Sharks on the Riverbank:
A Jersey Shore Town, its White Supremacist Past, and its Supremely White Present
This article continues the discussion started by Stephen Amberg’s essay, “How to Overcome the ‘Patriotic Gore’ of Racism,” in the October 2015 issue of the Rail and Curtis Price’s “Huntsville Notes” in the December/January issue.
As the seagull flies, Wall Township, New Jersey is about thirty-five miles south of Manhattan. It sits in the southeast corner of Monmouth, the northernmost county on the Jersey Shore. You can drive up the coast a few miles and see New York’s high-rises across the bay from Sandy Hook, but Wall feels far from the frenetic motion and noise of the city. It boasts slice joints and delis of its own and the residents pronounce mid-word T’s with the characteristic glottal stop of the metropolitan area, but Wall is decidedly in the outer reaches of the city’s gravitational pull. It is a place of strip malls, highway asphalt, and back-road produce stands, of lazy summer afternoons by the pool and evenings spent in the yard, drinking Miller Lite longnecks and watching the kids beat each other with foam pool noodles. It’s the Shore, yes, but being a few miles inland, it’s a town that is as quiet in the summer as the beaches in winter, when locals walk the boardwalks in silence, as if the cold waves will confess their secrets now that no one else is listening.
I grew up there. When I was younger and didn’t really know what yearning to get out meant yet; the Shore, and specifically Wall and the surrounding bits of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, were my universe. We lived in an area on the north side of town called Glendola. There wasn’t much to do there in terms of unstructured fun, but in the summers my brother and I would get on our bikes and ride down to go crabbing on the Brighton Avenue Bridge over the Shark River Inlet that separates Wall from Neptune Township. Sometimes we’d bike a bit farther to a nearby stream that flowed out to the inlet. There was a spot where the trees parted and we’d climb down the steep, fern-covered hill to the pond where the probably-toxic water collected as it flowed out from under the Army base up the hill. From there we’d follow the stream out through the ferns and the tall trees until we reached the reeds. We’d struggle through the stinking, sunbaked mud and try to avoid the fiddler crabs scrambling for cover. Eventually, the reeds would clear and we’d be standing on the sand of the Shark River and we could see east out to where the inlet widened and boats bobbed in the afternoon haze.
The area around the south riverbank hadn’t always been so secluded, though. A century ago there was open lawn and people milling around on holiday. Back up the grassy bluff, you could catch cool ocean breezes coming in off the inlet. It once was a fine spot to sit out on the porch and take in a view of the water now obscured by trees. It must’ve been nice. After all, the Ku Klux Klan liked it enough to make it their Jersey Shore headquarters.
Wall isn’t the sort of place that comes to mind when people think about the Shore. It isn’t the MTV show. In fact, much of the Shore is more like Wall than it is like Seaside Heights or Atlantic City. It is very Middle American, only with more scrub pine and Italian sub shops. Wall in particular prides itself on its quiet residential streets and sterile developments. There is no downtown district, liquor licenses are stingily granted, and the police are basically equipped like a paramilitary unit. While many surrounding towns have had to deal with crime and poverty in the last half-century, Wall has been largely insulated from this. It’s a thing the residents pride themselves on while shaking their heads condescendingly at other communities.
Still, Wall isn’t quite so removed from Shore life. Kids spend the summer at the beach. They learn to swim and surf. Residents complain about the tourists, but, lacking a local nightlife, they drive over to other towns with main streets and movie theaters and bars where you can tie one on by the water. As a result, Wall residents like to think they have the best of both worlds—living close enough to the beach and the relatively cosmopolitan cultural offerings of towns like Red Bank and Asbury Park while at the same time not having to deal with the riffraff that makes culture possible in the first place.
The later half of the 1910s saw the rebirth of the KKK in America. Rapid demographic shifts both from within and abroad made a lot of white people skittish, and by the 1920s, the Klan was flourishing in the South and the North. (This was a time when The Birth of a Nation was being shown in the White House—and not as an exercise in cultural anthropology.) New Jersey was no exception. At its height in that decade, the KKK had roughly 60,000 adherents there—roughly 1.5% of the state’s total population—the third-highest number of members in the Northeast.
New Jersey possessed many of the problematic aspects of a changing America that frightened people who believed in what they saw as traditional values. Labor opportunities continued to draw African-Americans north and the turn of the century saw a massive influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants into the New York and Philadelphia areas, bringing with them Catholicism and Judaism. By 1910, foreign-born residents comprised a quarter of the New Jersey population. Another form of controversy was New Jersey’s opposition to Prohibition, a movement supported by the local Klan. Resort towns relied heavily on the sale of booze and, tourism aside, a lot of Jersey residents simply liked their potent potables. New Jersey is, after all, the state that invented applejack, the moonshine variety of which was affectionately called Jersey Lightning. The Democrat Edward Edwards won the state’s gubernatorial election in 1919 partly on the promise to keep the state as “wet as the Atlantic Ocean,” and despite Prohibition taking effect in 1920, New Jersey didn’t ratify the amendment for two more years, becoming the last state to do so.
