Fewer pants are drooping in Wildwood

Becki Freiberg and Justin Crean of Philadelphia stroll along the boardwalk in Wildwood, where a new city ordinance has established a dress code.
Becki Freiberg and Justin Crean of Philadelphia stroll along the boardwalk in Wildwood, where a new city ordinance has established a dress code. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 13, 2013

WILDWOOD - Becki Freiberg and Justin Crean ambled along the boardwalk, arms laced around one another with python intensity. In the Sunday afternoon crowd, among the bobbling bellies, deep cleavage, and large acres of exposed flesh, they seemed relatively well-dressed.

Freiberg wore short shorts that revealed large, edgy cat tattoos on her thighs. Her low-cut T-shirt exposed her bra in the back.

She had made the trip from Philadelphia to the Shore via Harley with Crean, a cosmetology student from Northeast Philadelphia whose loose, unbuttoned shirt was drawn open like curtains on the hairless stage of his chest. That was tattooed with a skull and a black-lettered message, "Not Welcome." Meaning?

"It's deep," he said. "Too deep to get into now."

So, too, perhaps, the philosophical question raised by the town's new dress code: What are the boundaries of decency in a beach town revered for its classless kitsch? Adored to the tacky core of its big South Jersey heart?

According to Wildwood Ordinance 4-2.4, which went into effect July 9, all people over age 12 must wear footwear and shirts on the boardwalk and refrain from allowing their pants or swim trunks to sag more than three inches below the waist.

"I don't think people should have inappropriate things hanging out, because there are children around," said Freiberg, a 24-year-old dentistry student at Manor College in Jenkintown. "But in general, people should be able to do what they want."

Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. has said the town passed the law in response to complaints from visitors and residents.

"People who live here and families who have been coming here for generations have called me and stopped me on the street to say, 'I love Wildwood, but I'm not going to come here if my children and grandchildren have to look at kids on the boardwalk with their butts hanging out,' " Troiano said. "Tourism is the lifeblood of our community, the fuel that drives our economy. When the people speak, I have to take action."

That action, at least on a weekend afternoon, seems to have largely covered butts. The shirt provision, however, was widely flouted.

A bare-chested father, his shiny nipple piercing winking in the sun, led two young sons by the hand into an arcade. Ruddy-cheeked men wielding prodigious beer guts waddled past the fast-food joints where the breeze was so laden with french fry grease, each breath of air could raise cholesterol. Close behind, gym rats with steroid pecs resembling nothing so much as Rocky Mountain terrain, strutted down the public runway.

Some who covered up were not necessarily more decent. One gentleman wore a T-shirt with a picture of a crustacean and phrase too vulgar to print here.

On a summer weekend, Wildwood's boardwalk is a highway of expressive, aggressive recreational excess. There is as little pretense as prudery in the food, conversation, and entertainment. Arcade games yield stuffed animallike prizes of hairy purple cyclopses and six-foot-long Rastafarian cigars.

For generations, it has remained beloved by families. Dropped drawers notwithstanding.

"We have been coming here every year for 32 years," said Mel Gabriel, 60, a Stamford, Conn., chiropractor. He had just sat down for cheesesteaks and fried eggplant sandwiches at the Hot Spot restaurant with his longtime friend Abe Shampaner, their sons, and a couple of nephews.

"We started out, just six of us, coming for a week every summer. Now it's expanded to five families," Gabriel said. The entourage of 30 fills an entire floor of a seaside hotel.

"This is probably the best boardwalk on the East Coast," said Shampaner, director of several preschools in New York City.

"It's always clean. The rides are well-maintained," Gabriel said. "You can tell there's a lot of civic pride."

One morning last week, he said, he was out for his morning walk when the town broadcast its regular rendition of the national anthem. He was impressed by the patriotic respect he witnessed.

"At first, a few people stopped. Then more. And by the end, everyone," he said. "It's just like a microcosm of America. I always tell people, this is the best place for a family vacation. It's reasonably priced, it has the boardwalk and the beach, and it's not stuffy like the Hamptons." Truth.

Wildwood, however, has not always been such an innocent experience, even for Gabriel.

"My son was conceived here. At the Adventurer Inn," Gabriel announced, nodding toward said offspring, Ron, a 31-year-old hedge fund manager in New York City who had obviously been subjected to the oversharing before and took it in stride.

Gabriel the younger said he loved this town so much as a boy, his bar mitzvah party theme was "Wildwood." Over the years, he said, he has noticed the rise in below-the-butt pants, but it was nothing he had not seen in his high school in New Rochelle, N.Y.

"The biggest change was four or five years ago when they took down the dilapidated hotels down the boardwalk," he said.

The night before, the group had been discussing the baggy pants ordinance.

"We were trying to decide if it was racial or an image thing," Mel Gabriel said.

"We decided image," Shampaner said. "We know a lot of white kids who dress like that."

Wildwood police did not seem overly concerned Sunday with dress-code violators.

Over the course of several hours, no one was spotted with shorts venturing below the three-inch demarcation line. Daryl Harkin, however, was pushing his luck. The 24-year-old from Londonderry, Northern Ireland, was both bare-chested and exposing an inch of his underwear.

"There's a regulation against that?" he said, looking down at his shorts, shocked.

"My pants are fine," said his friend Kate, who declined to give her last name and who had no patience for discussing dress codes on the beach. She just had one question.

"Do you know a place where we can get a drink?"

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590, mdribben@phillynews.com, or follow @dribbenonphilly on Twitter.

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