Turning the Tide at Hampton Beach
By Jan Waldron
New Hampshire Seacoast Sunday, July 31, 1988
[The following article is courtesy of the New Hampshire Seacoast Sunday.]
(Jan Waldron photos)
Efforts to restore the family image at the region's most developed resort area gained momentum this year with battles over T-shirts and parking. But that may be only the beginning.
A controversy over the questionable taste of certain t-shirts is over, say Hampton Beach merchants. But there's another battle brewing — over parking. Some say it's already boiled over and it's the merchants who are getting burned by an overnight parking ban along a key section of the beach.
Others say the parking ban has been on the back burner long enough. It's time to turn up the heat, weed out the undesirables (and their cars) and give the beach back to the families.
The parking ban and t-shirt controversies emerged this summer as the latest in a long history of battles about the image of Hampton Beach. Is it a playground for teens, or family fare? Can it be both, effectively? As a state beach, doesn't it have the obligation to serve all segments of the state's population?
The annual debate resurfaced with a vengeance about a month ago, when the Hampton Beach Chamber of Commerce started getting letters from people who said they were offended by the blatant display of crude t-shirts outside some stores.
Most of the shirts were not, said the offended, suitable for viewing by all family members.
"Fact is, I had a sizable number of complaints, letters and calls, from people who are disgusted," said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Glen French. "A lot of them are from parents who say, 'Sure, I can handle the obscene t-shirts,' but when their kids ask them about the shirts, they feel uncomfortable. They don't want their kids seeing this stuff."
French says visitors were not the only people concerned with the indelicate messages about AIDS, condoms and other matters. Other vendors on the beach didn't like them either.
The t-shirt selling merchants agreed to move the most offensive of their inventory off the sidewalks and into their stores. The town backed off, and the issue faded, only to be replaced by the parking controversy.
The parking ban from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. is aimed at a group of late-night loafers between the shell and the memorial statue on Ocean Boulevard — the kind of kids, suggested a town official, who might be interested in, actually buy and wear those indelicate t-shirts.
If you take away the parking spaces, say some town officials, you take away the meeting ground for a segment of beach visitors the town can do without: the kids who come in their cars usually after 8.
Judy Cummings of the department of parks and recreation says state parks are for everyone: "young, old, able-bodied, disabled, English-speaking, non English-speaking. As a state park, we must provide recreation for everybody."
But that means everybody has a right to enjoy the beach without being harassed, says French. That was not happening. The chamber, again, felt the heat from a protesting public about the conduct of some of the beach visitors.
"There were large groups of people gathering, and it was becoming a mob mentality," says French. "It was very uncomfortable for people walking down the street, because these people were urinating, swearing. Is is appropriate for a young person to skateboard down a sidewalk when there are older people on that sidewalk? I don't think so. The area where we've banned parking after 8 had become a base for these crowds. This was their gallery. This was not a direction that Hampton Beach should be going in."
Lessons of the past
An ill-fated attempted at imposing a similar ban was abandoned after much confusion in the summer of 1987. It was not handled well, concede state officials. There weren't enough meetings, and the right people weren't involved.
The summer of '88 began with efforts to do the job right this year. In early June, interested and affected parties met with the commissioner of the department of resources and economic development, George "Skip" Jones, to rehash the pros and cons of the parking issue. A week before July 4th, the ban on parking took effect.
Since July 4th, visitors to state-owned Hampton Beach have been unable to park in the metered spaces opposite Avenues A and B between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. The chamber of commerce, the police department, the board of selectmen and a majority of business people in town agree the so-called "Front" on Ocean Boulevard, roughly the area between The Ashworth and the Club Casino, is no longer attracting what they consider an undesirable element, because of the parking ban.
The chief of the Hampton Beach-based recreation and parks department, Ed Parr, says the young adults who parked in the zone now off limits after 8 used their autos as a base of operations for annoying, often illegal, recreation. He says the kids who hang out drive away the respectable folks, the people who come to the beach for family fun.
"The Hampton Police Department, the Chamber of Commerce and the Selectmen, all three groups requested the ban from the state in order to eliminate the unwanteds, the kids who gross everybody out," says Parr.
