Ahoy from Wildwood, a.ka. Boomtown By-The-Sea, where there’s hardly a block on this five-mile barrier island without a shiny new row of white-railed condominiums. These identical architectural dentures have taken the place of doo-wop motels, funky old saltboxes and wide-porched rooming houses – all beloved by South Philadelphians. Gone, too, are landmarks of memory like Moore’s Inlet, the Thunderbird and the Nut Hut. Progress takes no prisoners. There are even six, 25-story "condotels" in the works. In terms of development, Wildwood is arguably the hottest spot on the East Coast.
Recently, four of us were sitting around the Wildwood Boxing Club on Park Boulevard, moaning about this new, evolving Wildwood. Al Mussachio, who runs the club and is an ex-Philly narcotics cop from 23rd Street and Snyder Avenue (and whose cousin is Frankie Avalon), Mickey Spataro and Richie Bennett, two ex-pro boxers now in their 70s, complained Wildwood is going to hell in a handbasket behind this seemingly untrammeled development.
Is that necessarily true? Who better to ask than Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano. I know him from a couple years ago, when I was involved in a documentary about the Boardwalk that was shown on Channel 12. Ten minutes after the showing was over, my phone rang. It was Troiano, full of congratulations and exuberance. When the movie was shown at the Cape May NJ State Film Festival, he was front-row center for both screenings.
Sam’s Pizza Palace burnt down over the winter and Battalion Chief Ernie Troiano of the Holly Beach Volunteer Fire Co. battled the blaze for 18 straight hours. If Ed Rendell was "America’s mayor," Troiano should, at least, be "New Jersey’s mayor."
"My whole neighborhood down here was from South Philly in the summer," Troiano recalled, "and we’d go up to dance at Chez Vous, Wagner’s and the Concord Ballroom. To this day, I get all my clothes made at Rocco Terrelli at 1359 S. Broad St. and we buy all our meats and bread in South Philly."
Troiano understands the concerns about development.
"It’s change," he said. "Some people don’t like change. We tore 128 motels down. I’m not a big fan of all those condos, but when the high-rises come, you’re really going to see what this doo-wop theme is all about. It’s like Fred Flintstone meets George Jetson. It’s going to bring a sparkle back to this town, whether you like doo-wop or not. Some people say it’s cheesy, but it’ll really take it to another level – literally."
The architects’ drawings in his office of two of the condotels are, indeed, impressive: one is sleek, glass, art deco-like; the other, a striking amalgam of the better features of doo-wop. Wildwood is going to have a hot skyline when the construction dust settles.
"If you don’t want noise and traffic, get the hell off the island," the mayor said. "We’re a tourist destination and that brings the motorcycles, the cars, it brings everything. But, as far as the neighborhoods are concerned, we’re protecting them. The positive stuff never gets in the press. Controversy sells papers.
"Sure, we went through some bad times," he continued, "but you know what’s happening in South Philly? They’re buying back down here. They’re finding that this is not the town that it was. I honestly believe that we can become one of the top resorts on the East Coast, not just New Jersey."