Tourism and urbanization and the sinfulness of boozy-minded Garden Staters might lead one to believe that New Jersey wasn’t an ideal place for teetotal white supremacists, but the state wasn’t exactly a bastion of progressivism either. New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery (in 1804), and it didn’t completely end the practice until the Civil War and, until 1836 continued to return runaway slaves to their owners below the Mason-Dixon Line. The state swung for Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential election and George B. McClellan in 1864, opposing Lincoln both times. Even at the outbreak of war in 1861, many residents sympathized with the Confederacy.
It isn’t wholly surprising, then, to see why, despite acrimony in more urban areas of the state—where Klan rallies sometimes faced violent opposition—the Klan found a comparatively welcome home in rural Monmouth County, an area in which the group’s message found purchase with conservative Protestant residents and they were often welcome in Methodist churches.
The birth of the Jersey Shore as we know it was the product of labor laws and national prosperity that gave Americans more leisure time. With that leisure, more and more people started to enjoy the new, egalitarian pastime of going to the beach and swimming. Towns along the water took advantage of this and brought hospitality and entertainment right to the sand. This hasn’t changed much in 2015. The beach towns depend on the critical mass of greased-up tourists getting sunburns and eating Italian ice and guzzling beer and scarfing down butter-drenched steamers.
The Jersey Shore was America’s first fully developed coastline. Wedged in between the expanding cities of Philadelphia and New York, it was a natural destination for escaping the fetid, crowded cities in the summer. Small cities like Atlantic City and Asbury Park became centers of amusement parks and hotels and ornate architecture lining the boardwalks and main drags, while others like Spring Lake (the “Irish Riviera”) became known for opulent houses and hotels with views of the breakers.
In the 19th Century, Wall actually touched the Atlantic, but the small communities along the ocean seceded to form their own distinct municipalities. By the century’s close, Wall was void of oceanfront property. As those breakaway communities evolved into tourist destinations, Wall remained a quiet farming community until the mid-20th Century, when it slowly transformed from rural to suburban, taking part in the exodus of white, middle-class Americans from urban centers.
When my family moved there in 1986, people probably shook their heads at our neighborhood, built on a recently bulldozed farm. They probably looked at us the way we eventually looked at other people who moved in after us. I remember watching bitterly as patches of woods and field succumbed to developers. I remember thinking of each new four-bedroom, vinyl-sided box as an invasion.
There is a prevailing sense of insularity on the Shore. Part of this is the Dostoevskyan Underground Man mentality that Jerseyans generally maintain: they care that you know that they don’t give a shit what you think about their state, or at least they don’t want you to think they care. They assume you judge them and have some hack joke about the air quality or the rigidity of the local hair. But the Shore goes a level deeper; it’s like a separate New Jersey within New Jersey. It not only has to deal with Jersey jokes, but it also has to deal with Jersey Shore jokes—often told by other Jerseyans.
This defensiveness, however, is also a form of pride. Wall, for instance, is full of people who came from somewhere else. During the days of white flight, a lot of people were, like my parents, from in and around New York City. They’d made some money and they wanted out. They wanted their own space. Inherent to the community, then, is an attitude of territorialism, of having earned a parcel of lawn that’s yours and of not having to deal with other people and the problems they assumedly bring—as well as the types of people they associate with the problems.
The flipside is that Wall still needs the City’s greater economic trickledown. And residents tend to need the City (directly or indirectly) for work or just a general desire not to be too far out in the boonies. Basically: isolation is great—but only to a point. When you can’t get a decent slice anymore, you’ve probably gone too far. As a result, people in Wall tend to talk about being in just the right spot. They like to believe in the self-evident superiority of their choice to live just on the fringes of metropolitan life but still within its orbit. In the same breath they will slam the hicks in the South or Midwest and then complain about the snobs, liberals, and hipsters of New York City, not to mention the dangerous minorities and immigrants.
None of this may be especially different from other suburban towns in the US, except for the fact that New Jersey is the densest state in the Union and so getting away from other people is only part of the battle. Keeping them out is the main thing.
