seat next to her son. For all the island has to offer—fresh seafood, provincial charm, lovely shops—it’s the ocean, she says, that pulls most strongly.

But Long Beach Island also has its issues, many of which have been accentuated over the last few decades. Real estate has skyrocketed (along with the rest of the Shore), pricing out many of the working-class residents who long ago settled here. Beach erosion continues to plague the barrier island, with the southern tip washing away at a rate of about 20 to 28 feet per year—the fastest in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s also more crowded than ever, and many long-time devotees bemoan the influx of well-heeled homebuyers and renters in search of Hamptons 2.0.
“The island is much more developed these days, sure,” says Denise. “You see a lot of little bungalow houses being torn down and big monstrosities going up in their place. I do kind of miss that older Long Beach Island. I just hope it never loses any more of its charm.”

Centuries before it was considered a family summering spot, Long Beach Island was a hunter’s paradise. Discovered in the early 1600s by the Dutch explorer Captain Cornelius May, the 18-mile-long barrier island eventually became the haunt of wealthy outdoorsmen from southern New Jersey and Philadelphia looking for an untarnished seaside wilderness in which to fish, hunt, and trap. Dozens of small gunning shacks dotted the bayfront, and tents sprang up on the ocean beaches—makeshift shelters for these coastal frontiersmen.

In those days, the only way to reach the island was by boat across Manahawkin Bay, an inconvenience that preserved the island as a wilderness. Then, in 1886, a railroad bridge was constructed across the water, making the island accessible for casual visitors. A storm destroyed the trestle in 1935, but not before an automobile causeway was completed in 1914, bringing with it a steady flow of vacationers. Today, that single causeway remains the only means of reaching LBI by car.

“When you come over the bridge, your heart picks up a beat,” says Jay Mann, an LBI resident since the early 1960s and managing editor of the local weekly, The Sandpaper.

Compared to other Shore locales, LBI developed slowly during the first half of the 20th century. To be sure, the island attracted its share of tourists, notably to grand hotels such as the Oceanic and the Baldwin, both gone today. It even had a small, 16-block boardwalk in Beach Haven, but that was washed away in a devastating 1944 hurricane.

Even into the late 1950s and early ’60s, LBI was still looked upon as somewhat of a backwater—an unaffected destination where working-class families vacationed or lived year-round in small bungalows and modest Cape Cods. While much of the Shore attempted to draw tourism dollars with flashy attractions, LBI was enjoying its relative isolation.

It still does.

“I understand people’s love for Asbury or Wildwood or Cape May, but there is something magical that comes together on this barrier island,” says Mann. “Maybe it’s the island concept, the idea of coming over that bridge that gives you a sense of detachment from the rest of world.”

John Coyle grew up on the island in the northern borough of Harvey Cedars. His wife, Gretchen, lived on the south end in Beach Haven. Until they retired in 2005, the Coyles owned and operated Sink’R Swim, a high-end clothing store in Beach Haven. Now they spend most of their time in their elegant, tucked-away bayfront home, where John restores old sailboats and Gretchen writes about the island and its history. At 69, John speaks fondly of his childhood here.

“People came down here because it was quaint,” he says. “This was the end of the line. When I was a kid, the Harvey Cedars police department was just one cop—a World War II vet with one leg and a patrol car with a removable red light on top.”

Sitting next to his wife in their den overlooking an August sunset on the bay, John recalls scenes from his childhood. There were nights spent building bonfires on the beach; hitchhiking down to Beach Haven, “where the action was”; hiding under houses when the police broke up the beach-party fun.

Gretchen shakes her head in playful disapproval—then offers her own memories.

“We would go out the door at eight in the morning on our bikes and not come home until dinner time,” she says. “I grew up running through backyards. It was a different way of life.”

Bob Curran remembers those days, having lived in the borough of Surf City year-round since moving to LBI from Philadelphia in 1949. A gruff, but kindly sort, Curran worked for the Long Beach Township police department for 26 years. Now retired from the force, he still works three days a week as a maintenance man for Old Barney—the famed Barnegat Lighthouse on the northern tip of the island. He remembers when the roads in Surf City were unpaved and a jitney took riders from one end of the island to the other for 10 or 15 cents.

Ironically, Curran moved to the island to get away from the world, and now he’s looking to get away from the island.

