Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Virginia, 1974. It is a small stretch of narrow beach in the sleepy Tidewater community of southeastern Virginia. There are blue-collar towns and white-collar cities in America during this time. Hampton and the surrounding area are decidedly green-collar: much of the economy consists of military and ex-military. Times are simple here and change comes slowly. When I first left Hampton in 1966, Whites Only and Colored Only signs could still be found on old doors and reclaimed lumber. When we returned in 1968, almost nothing had changed. There were four types of people for the most part: white rednecks, black rednecks, military personnel on assignment, and those of us who wanted to get the hell out.
You don’t think black rednecks exist? Then you’ve never been to the South.
Southern accents still existed here in 1974. Most radio stations played rock or country music and Country Hall of Fame collections were sold on television night and day. Black people listened to Soul and emerging Funk, and since we didn’t listen to the same music, we didn’t socialize much either. Southern blacks and white had long tolerated each other then, but there was little mixing except for the beach. Even here it was incidental, with our fairer brethren in the sun and we people darker than blue laying in the shade of the piers. We were there together, but interacted only sporadically. It wasn’t so much prejudice as it was a lack of common ground. Blacks and whites had only won the right to marry in Virginia in 1967, due to a hard-fought U.S. Supreme Court decision.
This was the environment in which I acquired my first real camera, a Minolta SRT-101, which hipsters would now call an analog, all-manual SLR. I called it all I could afford. I’d been shooting since I was 12, but at age 16 I was ready to try out the type of street photography that I’d seen in books for years. These shots — especially the incorrectly developed shots (I believe they were color developed as monochrome) — were one of my first roles of film. I’d bike to the beach, around 5-6 miles, and then ride around for hours with my Minolta in my old Boy Scout backpack.
The beach had a full amusement park, including roller coaster, all of which have been long-since razed to make way for parking and housing. The kids in this shot carry food and soft drinks from the food court. It was the non-beach activities which made the trip to the small beach worthwhile. This was late summer, and the locals would have abandoned the water by now. Rather than the ocean, Buckroe bordered the Chesapeake Bay, and even if you didn’t step on a sharp bit of shell from mollusks, etc., the warm water filled with jellyfish from July to September. The water’s still there, but the shellfish are depleted, and I’m not even sure the jellyfish remain. Superman has long since left, I reckon, as have I.
The interesting thing about these shots, to me, is what was happening in my head when I took them. I didn’t think of composition in those days; I just shot. I didn’t notice the men staring at me shooting the boy, or his sister and mom to the right. I merely took the kid’s photo because I thought he looked cute. I wonder if kids at the beach are still superheroes. I didn’t shoot the man holding the inflatable raft on his head because of shapes or the tonality of the dark rubber against the sky. I just thought he looked funny. Art was a simple thing.
My first brush with photojournalism. This is the side and front views of Mr. McNamara’s Pier 1 Restaurant, at Buckroe Beach, which once featured a Ferris wheel (and an actual roof). It opened in 1969, doing quite well until 1971, when it was partly destroyed by a fire. I believe that is when the Ferris wheel disappeared. Rebuilt, continued until 1974 (the year of this photo) when an arsonist gutted it. It was rebuilt a second time, finally being razed a third time by fire in 1979. The city purchased the remnants of the pier in 1979.
It marked a change on the beach — the beginning of the end. After the third fire, they tore down the pier and abandoned the restaurant for good. Soon, the amusement park was gone and with it, the last vestige of old-time beach fare: rickety wooden roller coasters, almost-fair games, tilt-a-whirl and other rides I’d not get on, and of course, endless miniature bowling. It was replaced by higher-income housing that slowly scraped the seediness and all the color out of the place.
Parents didn’t coddle their kids in the 70s. Bones were expected to break, so parents didn’t fret when they did. We didn’t think of skin cancer, since cigarettes made everyone look old as dirt by age 60 anyway. Who knew the sun was harmful? We didn’t wear sunblock; we wore tanning lotion.
Kids had freedom that Millennials cannot comprehend. Imagine grabbing your bud, a cage, and some raw chicken and heading to the pier to catch your own blue-crab dinner. Imagine no one being worried about your being kidnapped or molested, and your parents knew you smart enough not to fall in the damn bay.
That sign is probably the government’s sole attempt to curtail overfishing of the crabs and other sea creatures. It didn’t work. Water was life to all of us. Sure, it was hot and humid as the southern tip of Hell, but we had the bay, and you could get a bushel of crab for next to nothing and fresh fish from The James River, or the York River, or any of their tributaries that practically flopped around on your plate. I kept returning to the water with my camera not because I loved the smell, which was horrible, but because that was where the life was.
It’s changed now, a bit. The slow shadow of homogeneity has begun to creep there as well, like a rising tide that washed away the local color. It’s not nearly as segregated. There are pockets of diversity. The local accent, a unique melange of Southern American and English that sounded more Canadian than Texan, is gone. No one’s words grate my ears with the southern flat-I. Everything looks the same, but nothing is, because no one’s really from here anymore. The locals have gotten old, as have I, and they avoid the beach.
But I have pictures, and even though my self-deprecating eyes see neither art nor journalism in them, I do see history, and that’s enough.