5.29.2009

Seaside, Oregon: Making and Re-making a Coastal Resort Town


[This is a paper I wrote for a college course in 2009]

In the 1870’s, developer and railroad tycoon Ben Holladay built a luxury hotel called Seaside House on the Oregon coast, in the style of an Italian villa. The hotel had a stable and a racetrack—since many of the wealthy visitors arrived by stagecoach. The elegant atmosphere attracted elite tourists from Portland and San Francisco. This hotel that would eventually give Seaside, Oregon its name, was once called “the oldest fashionable resort” on the coast .

Fast forward about 130 years—a few friends and I are stranded at Cannon Beach in the Rain with only a tent for shelter, so we decide to look for a hotel to spend the night in. When we sheepishly ask one of the hotel managers if she has anything under eighty dollars, she tells us that we “won’t find anything that cheap in Cannon”, and suggests we try someplace like the Econo Lodge seven miles North in Seaside. This is how I was first introduced to the town, as Cannon Beach’s ‘cheaper alternative’ —cheaper, I gathered, not just in terms of hotel prices, but in a deeper, value-laden sense. Both towns are tourist destinations, and they are built around beaches a few miles apart, yet Seaside has evolved into quite a different place from its neighbor. For one thing, it has embraced Econo Lodge, and many other hotel chains and resort condominiums, which line Highway 101 and lie clustered around the beachfront blocks of the city’s downtown. In contrast to Cannon Beach’s quiet affluence, Seaside seems built for the masses, with a sort of Cony Island mishmash of attractions. The long-term influence of tourism on the landscape was evident from my brief observation, but there seemed to be a discontinuity between the more historic features—plaques announcing the endpoint of the Lewis & Clark expedition for example—and the ones that appear to be part of recent (and likely ongoing) renewal, such as the sushi restaurant, luxury condos, and yes the Econo Lodge. Towering over them all is the Resort at Seaside, an eight story, three building complex that surrounds a swimming pool right next to the sand. An advertisement for the resort announces in mock cursive script, “we invite you to tour the Resort at Seaside!”

How did Seaside go from “the oldest fashionable resort” on the coast to what the developer of the Resort at Seaside had called “tacky”, “rowdy”, and “rinky-dink”? What does the most recent development represent? And how has history been preserved along the way?

Accounts of Seaside’s history, and the broader narrative of tourist development in the west that Hal Rothman recounts in his book Devil’s Bargains, suggest that Seaside’s shift from high-brow to mainstream was hastened by the development of transportation infrastructure—first the rail, and then the highway—which democratized travel to the coastal town. Furthermore, as tourism became democratized in Seaside, its form changed as well, to a blend of recreational tourism and heritage tourism made palatable for the masses.

In 1888, a rail service opened up connecting Astoria and Seaside, providing a convenient alternative to stagecoach travel. In 1898 another line connecting Portland and Astoria made the whole trip possible by rail (taking four hours or so). Whereas in the early 1800s the area’s economy depended on logging, trapping and salmon fishing, by the turn of the century the city of Seaside came to rely heavily on seasonal tourists. In the summer the full-time population of 500 would increase by 10 or 20 times. Recreation was clearly a main draw, visible in attractions like boat rentals and an indoor, salt-water swimming pool, or “natatorium”.

The 1920s brought automobile culture to Seaside with the opening of Highway 101, which ran from Astoria to the California Border. Broadway, Seaside’s main street leading to the beach (nicknamed “rubberneck row”) was rebuilt around the automobile, as the wooden beachfront boardwalk was replaced by a concrete promenade and automobile turnaround, allowing cars to get about as close to the beach as they could without sinking into the sand. Wells notes that in the 1930s, “car touring became an increasingly affordable way to spend a family vacation”. In the late 30s, the Sunset Highway between Portland and Seaside—the same one my friends and I took on our budget spring break—completed the updated circuitry of mainstream tourism.

Seaside today is divided into eastern and western sections by a river. The eastern side of town is centered on the highway, around which have been built several strip malls, a large movie theatre, and a Safeway supermarket. The western side of town is organized in a grid pattern, focused on the main axis of Broadway Avenue. The streets above it are marked with numbers and the ones below it with letters. Broadway runs from Highway 101 to the “Historic Turnaround” and promenade running parallel to the beach. At the center of the turnaround is a bronze statue of Lewis & Clark that marks “the end of the Lewis & Clark Trail”. Next to the promenade there is a swing set and a few coin-operated viewing devices. Despite the cold weather, at around two ‘o clock in the afternoon the sand was quite crowded, (there was even one swimmer). Some people were trying to fly kites and others were pedaling around on recumbent bicycles that were available for rent.

Broadway clearly still functions as the city’s “main street”. It opens easily onto the promenade and beach, facilitating movement between the sand and the restaurants, souvenir shops, and entertainment centers that make up the commercial blocks. Although the street is open to vehicles, its features welcome pedestrian traffic and there are large planters of flowers and greenery decorating the intersection, which are paved with bricks instead of plain concrete. The sidewalks are wide with walk signals that give a generous amount of crossing time. Decorative streetlamps (which look to be about as old as the promenade) run down the avenue and the buildings are colorfully painted with large shopping windows and awnings.
The attractions are still predominately recreational. Some of the businesses include: “Funzone”, a large video arcade; a trinket store selling items such as swords and tapestries featuring Bruce Lee; a salt-water taffy store; Italian, Japanese, and Cajun-themed restaurants; and a small shopping center with an old-fashioned carousel at the center, a caricature artist, wild-west themed photo portrait studio, and a store called “mostly hats”. Except for the Resort at Seaside the buildings on Broadway keep a relatively low profile, with large display windows and pastel colored exteriors recalling a certain Disneyfied Main Street aesthetic.