“If I could talk my wife into moving, I’d move tomorrow,” says Curran on a blisteringly hot August afternoon outside his post at Old Barney. With Labor Day less than a week away, Curran mutters under his breath, “Five more days…”.

“It’s just too much of a hustle and bustle around here anymore,” he says.

“Everybody’s in too much of a hurry.”

Change started coming to LBI in the 1960s, when word of the island’s charm spread and America’s thirst for vacation homes rose. Throughout the 1950s, homes on LBI typically sold for $3,000 to $6,000. Even into the 1980s, one could buy a house for less than $115,000. These days, according to recent real estate figures, you can forget about buying even a modest home on the island for less than $400,000.

Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph Mancini has lived on the island since he was four. Today he owns two businesses—Mancini Realty and Mancini Custom Homes. And while he acknowledges that the last 35 years have brought change, he says the essence of LBI has remained more or less the same.

“Most of the young, working-class families who lived here and raised children have moved off the island because it just got too expensive,” Mancini says. Many older island residents left because of increasing property-taxes. Others sold their homes in the 1980s and ’90s to take advantage of soaring real estate prices.

As the older homes changed hands, many were torn down and replaced with larger, modern houses. Zoning regulations require at least 15 feet between structures and restrict building height to 32 feet. But there are no local laws against tearing down the old and putting up the new.

“I look at that as just the evolution of an island,” Mancini says. “The key is that we’re still very residential. There’s no boardwalk, no buildings over three stories high, and that’s what people like about it.”

The Coyles agree. Sure, there are more people on the island than ever, with the population swelling from about 12,000 year-rounders to more than 150,000 during the summer. Sure, there are modern amenities and services like day spas and shopping plazas. And sure, the chic dining options—like the Plantation in Harvey Cedars and Daddy O in Long Beach Township—have added flair to certain blocks.

“In the last 20 years, Long Beach Island has certainly become much more upscale,” says Gretchen. “Visitors now want the upscale amenities. We used to have one hairdresser. And if you wanted seafood you went to a fish house for fried food. Now the restaurants are absolutely phenomenal. But I see all of this as an addition. I don’t see any conflict.”

Adds Jay Mann: “The magic of the island is still here. It’s just been handed over to a larger group of people.”

Some appreciate LBI for what’s missing. “We don’t have the cheesiness of other Shore towns,” says Caitlin Carey, 25. “But there’s a lot of great ways to spend your time.” The Ship Bottom woman, an island native, spends some of her time selling ice cream out of the back of a vintage truck.

Standing at the ready in the shade of a loading dock behind the popular Viking Village market near Old Barney, James Fowler methodically weighs box after box of freshly caught bluefish as they come down a conveyor belt from a boat rocking in the harbor. At 35, Fowler has lived on the island his entire life, except for seven years when he moved away for a change of scene. “And man, I missed this every single day,” he says. “The island is a lifestyle.”

For Fowler, that lifestyle encompasses surfing and fishing in the summer; hunkering down to survive the long, desolate winter. Wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap and a loose t-shirt under his coveralls, Fowler conveys the mellow, no-worries mentality of most locals. When asked if he thinks LBI has changed much since his childhood, Fowler shrugs.

“Nah,” he says. “I haven’t seen that much of a change. It’s the same old thing. I’ve got my spots on the island. I still run into the same people. Still surf.” He pauses and wipes his brow before another box of fish comes off the boat. “It hasn’t changed one bit. And that’s good.”

Indeed, there is still a significant working-class population on the island, mainly on the extreme north end in the borough of Barnegat Light. With its 152-year-old red-and-white namesake lighthouse, Barnegat Light is one of the island’s most popular destinations. Ironically, it’s also one of the quietest, best-preserved areas—highly residential with locally owned shops and a legendary diner.

Commercial fishing still thrives here, and many of Barnegat Light’s year-round residents are intimately involved in the industry. Consider Kirk Larson, a lifelong LBI commercial fisherman.

“The fishing up here has changed, but for the better,” says Larson, mayor of the borough for 16 years and counting. “Sea scallops have never been better. The sea bass are coming back. And the community up here is safe and laid-back. You go to the end of the street and everyone’s shoes are sitting there on the ground.”

