Who wiped the smile off Longport's face?

Longport Mayor Nicholas Russo in front of the borough's smile-less water tower and with an SUV bearing a smiley window decal.
Longport Mayor Nicholas Russo in front of the borough's smile-less water tower and with an SUV bearing a smiley window decal. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 01, 2013

LONGPORT, N.J. - Mayor Nicholas Russo has a smile on his face, but his borough does not.

All summer without a smile.

This has nothing to do with Sandy, which crashed through this affluent beach town nearly a year ago.

This missing smiley face is that smiley face, the one on the Longport water tower, which vanished earlier this year during a routine tower repainting and has yet to return.

The loss of Longport's smiley face has unexpectedly plunged the borough into despair. Someone even put up wanted posters. (Wanted: Happy Face. Height: 125 feet).

"It's a real bummer," said Mitchell Davis of Malvern and Longport. "Especially when you are coming over the bridge, it's the first thing you see."

"I'm devastated," said Theresa Conroy, another summer Longport loyalist.

Aw, come on, get happy, Longport!

It's just a stencil on a water tower, right? Just a wobble-head happy face in a world of digital emoticons, right?

Look at affable Mayor Russo - when he smiles, that nearly bald head of his starts to look just like the old happy face. Right?

Turns out, that happy face was more than just a pretty face. It meant something to people!

"It's like our Lucy," said William Davis, 12, eating inside another Longport institution - Ozzie's - which itself vanished for nearly seven months post-Sandy but has come roaring back this summer, which, indeed, puts a smile on the face of owner Likie Nika.

Davis was referring, of course, to the big elephant in neighboring Margate. What if she just got up and disappeared one day, as Longport's smile did. How would Margatians feel?

But vanish it did, big grin, oval black eyes and - well that's all it was, a big grin and oval black eyes. (A proposal years ago to put sunglasses on the face failed in council.)

One woman who shone a special floodlight in past years to illuminate the happy face just shut it off this summer. Others felt its absence more acutely, because of the pain of Sandy. "I feel like after Hurricane Sandy, we need the smiley face," said Benji Davis, 15, of Cherry Hill.

A handful called or wrote City Hall in outrage. Russo wrote each of them back, affixing a little blue smiley face emoticon to his signature, as if that would begin to make up for the loss.

So what happened? Why did the painter paint over the happy face that had become this narrow, barrier-island borough's totem, its symbol that all was right in the enclave they call the Pearl? And then stop?

It stems from the aborted job, which began awkwardly enough with a draping of the tower, its big goofy smile still visible like a teenager peeking out over an outdoor shower.

The tower itself got repainted a brighter blue (no complaints there). But the smile - and the motto, Longport, the best port - never followed.

The explanation is rather mundane for a situation that is undermining an entire town's existential, emotional well being.

It's a dispute with the contractor, Beckett Enterprises, over timing and other issues, that is basically at a stalemate.

"He's holding our happy face hostage," Russo said.

Longport, for its part, is withholding $52,000.

Beckett could not reached for comment.

Russo said the borough is suing but is determined to move ahead with Plan B and deal with the contract separately. He has authorized an outside engineer to price the cost of finishing the job.

The whole thing is getting pretty philosophical for your basic oversized, water-tower happy face.

"What is a community?" said Russo, who holds a doctorate in education and likes to go deep. "It's our identity. The smiley face. It's interesting the amount of lives that have been affected by something like this."

One resident, a physician, said his young cancer patient had been fretting over the disappearance of the smile, Russo said.

"From lighthearted concern to something that's pretty profound," he said. "I would go up there and rent a truck and paint it myself, but I don't think it's possible."

Some superstitious folks wondered whether it had simply vanished after Sandy and a wind storm earlier last year took their toll on the town, like a bad omen. (A similarly quirky Shore icon, the LBI Causeway shack was, in fact, leveled by Sandy.)

"It's not that, he said with a smile," Russo said, reflexively supplying his own emoticon punchline.

It's the least he can do.

He better hurry with the Smiley Face Plan B. Some in town are starting to express concern for future generations. They have agreed to the building of dunes to save the town's infrastructure, but what about its very soul, its DNA of self-assured contentment?

Says Conroy, in a smiley face-free Facebook message: "It is so embedded in our family consciousness that my brother will randomly ask me, 'What's the best port!' Of course, we all know it is Longport . . . but will future generations know it?"

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-576-1973 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter and instagram @amysrosenberg.

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