In 1912, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company chose the bluffs above the Shark River as the site of a revolutionary new facility that would receive radio transmissions from London. The hillside was in a secluded area of an already secluded town and had the advantages of being both near the edge of the continent and near enough to the New Brunswick transmitter station outside New York. Included in the construction project was the Marconi Hotel. With dozens of rooms, the imposing brick building had a long, covered terrace that commanded a view of the river down the slope and the wide inlet adjacent to the east, as well as the Shark River Hills across the way in Neptune.
Marconi’s company operated in the area only until 1917, when the United States decided to enter the First World War and the military took command of the station. (Guglielmo Marconi himself was already in Italy, where he would later become a devoted member of Mussolini’s Fascist Party.) After the war, Marconi’s American subsidiary was incorporated into the new Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and it operated the station until they sold the hotel and the surrounding land in 1925 to a group of Klansmen operating under the name of the Monmouth Pleasure Seeker’s Club.
By this point, the Klan was already well established on the Shore. It had infiltrated local churches—Methodists in particular—and not surprisingly tried to drive out residents who were non-white and non-Protestant, as well as fomented usable panic among its ranks by spreading rumors about minority communities. The nearby beach community of Long Branch served as the location of the 1924 Tri-State Konklave, a meeting of Klansmen from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The Konklave included talks from prominent Klansmen, playtime by the beach (though tans were probably discouraged), and a beauty pageant called Miss 100% American.
Still, many towns found that driving away the impure and the drunk was bad for business, and the “ethnic” citizens of some towns, like Perth Amboy in 1923, rioted and attacked Klan rallies. The Marconi Hotel and its comparatively quiet corner in northwest Wall Township then seemed like a great place to lay down some permanent roots in the area. New Jersey Klan leaders also realized they could make a buck while creating their white utopia by reselling real estate plots around the old Marconi station to other Klansmen.
They ultimately bought up almost 400 acres and declared the site a local Klan headquarters. The getaway oasis of mosquitos and white righteousness admitted members who wanted some time off from the pressures of breathing the same air as blacks, Jews, and Irish. It hosted carnivals, circuses, and other warm-weather entertainments. Plus, it was easy to find, since they constructed a fifty-foot high cross—lit up by electric bulbs—that could be seen across the river and around Glendola. Amusements aside, the headquarters served as a base of operations both to harass teachers, clergy, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who didn’t fit in with the Klan’s particular version of 100% Americanism, and to try to unseat politicians they disliked.
Thankfully, the KKK’s resurgence as a national mainstream movement was short-lived. By the ’30s, the forces of political and economic opposition, common sense, and the more pressing issue of the Great Depression made membership increasingly unpopular, and the Klan’s numbers decreased dramatically across the country. Consequently, by the ’30s, there was little interest in the Pleasure Seeker’s Club and the local Klan leaders proved themselves to be lackluster businessmen. Out of money, the land was sold to the newly founded King’s College, a small Christian Bible college that still exists today in New York’s Financial District.
Curiously, the KKK and Marconi weren’t the last the area would see of white supremacists. In 1941, engaged in another World War, the U.S. Army bought the land for the Signal Corps and used it until 1997 as a secret research facility. The government sent former Nazi scientists there to work on radio and electronic research, as well as god-knows-what. The site is still the subject of local conspiracy theories and, when the land was given back to the town, hazmat cleanup crews were called in to make the space usable for parks and baseball fields.
Few Wall residents actually know about this inglorious bit of history, though you can hardly blame them, since there isn’t much to remind them. Even where it’s noted, it’s simply as a historical curiosity with no real connection to the present. The Army base closed and the air above it stopped glowing green at night (supposedly) and the runoff that flows under the base is probably safer to swim in now than it was when my brother and I used to jump in. The old Marconi Hotel is now a museum thoroughly documenting the radio history of Camp Evans and Marconi Station. (The world’s first radio transmissions were sent to space from there, for instance.) And Wall has more immediate bits of infamy to deal with. There have been teacher sex scandals and a recent superintendent of schools was just sent to prison for embezzlement and fraud. Furthermore, Wall High School counts Ashley Dupree, the prostitute who brought down Eliot Spitzer, as its most famous alum.
The only reminder that the Klan once flourished in Wall is the neighborhood in Glendola adjacent to Camp Evans, called Imperial Park. It never occurs to people to ask what empire the moniker refers to. I myself never thought to ask, and I was well into high school when a teacher told me. Still, apparently, people can find the Klan referenced in the title histories of various houses and plots in town.
But more people should ask about Imperial Park. Residents should ask themselves what about their town made it so desirable a destination to the KKK, but more importantly, they should ask themselves about what maybe hasn’t changed so much in eighty years. For instance, why is Wall still almost 94% white, despite bordering towns that are far more diverse?
