WILDWOOD, N.J. — The other day, one of Tom Gerace’s many friend-slash-housemate-slash-employees was unsentimentally prying the green wooden slats off the side of the Shamrock Beef & Ale, a legendary bar that dates to 1937, which abruptly joined Wildwood’s Pacific Avenue graveyard of bars after Gerace petulantly closed up shop in June.
With all the hand-wringing over the Shamrock’s demise, after the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office imposed what amounted to a death sentence, revoking the Shore bar’s liquor license until September for coronavirus lockdown violations, you might think they were going to sell off the shards piece by piece on eBay.
But like a lot of things in Wildwood these days, the Shamrock was just unceremoniously becoming unrecognizable, the pried-off wood filling 23 trash cans. The corner property is slated to be sold this fall to a Philadelphia developer who sees tax breaks, opportunity zones, and (for now) still hugely undervalued Shore property all over Wildwood, and has big plans for Pacific Avenue.
Having made about $30,000 selling Shamrock memorabilia from inside the bar, Gerace, 59, said he was trying to get to the original 19th-century two-story Victorian house/cafe that he says was hoisted atop a first-floor bar in 1937. (Taylor Henry of the Wildwood Historical Society says the house was always three stories, though in slightly different form pre-1937).
In any case, Gerace now lives on the upper floors, with a cast of crashers and he wants to extract that house and move the historic structure a block away. See, he does care.
In Wildwood, everyone claims to be preserving something, even if it’s their own butt. But there is little consensus over what in Wildwood it is that people should be saving. Is it historic buildings or is it an identity? Is it architecture (hello, Doo Wop), a musical heritage (Chubby Checker), free beaches, or its ancestral cheap bar culture?
Or — more urgently, as all around it, Jersey Shore towns give way to rising real estate prices and eager New Yorkers — is it preserving Wildwood as about the last place a working-class person from Philly might be able to buy a Shore house?
Even Gerace knows Wildwood’s future might not require the Shamrock, though, he notes, it could have, if only those bartenders hadn’t gotten within six feet of those tables, or that semi-outdoor bar not been declared by Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive-order enforcers to be an indoor bar, or maybe if Gerace hadn’t been cited for all those noise and underage-drinking violations over the five years he’s owned the place. (The state cited numerous violations, including no masking inside the Shamrock, in announcing the settlement requiring Gerace to hand over his liquor license for the season.)
“I just don’t seem to fit into their overall plan,” he said. “Wildwood probably held on the longest with it. Maybe the new stuff will help the reputation.”
If you believe Gerace, the Shamrock would still be open if he weren’t targeted by authorities and who knows who else wanted Gerace out and the Shamrock closed, for disputed reasons he thinks may have to do with protecting other business interests. How else to explain the flurry of activity by Wildwood police and state environmental and alcohol enforcement agencies?
It’s as tough to unravel as the career trajectory of Billy Jack Gunther, for decades the house entertainment at the Shamrock, leading conga lines across the street to the Dragon House, his followers grabbing egg rolls off plates until the Dragon House people shooed them out.
The owners of the Dragon House, a 62-year-old restaurant housed in a 1910 building that was once the Strand, one of Wildwood’s early Victorian hotels, were doing their own procession over to the Shamrock last week to examine newly available kitchen equipment.
“It’s a heartbreak,” said Gunther, who signed green wood pieces at the Shamrock liquidation, one now in the Wildwood Historical Society for perpetuity, alongside a “bar” section lining a full wall. The society has been busy securing artifacts from bars as they’re demolished, like the neon sign and bar stools from the old Harbor Inn, down the street from the Shamrock, razed in one day in June.
“It’s a shame,” agreed Henry Lau, manager at Dragon House. “They’re part of the history. It’s hard to accept.”
‘The cop and nurse crowd’
Waiting in the wings is Joe Byrne of BG Capital LLC of Philadelphia, which is many millions of dollars into Wildwood, buying up blocks of mostly vacant buildings, including the St. Ann’s Parsonage from the Diocese of Camden, and entire blocks of vacant Pacific Avenue bars (The Fairview, Second Street Annie’s, MT Bottle, what’s now The Wood (open this summer but coming down). The Shamrock, with a $999,900 asking price, has a fall closing date.