The image of local fishermen also has changed for the better, according to Chris Rainone, 38, of Manahawkin, who has worked the LBI waters for the past seven years. Fishermen, he says, “used to be on the fringe. Grizzled, rough dudes. Now that everyone realizes the kind of money they can make here, they are getting rid of that negative image.”

Just down the street from the docks is Mustache Bill’s Diner, a favorite for locals and visitors alike. For about 40 years, Bill and Debbie Smith have owned the place, a small, unaffected joint that’s changed little since it opened.

“The island has stayed pretty much the same,” says Debbie, who, like her husband, grew up here. “And that’s what’s good about it. Of course, Barnegat Light and Beach Haven are like night and day. There’s more to do down there. Up here people like the quiet.”

Understanding the distinctions among LBI’s six municipalities are essential to understanding the island itself. “You can tell the difference,” says Larson. “It’s like different tribes, and everyone has pride in their own thing.”

At the northern end stands Barnegat Light, with its country quietude and fishing docks. Traveling south you come to Harvey Cedars and the neighborhood of Loveladies, which comprise mostly private beaches and, since the 1980s, larger, pricey homes. Next comes Surf City, the widest spot on the island (about four blocks from beachfront to the bay) and home to bars, restaurants and retail stores, including the Surf City 5 & 10 and the legendary Ron Jon Surf Shop, as well as lesser-known haunts like the Surf City Hotel and the Gateway.

Continuing south you enter Ship Bottom, a somewhat more developed version of Surf City, with the Wave Hog Surf Shop, the popular night spot Joe Pop’s and the relatively new Daddy O hotel and restaurant. Then there’s Long Beach Township, the largest of the island’s boroughs. And finally, Beach Haven, which contains Fantasy Island—LBI’s only amusement park and old-school arcade—and the busiest nightlife scene on the island.

Each borough has its own governing body and mayor, and between the six separate municipalities there are five police departments (Long Beach Township also patrols Barnegat Light). Captain Matt Greenwood of the Beach Haven Police Department says the growing island population has required more active policing.

“There really isn’t any violent crime to speak of, but gone are the days when you could just come down here and leave your car or house unlocked,” Greenwood says.

The Long Beach Island Consolidated School District links most of the boroughs—except Beach Haven, which has its own schools. The consolidated district includes the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School in Surf City for kindergarten through third grade, and the Long Beach Island Grade School
in Ship Bottom for fourth through sixth. Once students reach seventh grade they attend the Southern Regional School District on the mainland in Manahawkin.

Above all, the boroughs are linked by the seashore.

“We all have the best beaches around,” says Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck. “If you were to stay here and ask the people where they go, they’ll tell you they go to the beach. That’s our jewel.”

Back at the Gateway, Jack Bushko sips a bottle of beer and watches the night’s headlining band perform a reggae rendition of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” Bushko has lived on the island for 32 years. He raised his family here, opened the Island Surf & Sail shop, and is known by pretty much everyone. To him, the LBI experience can be summed up in one word: cool.

“The lifeguards are really cool. The kids are cool. Everyone’s just really cool,” he says, cracking the sort of welcoming smile one expects from a local surfing legend.

Bushko nods toward the beach. “The surf scene here is really hard-core. We’ve got great waves everywhere from Barnegat to Beach Haven,” he says. “We’re on an island, so you have to be on the water here to have fun. And that’s what we do. Kayaking, standup paddle boarding—everything.”

Nearby, another local legend sips his pint and watches the band. With his long gray ponytail, matching beard and tanned skin, 54-year-old Ed Aniski seems the embodiment of cool. In 1975, at age 18, Aniski left his home in Camden County, moved to the island and never looked back, raising a family here while working at branches of the post office on LBI, playing occasional music gigs and surfing every chance he gets.

“Pristine beaches, clear water and laid-back, cool people. That’s why I’m still here,” says Aniski. “And we don’t have as much of the riffraff that you have in other Shore towns.”

As the evening draws to a close, Denise Harrington offers a final thought. “I like the island the way it is and I don’t want too many people coming in,” she says with a laugh. “So don’t make it sound too good, okay?”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.

Click here to read about island attractions in LBI.

Click here to read about beach erosion in LBI.

Click here to read about where to eat in LBI.

What to know before you go to LBI, tips and hints.

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