New Jersey is the richest state per capita in the U.S. (Sometimes, it’s the second-richest, as Connecticut overtakes it, depending on the year.) Yet, New Jersey is a place of stark class contrasts. On one hand you have the wealthy bedroom communities outside of New York and Philadelphia; on the other you have nearby cities like Camden and Paterson, where crime rates are some of the worst in the country and the cities no longer have the industrial strength that helped to build up the urban areas in the first place. Similarly, the town borders on the Shore are often bold lines of racial and economic demarcation.
Wall is not an exceedingly wealthy town, but it is in the top third in per capita income in the state and close to the top quartile, which makes it fairly well-off, especially when compared to the rest of the country. People there are pretty comfortable on the whole. They have lawns. They have pools. They have a solid Little League team. They play soccer in the fall. They have Ann Taylor and Gap. Crime rates are low. Like a lot of suburban towns, it’s also racially homogenous. Diversity is measured in terms of whether you’re a Yankees fan or a Mets fan.
A lot of this is inherent to suburban life in Monmouth County. The flight to the suburbs picked up in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties as crime rates rose in New York and North Jersey and riots broke out in cities like Newark. But rather than address the issues of inequality and discrimination, people simply left, and they took with them the wrong kinds of lessons about city life. Rather than the material realities of the economics of crime and poverty, of the dynamics of race, class, and ghettoization, what they learned was not to live around brown people and poor people if you could at all help it. This shouldn’t be news to anyone, obviously, but the mindset still feeds into a soft form of segregation that exists in Monmouth County.
The New Jersey Supreme Court forced the state’s hand in 1975 in the case of Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Mount Laurel Township. Simply put, after a decade of appeals, municipalities in New Jersey were required to allocate funds to provide for low-income housing.
However, the construction of low-income housing does little to diminish the reputation that Wall has built for itself in surrounding communities. After all, residents of nearby towns still refer to my hometown as “White Wall.” It still maintains an atmosphere in which it’s not uncommon to hear people casually toss out various racial epithets (of both the well-known and more local varieties) without the slightest hint of embarrassment. The reputation is bad enough that when I used to go play pickup basketball in the neighboring towns of Belmar and Neptune, other players used to tell me outright that they went miles out of their way to avoid doing errands or even driving in Wall, where people stared or looked down and clutched purses and felt for wallets and where they were the targets of police looking to pull someone over.
But unlike in 1925, you’re probably not going to hear many residents admit to not liking brown people. Plus, these days, people are pretty cool with Catholics and Jews for the most part; the Irish and Italians and Poles have been welcomed into the fold. Few residents are going to support actions that explicitly try to uproot people from their homes and livelihoods. Instead, there is a less honest form of segregation. One result of the was the creation of the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), which oversees state funding to towns for developing low-income housing. (Governor Christie tried to disband COAH, which you should remember next time someone tells you he’s only a fiscal Republican.) If towns don’t use the money, the state revokes it. Wall, feeling no compulsion to pass on free money, greenlit the development of a neighborhood called the The Mews at Collingwood Park. The problem is that, while somewhat bucolic, the mostly minority development is tucked away in a corner of town that protrudes so far out on the northwest edge that it’s barely clear that you’re still even in Wall. Few even knew the development was going up when it happened. Many still don’t know it’s there. Which, I suppose, is the point.
But this sort of thing happens all over. In 2016, Wall isn’t all that different from a lot of places. This is how suburban towns work, and the subtle maintenance of whiteness can be as toxic as whatever Hazmat-contaminated the soil around Camp Evans. Towns like Wall normalize racist exclusion, a large part of which is the fact that no one actually sees him- or herself as racist. Instead, people used the word “realistic.” It is the absolving phrase, because people are simply speaking Hard Truths about the world—unpleasant, perhaps, but The Way Things Are. And that’s the insidiousness of it, the self-denial of suburban chauvinism in this century, the way it both distorts and privileges its own reality, the way it denies how things got to be the way they are.
As a sane person of at least mildly below-average intelligence, it’s easy now to look at the KKK and tell yourself that they’re racist and wrong. Of course they are. The KKK, from its Reconstruction founding to its present-day remnants, is self-evidently evil and stupid. Their beliefs and actions don’t make it hard for the average person to feel morally superior. Similarly, it’s easy to watch The Help and sympathize with the eponymous victims. It’s easy to watch South Carolina on the news and shake your head and talk about how backward that state is. These are easy targets. What’s harder but more honest is recognizing that what the Confederate flag or the Klan hood represents is not just a Southern problem and that none of us get to opt out of history.
ContributorDane A. Wisher
DANE A. WISHER is a writer based in Brooklyn, but he gets around.