Byrne is tired of being the fall guy in the Shamrock saga, portrayed as the out-of-town developer bulldozing Wildwood’s soul, with his actual intentions, he says, lost on the grieving masses eulogizing the place with memories of first dates, last dates, cringey lows, sweaty highs of too many drunken summers going back to its days when $1 got you seven glasses of beer.
Byrne’s vision of Wildwood is this: a town preserved for the Northeast Philly family that borrows off its primary home to buy down the Shore: the “cop and nurse crowd,” as he puts it.
“I’m not coming in like a tyrant doing market-rate for-sale housing and shoving it down their throats,” Byrne said in an interview.
Investors are circling, as they are throughout the Jersey Shore. Byrne says land prices have doubled in Wildwood’s Business Improvement District, designated in need of redevelopment, from $18.50 a square foot in early 2020, when his firm first invested, to about $40 a square foot.
“You’re seeing the needle start to move already,” he said.
Wildwood’s year-round population has declined from 5,400 in 2000 to about 4,800 in 2021. It lost two-thirds of its Black population, from 905 in 2000 (about 17%) to 350 now (6.9 %), many from neighborhoods west of New Jersey Avenue, as smaller houses on larger properties became attractive to buyers. Its year-round Hispanic population has declined from about 31% in 2000 to about 18% in 2020.
Locally, there is a sense that people from New York and North Jersey are pushing up prices, but a zip code listing of sales since 2020 from Wildwood Tax Assessor Jason Hesley shows an unremarkable breakdown: Of 517 sales, 12 were to New Yorkers (2.3%), 35 to North Jersey (6.8%), the rest mostly Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and South Jersey. New York and North Jersey percentages were slightly higher in Wildwood Crest.
Byrne, meanwhile, is building 26 townhouses and 12 condominiums on the former St. Ann’s Parsonage, a 1909 Tudor that was a rare example of Victorian “Stick-Style,” notes Henry in her book Wildwoods Houses Through Time. They will sell for “north of $550,000,” Byrne said.
In the 3600 block of Pacific, catty-corner from the Shamrock, Byrne plans retail and housing, with workforce housing and amenities for nearly 300 international students on J1 visas to work in Wildwood.
Byrne is negotiating with the state on whether regulations require parking for the students (unlikely to have cars), fueling local speculation that the powers-that-be seized on the Shamrock property as a solution, which Byrne says is untrue. Gerace came to him first, he says, and he has other land for parking.
Mayor Pete Byron is not happy about the Shamrock’s demise but says the time for nostalgia over Pacific Avenue’s bar era is over. He wants coffee shops and retail along downtown blocks that look painfully like an abandoned movie set from the 1950s.
“You’ve got stretches of Pacific Avenue that have dilapidated buildings that haven’t opened in some time,” he says. “This developer comes in and spends millions of dollars to buy up city blocks.”
They’ve been waiting decades for such a developer, he noted.
‘The look of Key West’
Henry’s book documents more than 100 historic houses in Wildwood and neighboring North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest, all but St. Ann’s still standing, making the case for the raucous resort’s overlooked Victorian heritage, as well as its stock of endangered century-old bungalows and two-stories with porches.
Byrne says his project will have a different style.
“Key West, Florida,” he said. “That’s what we’re going for. We don’t want Victorian. We don’t want Doo Wop. Key West, Florida.”
He’s unsentimental about old housing stock. Summer workers typically live in “60-year-old buildings with no smoke detectors in deplorable conditions, not up to housing code. Bed-to-bath ratios are despicable.”
The St. Ann’s buildings were “riddled with asbestos, mold, and lead-based paint.”
At the Historical Society, meanwhile, president Taylor and board member Jackson Betz soldier on with their preservation mission, preaching the history that still exists in Wildwood (the oldest building on Pacific Avenue, at 3120, is for sale), scrambling to literally pick up the pieces as buildings come down.
“We’ve been salvaging the artifacts,” Betz said. “That’s still a big win for preservationists.”
The 1950s motels that define Wildwood for many, he noted, once were thought gaudy by outraged citizens. “We don’t always like what change looks like,” Betz said.