As the wrecking ball works this week taking down the old UNCW Marine Science facility at the intersection of Wrightsville Avenue and Eastwood Road, I reflect on how rapidly things can disappear, how quickly the landscape can change. First, we wept as the iconic Babies Hospital that once graced the entrance to Wrightsville was taken down, now with no tears, the marine center.
Soon condos and offices will occupy the space and references to the Babies Hospital corner will disappear from our vocabulary except the occasional locator euphemism not unlike that of Monkey Junction, referring to the 1950s gas station owners in the southern part of the county who had a pet monkey. For those who know Boone, N.C., well, there is a Greasy Corner, signifying where a restaurant once stood, known for its greasy food. Probably every town has one or two of these monikers. Crystal Pier could be considered one; often tourists can’t find it while standing in sight of the Oceanic.
As the developers of the Babies Hospital site, soon to rise out of the ground as The Sidbury, continue to turn the earth, they may find evidence of the area’s earliest inhabitants, and I don’t mean Dr. Sidbury’s patients. Because my office window overlooks this site, and as daydreaming overtakes me, I imagine a time when groups of native Indians came to spend late summer days encamped all along this side of the waterway. This was thousands of years ago; and of course, dug in 1913, there was no waterway back then, but these locations were the highest points of land around and any savvy early camper would have enjoyed sheltering on the high places looking out over the wide expanse of sparkling sands and clear water. It is easy to imagine great feasting on the plentiful foodstuff found then in the water and marshes stretching out to the east as the indigenous people would have enjoyed ocean breezes, fishing the shallows and roasting oysters.
This holiday weekend lands squarely in the crossroads of August to September, when wearing white is no longer in season; the first “r” month, when fresh oysters are back on the groaning board.
Visitors coming to potentially feast at the beach might notice the wheels of change occurring on this gateway corner to Wrightsville, but chances are all eyes will be focused on and around the drawbridge in anticipation of the first glimpse of water. For many, the moment when the tires hit the bridge signifies the start of a happy time, an aaahhhh moment, if you will.
Changes for those who have not spent much time on the beach this year will of course be the often-frustrating restricted access lanes on the drawbridge, which mean bigger backups of traffic. Work on the bridge is set to continue through March 2014. Not visible to motorists but those traveling north, or putting in at the wildlife boat ramp heading south to open water passing beneath the bridge, boaters will have a close-up glimpse of the heavy equipment barge stored by the contractor working above and below the bridge span.
Parking everywhere for cars, including vehicles with boat trailers, will be tight, unless the forecast for scattered thunderstorms is increased.
One aspect of changing beach life is the tightening of police enforcement of existing regulations. Their no-nonsense approach under Chief Dan House remains in force with little wiggle room for offenders. Break the law and a ticket or arrest will follow. They even have permission from some residents to arrest trespassers on the spot, even with property owners away from home.
And contentious though it was, last November the voters had the final say in passing a smoking ban on the beach strand, which took effect this summer. Though there are arguments still, pro and con, about where the town’s jurisdiction lies, law enforcement has taken seriously the job of reprimanding offenders for lighting up on the sand.
From pier to pier there are no new restaurants, no new businesses, although the rebuilt pier at the Oceanic is open to pier diners as well as fishermen who will no doubt flock to the new span to dine and cast a line in this popular location. One hopes there are no follies of the kind displayed last week when a visitor jumped off Johnnie Mercer’s Pier on a dare. Risking life and limb, the young man was cited not once, but also a second time for littering the beach when he threw his citation to the ground.
The proposed operation of a Joe’s Crab Shack from the Mercer’s pier house was unexplainably shot down by a divided town council in March. But just to the west, things may change soon, with the property that was once home to the Ocean View Motel. The site, sitting idle after being torn down years ago, has been sold. New buyers have revamped a proposal for mixed residential and commercial space to be built there. They are even in talks with Joe’s Crab. Let’s hope this idea’s time has come.
And finally, on the historic square of relocated beach cottages that now house the island museum and visitors center, the southeast regional office of the North Carolina Coastal Federation is a new draw. Not yet complete, the cottage relocated to West Salisbury Street is being refurbished as the federation’s new headquarters. It was a historic day in June when the landmarked Palmgren-O’Quinn house was uprooted from South Channel Drive and barged around to Pelican Drive, where after a brief overnight delay it was trailered to its final resting place. We will watch with interest as this historic cottage becomes yet one more reason for visitors to cross the drawbridge and sample the spoils of the islands we call ours.
Happy Labor Day weekend!