Boardwalk art: Reinventing Wildwood

As part of its new promotional push to reinvent itself, Wildwood offers an interactive artists colony using 11 former shipping containers. ArtBox covers 10,000 square feet on Adventure Pier. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
As part of its new promotional push to reinvent itself, Wildwood offers an interactive artists colony using 11 former shipping containers. ArtBox covers 10,000 square feet on Adventure Pier. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 01, 2013

WILDWOOD - There have been many odd incarnations for this Jersey Shore beach town.

And nearly all of them seem to have set this place apart as a somewhat eccentric and perhaps even peculiar place compared with other Jersey resorts.

This, after all, is where a city councilman once undertook a moonlit dismantlement of the boardwalk and where a collection of ticky-tacky 1950s motels has evolved into a treasured historical architectural style.

Wildwood by one claim could be the birthplace of rock and roll. And it's definitely where underage drinking and debauchery became a celebrated and long-standing - now frowned upon - June tradition called "Senior Week."

The latest makeover involves changing the image - and dress code - of Wildwood while altering the attractions by adding a unique art installation on an amusement pier.

So recently, even while the rest of the world debated a decency ordinance requiring people to keep their pants pulled up while they stroll the boardwalk, Wildwood's elite sipped champagne at the opening of artBox, a 10,000-square-foot interactive artists colony of sorts constructed from 11 repurposed shipping containers.

"I think this speaks to where we see Wildwood going in the future," Jack Morey, who operates Morey's Piers with his brother Will, said of the recent opening of artBox on Adventure Pier.

Jack Morey said the brothers weren't giving up on the flashy amusements - Will Morey has just been appointed chairman of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Instead, they see the changes as enhancing the boardwalk offerings.

And perhaps bringing a sense of class as the town ushers in the new pull-up-your pants ordinance, which takes effect Tuesday.

Spared much of Hurricane Sandy's wrath, the Moreys and other business owners in Cape May County are counting on a blockbuster season within New Jersey's $40 billion-a-year tourism industry.

"Whatever people wear or don't wear, I think artBox and the things like it that may come in the future create a forum for people to think beyond what they have always been used to in this town," Morey said.

Morey said he saw art installations using old shipping containers in New Zealand, which inspired him to begin thinking about using them here. Questions arose over whether the concept could stray too far from the Morey's bread and butter of thrill rides and water-park amusements.

But then his friend Steve Izenour - the mentor behind the drive 20 years ago that put the town on the National Register of Historic Places for its fabulous '50s doo-wop architecture - faxed him a memo with encouraging words: "Embrace what Wildwood is." Morey said he began to feel he was on the right track with the art project.

"You can celebrate Wildwood's tackiness . . . but maybe at the same time you can be inspired to see something more," Morey said. "It's all about taking what we are, our history as a place, and building upon that."

And that's exactly how Mayor Ernie Troiano sees the town's latest evolution. Though there are still empty storefronts and areas of town "with some problems," he contends there is a new push afoot to "do what is right here."

But that's not an easy task in a town with 5,000 year-round residents - about 250,000 are here in the summer - and about 60 active liquor licenses. A quirk in New Jersey laws has grandfathered the numerous alcoholic-sale and consumption licenses that were in effect before 1948.

"For too long, there was this kind of feeling here that people could come here and do whatever they want, and that's just not the case anymore," Troiano said. "We've tried some things that have begun to work to change the image.

"Look, we're never going to be Cape May or Stone Harbor, nor do we want to be. We know we are a honky-tonk town. But we need to be the best Wildwood we can be for the people who live here and who come here in the summertime," Troiano said.

That has led Troiano and his two city commissioner cohorts, Anthony Leonetti and Peter Byron, to offer other activities - horseback riding and camping on the beach - to attract new tourism and help pay the maintenance and lifeguard bills for the town's unusually wide strands.

But perhaps nothing bridges that gap like the droopy-drawers ordinance, Leonetti said.

"We owe this to the people who love Wildwood," Leonetti said of the measure. "You can bring whatever you want, but if people don't feel safe and want to come here, then none of it means anything."

Troiano and Leonetti agree they still want the masses to come to Wildwood - just be dressed appropriately.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at

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