There’s a special spot in Atlantic City unique along the Jersey Shore. For several blocks there are no multi-million-dollar homes blocking all views of the bay. There’s a walkway that had benches on which you could watch fiery sunsets, different every evening. 

The sun would hover above the marshes beyond a thin passage of bay and increase in size, orange and all fire, until it dipped below the horizon and set the wispy clouds all around ablaze. The water turned flamed pewter as old Asian women and young boys with their fathers tossed in crab traps. This was considered one of the best urban fishing spots in the country. Spanish music lifted from the park and families from Bangladesh considered the beauty of the coming night on their way to the playground. Anyone could park their car or jump off their bike into the sensual mix of salty smells of the marsh and an embrace of humidity cooled by a ceaseless breeze that heralded the magic created by the setting sun.

Only now you can’t. The city put up a wall.

There used to be a seawall along Sunset Avenue. It was knee-high and made of weathered wood. Perfect to sit on for a picnic or to contemplate very big thoughts. Perfect to bring the most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood on the Shore together to witness nature’s greatest show.

The show’s over. The new wall, big and black, made of some ugly corrugated fiberglass stuff, dominates the bayfront. You can see over it, if you walk right up to it and stand on your toes, but there are no picnics, no fishing, and no more benches. When the wall was built beautiful turn-of-the-century light fixtures were placed along the walkway. No one has bothered to turn them on. Now at night cars with dark windows park, music thumping, as other cars pull up beside them, clandestine handoffs are made, and tires screech off to slip into traffic on Ventnor Avenue.

The neighborhood has lost its centerpiece, and quite possibly its soul, in a misguided attempt to address a changing climate.

There is no question that Lower Chelsea, this neighborhood, floods. Certain alignments of rain, tide, and moon bring a jostle of shuffling cars moving to parking places that remain mostly dry as water fills the streets. It floods, but the water almost never rises up from the bay into the neighborhood.

People here for decades only remember the bay breaching the seawall once. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012. When it does flood the water comes up from the storm sewers, sometimes blocks from the bay or beach, as it does in every shore town on every barrier island in New Jersey. Check valves and poor drainage contribute to the problem and can help temper it. A wall does nothing to prevent this sort of flooding. But there were grants to be awarded.

No one doubts the towns on the Jersey Shore flood more often than they used to. The narrative of climate change is that the sea, and with it the bay, is rising and we must rise up to stop it. Catastrophic events are painted as our future, and Sandy was a catastrophic event. There was a scramble among politicians, activists, and contractors for solutions, and money, and building a wall to hold back the inevitable somehow seemed a good idea. But a wall doesn’t address the real problem, and the Lower Chelsea wall is both silly for its inadequacy and tragic for how it has stolen nature from people building a life buffeted not by the climate, but by money swirling around in tidepools to be seized and spent just for the taking, regardless of sense or outcome.

A lot of money went into this wall. A lot of pointless money that will solve nothing. On one end of Sunset Avenue is a new development of luxury townhomes with docks and decks over the water. At the other end are the luxury second homes of Ventnor, where vacationers sit on the deck and toast the sunset every night, taking pictures of the best ones and posting them on Facebook for their friends to like and wish they were there. On each end of Sunset the wall ends to make way for the Jersey Shore the people of Lower Chelsea can’t afford, as if when the water rises it won’t simply flow around each end and flood all the low lying land across Atlantic City. In the meantime the check valves not addressed in the big project still fail and in a heavy rain at high tide on a full moon you can watch the water bubble up the storm drains on each corner, fill the streets, and splash over the curbs and into the gardens around modest houses choked by salt water.

Climate change, and our response to it, will change the Jersey Shore in ways we have not anticipated.

The next time it floods in Lower Chelsea you can wade across the knee deep water that floods Sunset Avenue, lean against a looming cold wall, and contemplate the inequality sure to be caused by our expensive, special interest fueled, questionably ineffective responses to climate change, from who will be able to afford the cars we may be mandated to buy and the ways we may be compelled to heat our homes and cook our food, to who gets to enjoy the sunset when the rain stops and the clouds break and spirit stirring rays of light penetrate the opening sky and dance on the gentle waves of the inner passage.

George Hofmann writes the newsletter Practicing Mental Illness. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, too much coffee, and a dog.

One thought on “George Hofmann: Walling off the shore”

  1. George Hofmann article on Walling Off The Shore was very well written & on point.Personally i’d like to see follow up on this community. Are the lights on yet? Have any lifelong crabbing returned??Is this neighborhood able to regain the former glory?

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