Ocean City, Maryland. It certainly isn’t one of the most exotic, interesting, or best-looking places on earth, but it’s a place I enjoy, mostly for sentimental reasons. As an old tourist town, Ocean City was built as a summer getaway for the nearby Maryland and Delaware residents. Not very much new construction has taken place since the initial boom at the end of the 20th century, and it seems as if there is limited effort made by the city to not be forgotten by the world. Ocean City is still a thriving and very popular location (more so in the summer months, obviously), but to a newcomer it might give the impression that the city is falling apart. It doesn’t necessarily scream “tourist town,” and I think this has to do with the old buildings and the outdated architecture. There is a sense that the only people staying there are those who have been doing so since they were very young, and if you’ve never been, you probably won’t ever have the desire to go.
To better understand Ocean City, here is a short history:
On land originally owned by Thomas Fenwick, a man named Isaac Coffin built the first seaside resort in 1869. People came from all over the east coast to experience this pristine and untouched strip of sand. The land was surveyed and a corporation was formed to develop the land. They split the area into 250 lots and sold 4,000 shares of stock at $25 each. The first major hotel, the Atlantic Hotel, was opened July 4, 1875. In 1878, a railroad was built, which connected Ocean City to the nearby town of Berlin. Development continued at a moderate pace until the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane that caused $369.4 million in damages, killed 30 people, and destroyed the train tracks. It also created the Ocean City Inlet, which now separates Ocean City from Assateague Island. The storm ultimately proved beneficial when the inlet established Ocean City as an essential fishing port off of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was completed and in 1964, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was completed, giving easier access to those living in the Baltimore-Washington area. Tourism exploded with the completion of the bridges, and in the 1970s over 10,000 condominium units and high-rises were built. Today, the city is faring so well that the area to the west of the resort town is beginning to fall victim to the sprawl of Ocean City.
Ocean City is a strange place in that it only really exists a few months out of the year. According to the 2000 census, the number of permanent residents is 7,173, but during peak vacation times in the summer the area hosts roughly 345,000 people (“Town of Ocean City Maryland”). During the winter months, there are so few cars on the road that the city actually turns off a large number of traffic lights. But in the middle of summer, the road often becomes gridlocked with hundreds of cars. When I say “the road,” I actually mean the one road of Ocean City. It’s the Main Street, the Strip, or the Main Drag called Coastal Highway. The city itself is an odd shape, being about 9 miles long and only 1 to 1¾ of a mile wide. Due to the narrow shape, it makes a lot of sense to only have a single highway running from north to south. On each side of Coastal Highway are a number of small single lane roads leading to condos, restaurants, and shops.
The main problem with Ocean City is that, due to the buildings, it’s very close to being a generic “nowhere” city. The majority of the buildings were constructed during the same time period in the 1970s, and driving down Coastal Highway this is very obvious. The resort hotels are all between 20 and 30 stories, rectangular with flat roofs, have balconies with railings, are painted in some very noticeable type of sickly taupe, salmon, or light pink color to match the sand, have the name of the hotel painted in cursive on the side facing the street, and are surrounded by large parking lots. You also have an older-looking type of hotel that is 2 to 3 stories tall, is painted in an awfully bright color like teal or pink, and is also surrounded by a parking lot. Finally, you have the condominiums. These are honestly some of the worst buildings I have ever seen. They are all 4 or 5 stories, each one is painted in a drab sand, off-white, or light brown color (again, to match the sand), and they are rectangles. They don’t “sort of” look like rectangles, they are actually perfectly rectangular in shape. Given that these buildings were made decades ago, the exterior of these hotels and condos all share the same general amount of decay. The paint has darkened over years of exposure to dust, dirt, and air pollution, and it is quite common to see sections of chipped away paint thanks to a combination of wind and sand. When Kunstler stayed at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, he noticed that the fiberglass window and door moldings were starting to chip, fade, and resemble surfboards (Kunstler 233); this is how 75% of the hotels and condos look in Ocean City, old, faded, and worn away.
