"What you have here," say the people who make money running the businesses in which the vacationers spend it, "is two different cities with the same address."
And so what you have is the tale of two cities. One is the story of a small town and the old families who built it, generation upon generation and, in building it, prospered. The other is the story of a boom town, where dreams fed dreams and high rises were built on high hopes and the fast life came to a screeching stop when the dreams died and only the debts remained.
Both stories take place in the same town, in Ocean City, Md., and it is curious that in some ways, a name is all that they have in common.
Dowtown, south Ocean City, is a dense clutter of weathered Victorian frame houses that might serve as reminders of a more graceful past if they were not lost in the riotous clatter and ceaseless motion of the vacationers who surround and fill them. Downtown is the home of the broadwalk smelling of french fries, sticky with cotton candy, brassy with excitement. The gamblers there play pinball, and thehigh-fliers ride the Ferries wheel.
In the north of town, it's very different. The highway is the boardwalk there and the cars stream back and forth, their numbers cresting at the dinner hour, drowning out the sound of the ocean. The restaurants try for a Georgetown chic and the sun sets behind tall white buildings that cast crazy shadows on the people dwarfed beneath them.
Beneath them as well are the remains of a number of futures.
Downtown is a small town, its land in the hands of families that have claimed Ocean City as home since the last third of the 19th century. Families with names like Trimper, Showell and Purnell fill the local telephone book with fathers and sons, cousins, aunts and nephews, who have watched businesses and fortunes proliferate with the family tree.
Politics, like money, is conservative and cautious and kept within the families, the mayor's job and the City Council seats swinging back and forth between them. Succession is nurtured early in the young, some of whom get their real estate licenses only shortly after the ones that permit them to drive. For a son, leaving the family fold may mean starting a different kind of business on land once owned by his father.
On their land, their fathers have built amusement parks, hotels and boardwalk shops. They remember when the boardwalk stopped at 15th Street and the biggest disaster in memory was the Hurricane of '33.
Now the city ends at the Delaware line and most of the odd towering concrete structures that now line the beach were built by strangers within the last 10 years. Throughout the early '70s, this end of town had exploded in construction and the motion of the waves crashed endlessly to shore competed with the relentless movement of the buildozers.
Few native sons stakes their fortunes here. Instead, north Ocean City became the province of outsiders. Some of them were refugees from the sewer moratoriums in the Maryland suburbs, and some of them were hungry young men from across the country, crazy with visions of fast money to be made and of fortunes to be concocted out of sand and water, their own determination and the mortgage banks.
Many of them came, buned brightly for awhile and left, ruined and in disgrace. On their land, they built condominiums, and what they remember is the recession of '73.
Soon this season in Ocean City will end, and there will be quiet on the broadwalk and the flood of cars on Ocean Highway will slow to a trickle. Now, both worlds seem at peace. Downtown, they've crowned this season as yet another record-breaker, and in north Ocean City, the developers and the real estate brokers say that recovery from the recession that hit after the condominium glut is two years ahead of schedule.
Nevertheless, the two worlds remain very much distinct, separated not only by the physical differences between them, but by the values they represent.
"We've grown with this town, I guess," said Daniel Trimper III, "and we've done pretty well for ourselves." Trimper III is a short stocky man whose grandfather came to Ocean City over 100 years ago and started the amusement park at the end of the boardwalk that his grandson now owns, along with the land on which 30 boardwalk stores are located.
Trimper's father was mayor of Ocean City for 18 years. His cousin, Granville, is on the City Council. Other cousins own apartments and hotels in downtown Ocean City, and his son, Daniel Trimper IV, owns a marina and a collection of boutiques, called Shantytown, on land his father owned in West Ocean City across the Route 50 bridge.
Trimper remembers when there was nothing but wind and waves north of 27th Street and it was hard to walk down the street without knowing just about everyone in sight. And down the street from Trimper, "young Bill Purnel," as he is called, strokes his graying beard and remembers how the men and women used to get dressed up in Sunday best to stroll the broadwalk and life moved at a lower pace.
"I guess we've all carries at this end of town," Trimper said as he showed a visitor a turn-of the-century carousel that still spins its riders on the backs of intricately carved lions and high-stepping roosters. "Maybe it's all honky tonk, but it's worked successfully and we've worked hard to make it work."
"Work hard" in the season, that is, but when the wind turns cold and the sky gray, the families reclaim the town for themselves and turn to surf casting and duck hunting and the other pursuits that a seasonal town permits.
For many of the old families, the key to success can be up quiet easily. "Make business your pleasure and pleasure your business," John Dale Showell Jr. told John Dale Showell IV as his grandson was growing up.
Showell IV is 27 now and runs a shop called Sundance Brotherhood in the home in which his father had grown up. Down the street is the Showell movie theater and up the beach is the hotel run by his father, who was a member of the City Council for 12 years,and up the street are the apartments his brothers and sisters now own between them.
In his shop, Dale Showell IV sells surf boards and skateboards and something called boogie boards. In his shop, Dale Showell thinks about all the children and all the sidewalks in this world just crying for skateboards and he thinks about running for City Council in his time and he thinks about making use of the real estate license he has had since he was 20.
"Real estate is in our blood," he said. "You grow up with it here. In Ocean City, it's like playing a game of Monopoly."
But in the north of town, the developers player for higher stakes, and Showell remembers them cruising up and down the highway in fancy cars with ever-present telephones displayed prominently in the rear window.