I got the sense that features seeming to represent Seaside’s particular history had been blended with nostalgic features, which were fashioned to evoke an abstracted sense of history but which were in actuality a product of recent renewal. The “Flash from the past” photo shop in the Carousel Mall provides the most obvious example of a pseudo-historical element. The store offers visitors the chance to dress up in Wild West garb and have their picture taken in a mock saloon. Other parts of the mall also seemed pseudo-historical, such as the “Flashback Malt Shoppe” and the mall’s centerpiece, a full-size working carousel that charged $1.25 per ride. These stylistically ‘old’ features are mixed with features like the “historic turnaround” and various statues and plaques describing historical events connected to the area such as the end of the Lewis & Clark expedition in a way that forms a simplified version of history in the mind of the casual observing tourist. It is as if Lewis and Clark actually ended their journey by driving out to the turnabout in their hot-rod, sipping malts from the malt shoppe.

This fanciful image speaks to one of the characteristics of mainstream tourism that Hal Rothman discusses in Devil’s Bargains. Rothman argues that as the train and automobile democratized tourism, it changed forms from ‘heritage tourism’, an elite practice of soaking in national history, to ‘recreational tourism’ in which just soaking in a pool was good enough. He writes:
“Recreational tourism melded the amenities required by elite nineteenth-century tourists with activities that appealed to a broader public, less status conscious but more affluent and having greater amounts of leisure time after World War II.”

Recreational tourism was not as concerned with the historic legacy of the places it appropriated. Seaside’s generic name is in some sense the perfect example of this ethos, under which people were mostly seeking only ‘a day at the beach’. Yet as Seaside developed into a resort town, it clearly retained a historical legacy associated with the mythology of the west, the Lewis & Clark expedition, and to a lesser extent the Clatsop-Nehalem tribes indigenous to the area. The melding of the town’s generic resort features and historical attractions, such as a reconstruction of the salt works used by the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery—and also pseudo-historical ones like Flash from the Past—is in line with Rothman’s theory of the rise of a third type of tourism he calls “entertainment tourism”. “Entertainment tourism,” he writes, “eventually included both recreational and heritage tourism within its broad dimensions, packaging experience in resorts and national parks and mimicking what these forms offered in the packaged unreality of Disneyland, theme parks, and even Las Vegas.”

Entertainment tourism certainly seems to describe the experience that Seaside offers today, even if it is not nearly on the level of Disneyland or Las Vegas— which brings me back to the Resort at Seaside. The resort was built by a company called Worldmark at a cost of 73 million dollars. According to an article celebrating the resort’s innovative “concrete wall system”:
“The Resort at Seaside marks the 49th Trendwest resort that WorkMark operates in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Fiji. Five other resorts are also located in Oregon at Depoe Bay, Redmond, Gleneden Beach, Klamath Falls and Newport.”
At the same time that the luxury and amenities of the Resort at Seaside recall the affluence of the original Seaside House, the resort represents a new stage of tourism and an entirely different relationship to place. The resort sits right next to the historic turnaround and towers over the bronze effigy of Lewis & Clark, at the same time as it exists in a transnational economic dimension next to identical buildings in Australia, Mexico, and Fiji. If rails and roads democratized tourism, global networks of capital are re-stratifying it for the age of post-modern consumption, where “travel as a defining experience has become a new form of religion, a new way to value the self.”

What happens to place and history in this context? Boyer argues that the packaging of history into theme parks of consumption “suppresses the continuous order of reality, the connecting in between places, and imposes instead an imaginary order of things”. In a way, the evolution from heritage to entertainment tourism can be thought of as a gradual hollowing out and liquification of place, turning it into a commodity in the global market. If seaside followed this model exactly, then the actual history of Lewis & Clark, logging, fur trading, and the Clatsop-Nehalem people, would cede to the pseudo-historical aura of Flash from the Past, offering historical auras and new identities up for sale to post-modern tourists who aren’t bothered that the history they are consuming has no referent. I don’t think Seaside has gotten that far yet, and there seems to be plenty of earnest efforts by local groups like the Seaside Historical Society to preserve more authentic narratives of the town’s history. Yet the Resort at Seaside and the “devil’s bargain” of tourism it represents is unnerving. As one resident said in an Oregonian article, “it was hyped that this development was going to save Seaside, and that’s just not true.” Some local shop-owners and employees are optimistic however. Their point of view can be summed up in the words of a candy-store owner: “I think Trendwest is the best thing to happen to Seaside since Lewis & Clark.”

Sources:

Pulaski, Alex. “Seaside’s Second Wind” The Oregonian, December 12, 2003.

Boyer, Christine M. “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport” in Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.

Wells, Gail. “Tourists Discover the Oregon Coast” The Oregon History Project, www.ohs.org 2006.

Hughey, Ray. "Oceanfront Seaside project largest for concrete wall system". Daily Journal of Commerce (Portland, OR) 03 May, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4184/is_20030731/ai_n10046086/

Rothman, Hal K. Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West. Kansas: the University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Author Unknown. “Oregon’s Seaside.” Pp. 20, The Seaside Vacation Planner. Pelican Productions, Inc. 2009.

Paulson, Sara. “Seaside House” The Oregon History Project, www.ohs.org 2007.

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