The problem, as Kunstler explains, with having an entire town of homogenized buildings is that they lend nothing to the identity of the location. These “monoculture tract developments of cookie-cutter bunkers” (147) are so generic that they could be mistaken for buildings in any town or any state across the country. You could blindfold an individual, take them to Ocean City, put them in front of an average hotel or condo and they probably would not even realize that they are only steps away from the ocean. Even the small shopping centers along Coastal Highway are undifferentiated, as they look exactly like the shops outside of the neighborhood where I grew up roughly 130 miles away (brown brick, roof extended to hang over the walkway, concrete pillars every 10/15 feet). Another problem that comes from having a monotonous living space is that it could make the inhabitants simply not care. If a town is filled with the same boring buildings on every boring street, the residents are not going to have pride or a desire to keep the town “running smoothly.” There could be little to no motivation to prevent unnecessary building, sprawl, or harmful expansion. In a town with no charm, new individuals will not wish to move in, and those who already live there will probably have no qualms about moving out. It is quite possible to destroy a town by filling it with generic structures. Contrasting with Kunstler’s view of a dull Ocean City would be Jackson, who might not find the buildings to be so dreadful. J.B. Jackson does not share the view that a lack of variety in construction is a bad thing. He calls this not a mistake, but a distinctive, classical American style. Any possible monotony is purely a “consequence of devotion to clarity and order,” although he can easily see why some have acquired a distaste for this American style, “Since the classical American town is easy to understand, its interest is soon exhausted” (Jackson 67). Experiencing an over-familiarity with the classic simplicity of our traditional style is how Jackson would explain Kunstler’s gripe with the average American town. I suspect that Jackson would walk down Coastal Highway looking at all of the similar condos and hotels, and declare Ocean City to be a classic slice of Americana.
One of the running jokes in Ocean City is a junk shop called Sunsations, which is a large, very basic, warehouse-type building that sells everything you will never need. There is actually one on every single block (you can stand out front of one Sunsations and see another one down the road). In the 9 miles that is the entirety of Ocean City, there are 13 Sunsations stores and 2 more if you go 5 minutes north to Fenwick and Bethany. As a result of these ultra-generic and easily overlooked shops and shopping centers, the owners heavily rely on advertising. “Buildings no longer mattered. Whatever their purpose… they were all just cinder-block sheds… What mattered were the signs attached to them” (Kunstler 82). As you can see from the pictures in the slideshow
, Sunsations’ main advertising strategy is to paint the buildings in disgustingly bright and tacky ways. This is reminiscent of how Kunstler describes Robert Venturi’s process of creating “decorated sheds:”
“Ornament was okay… as long as it was applied rather than integral… For example, the firm did a showroom building for the Best Products Company in Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania… They designed a motif of enormous red-and-white cartoon flowers on glazed metallic panels to decorate the façade… They camouflaged the inevitable banality of the architecture form and read as a sign across a vast parking lot and speedy highway” (82-83).
Regardless of how aesthetically unpleasing Sunsations is, their advertising is effective in that frequent Ocean City-goers know to look for a hideously painted building if they ever need a cheap pair of flip-flops or a towel. It also succeeds in that it is a welcomed change from the drab colors of the hotels and condominiums. In their attempt to market themselves, Sunsations has actually done a good thing by creating a memorable and easily recognizable place in an otherwise unremarkable town. The obnoxious colors of Sunsations is one of the few things that saves Ocean City from becoming a complete “nowhere” location.
For what it’s worth, I happen to love Ocean City for some of the exact same reasons that are listed in this essay. I love the awful colors of the generic, boxy hotels, I love how the sand has worn away patches of paint on the ugly condos, and I love the fact that you can stare down Coastal Highway and have no clue as to the current decade. I may be agreeing with Jackson on this, as the quiet simplicity really adds to the classic American-ness that is Ocean City. I can only think of 4 new condos that were built in the past 15 years, and they stick out like sore thumbs. Dark grey with white plastic trim, they were modeled after the popular “McMansion” fad and they certainly don’t blend in at all with the sand and taupe colored surroundings. Demand for these new-style condos has clearly been nonexistent, which according to my view is due partly to the resident’s desire to keep Ocean City plain looking, ambiguous, and therefore classically American.
More photographs of the Ocean City of yesteryear as well as a quick “drive” down Coastal Highway are available on my slideshow
"Draft Comprehensive Plan." Town of Ocean City Maryland
. Web. 5 Mar 2011. <http://www.town.ocean-city.md.us/Planning%20and%20Zoning/DraftComprehensivePlan/Chapter1.htm>.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere
. New York: Touchstone, 1993. Print.
Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape
. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. Print.