The waitresses who come to Ocean City every summer remember too. "They used to walk into the bars at night," one waitress recalled," and they'd act like kings or princes or something. They'd have these beautiful women with them and when they left they'd leave $100 tips on your table.
"And then," she said, "maybe one day you'd go out with one of them and the others would look up and say, 'Well, we haven't seen you around here before.' And yoy'd tell them you'd been working there for three years and they'd say, 'What happened, you suddenly get attractive?' It was like now you were one of the chosen."
In the north end of town,business was business and pleasure was pleasure. "We worked hard and we played hard," said Gene Parker, a former condominium developer turned real estate broker. Everywhere the stories abound about the midnight speedboat rides, the all-night parties, the boat trips and down the beach that put in at the bars along the way.
Then came the recession and, as one yong developer put it, "the phones just stopped ringing." That took care of the $100 tips and there weren't as many speedboats around after one developer, John Fulton, died when he failed to see a ferry cable in the late afternoon sun while driving his speedboat in South Carolina.
The newspapers said he was fatally injured. His friends say he was decapitated. This was in 1974, during the recession, and some of his friends say that his life was only the last thing he lost.
"Oh, they were riding high while it lasted," say the waitresses. "And now, they're just like us."
And so now, Trimper says, "it's two separate towns and for awhile there was a lot of friction." Part of it stemmed from the fact that downtown has had to "pay and pay and pay for all that development," for all the sewer lines and other services required, but part of it runs deeper than that.
Very few of the "old Ocean City people" owned much of the land in the north end of town. Trimper said, "I guess we never thought it would go anywhere." What astonished him most, he said, more than the building itself, was they way in which the developers went about it.
"They'd just come in here," Trimper said, "and without a cent to their name practically, they'd just start building these things that got bigger and bigger. They'd borrow to buy the land, and borrow for construction, it just seemed to come out of nowhere. And I'd remember the times when I practically had to go down on my knees to the bank to get financing for a new (amusement) ride."
"We're conservative here," said Bill Purnell. "Maybe we've too conservative, but I don't know, maybe that's the way to be. All I know is that here, our success hinges on each other, and the oldtimers, if they borrow $5 today, they pay it back tomorrow."
Such a philosophy, say some of the old Ocean City families, can make it hard to understand how a developer could end up owing thousands of dollars of interest a month, and how he could, as some of them did, leave town when the crash came,leave owing millions of dollars to contractors and subcontractors."They were pretty people," said Bill Purnell. "They came in with a song and a dance and it was here today and gone tomorrow. The people in the north end of town looked down on us, thought they were better than we were. So maybe it was jealousy, but there were quite a few 'I told you so's' when those condos started failing.
Gene Parker remembers what it was like when those condos started failing. Tiburon, the one he built, was one of them. "It just buried everybody," he said of the recession. Parker remembers as well what it was like when the speculation was at its height and no perfume could match the lure of the money to be made, its scent hanging heavy in the Ocean City air.
"We were gonna make a million bucks," Parker said. "I guess it's like going to Vegas - you're hot and you can do no wrong. It seemed like a real man's game. You're out there in a man's world, pushing and hustling and taking risks - hell, it's action all the time."
Looking back, Parker said, "It was too much too soon, like a young girl going to a party and there's a hundred men showing up to ask her to dance, when you're young, hell, you think it's going to last forever. I was the boy builder then, but now I'm 38 and not much is still the same."
Now, Parker said, the recovery in North Ocean City is well ahead of schedule and he himself is doing all right with his real estate business, the two campgrounds he runs, and a western style amusement park called Frontiertown just outside of Ocean City.
Downtown, they have respect for the ones like Parker who remained behind to pay off the mountain of debts they owed to the contractors and the banks.
For those who remain, the tall white buildings that gleam ghostlike in the night are haunted with the memories of the friends who failed, who lost home and reputation and have gone away, too ashamed ever to set foot in Ocean City again.
"The old guys never believed in the condominiums," Parker said. "They'd ask me what the hell I was doing, with all the borrowing and everything. But hell we didn't know any other way."
It was "extremely humiliating to fail," Parker said. "I grew up in this town. I used to camp out with my Boy Scout troop where all the high rises went up. Then one day you open up Time magazine and there's this full color spread on the building boom in Ocean City and you jump right in."
Later, there came the mornings when "I crawled out of bed and said, 'Jesus, do I really have to go to the office?' And you'd go in and every three minutes the phone would be ringing and everytime it would be someone wanting money."
He took as his inspiration singer Bobby Darin, who died of a heart attack at the age of 37 on Dec. 20, 1973. "I heard the news and I figured well, I got one thing going for me," Parker said. "At least I was alive."
And so Parker sold the Mercedes and exhanged weekends in Kassau for a six-pack with friends and now, he say, "I have no regrets abou trolling the dice, but I don't care if the boom comes back and there's 8,000 bankers calling me up, I'll never do it again. Now I'm going to be very, very satisfied to take long walks on the beach and watch a lot of sunsets."
One other memory remains with Parker, from the desperate days when all he could think abou t was "goddamned survival." There was an afternoon, he said when he was driving around, his mind crowded with all the demands of the day. And there on the beach, he said, "was old Dan Trimper standing in the surf, just fishing and taking it easy. And I thought, well, maybe they were the ones who had it right all the time.
"Just look at this place," Parker said. "The boardwalk's still the strongest thing in town."