He is candidly displeased with what he considers a young, troublesome beach population, referring to them as "maggots" and "pukes."
"Their only purpose in life is to scream obscenities at people who pass by." Parr says the scene has improved since the ban.
"There's a group of a couple hundred kids that is no longer on the beach," he says, "and they're not elsewhere on the beach either. I think they've moved to Salisbury."
The merchants on the central beach area say the kids are not the only ones who've gone elsewhere. Some of the store owners say they've lost as much as a third of their business since the parking ban took effect. Parr says he has no sympathy for the merchants who may lose some customers as a result of the change in parking regulations. It's a matter of getting rich, instead of richer, he says.
"What less business means to the merchants here is that they'll have only three months in Hawaii instead of six this year," says Parr.
A loss of business?
Caesar and David Maleh and family own three retail stores and the Moulton Hotel in the area from the memorial to the shell on Ocean Boulevard. Both attended town meetings and were vocal in their opposition to the traffic ban at the end of the season last year.
Among their properties are stores where some of the infamously crude T-shirts are available. The Malehs say that the traffic ban has turned into an "us versus them" issue, pitting beachfront merchants against the chamber of commerce and state park officials, as well as in-town residents.
"The chamber of commerce didn't even notify us," says Ceasar Maleh. "And a lot of us are members. Last we knew, they were reconsidering the ban, last summer, and we came back this year, in April, to find out that decisions were made when we were away, and we couldn't have a voice in it. The first we saw of it was the signs."
The Maleh brothers, says French, are among a very small number of merchants who are dissatisfied with the parking ban. Nevertheless, he says, they knew it was coming.
"The Maleh brothers have been spoken to personally about this matter," says French. "It doesn't surprise me that they are the ones who think anything goes down at the beach. They're the ones selling the t-shirts. Freedom of speech is one thing, but I do not think that anything goes, for the sake of commercial interest. They will sell what they want for the short run, and take their dollars and go away."
Caesar Maleh says he thinks the ban has backfired, and that there's more cruising now because there's no place for the kids to park.
His brother, David, says he understands wanting to get rid of kids who make trouble, but he thinks the town is going about it the wrong way.
"It wouldn't be so bad if they did it the right way," David Maleh, says, over loud music in his shirt store on the strip. "Put up benches, trees, make it into a park for the families. Instead, they're doing it in a way that's going to hurt us. And we are feeling it."
Part of the plan
Chairman of Selectmen Glyn Eastman says the parking ban is only one step in efforts to restore the beach's family image. He says he will ask one of his state reps to submit a bill to eliminate parking altogether in "the Front," so that the central beach area can be turned into a picnic area, with tables and benches and trees. The goal of the chamber and its allies is to turn the beach, entirely, into a family-focused recreational spot, says Eastman.
Michael Fallas, owner of Shirts R Us, doesn't want to talk about t-shirts anymore, but he has plenty to say about the traffic ban. He says that the economy is already soft, and that town officials and the chamber of commerce may be playing with fire through their parking bans and other efforts.
"I don't care about that (t-shirts) anymore. The newspapers made a big thing of it. That controversy has come and gone. Now the parking situation, that could mean something," he says from the back of his heavily stocked t-shirt shop at the beach.
Fallas, who works about 15 hours a day, says business is not good this year, and he thinks it's a result of a soft economy compounded by the parking ban. He believes the limits on parking could permanently alter buying patterns in his area of the beach. Still, he is busy enough to tolerate the parking problem for now.
The Maleh brothers agree. The season is short, they say, they are too busy and it takes too much time to fight city hall. They will, however, start the good fight when the season ends, for next year.
Next year, however, if the chamber of commerce, the selectmen (and other town officials), the parks and recreation department, the state, and most of the in-town merchants have their way, the trend to turn the tide at the beach will only gain momentum. Times have changed, says French, and it's time to take control.
"If you have to make a change, a parking ban is not a very drastic issue," says French. "And if we don't do that now, the beach will get much worse. It means later on we'll have to take some really hard measures. We are trying to recapture control, and return it to a quieter community."
French points out that the beach at Fort Lauderdale reached a point where kids controlled the beach completely. As a result, officials had to ban parking all along that beach. Now kids go somewhere else, and Fort Lauderdale is inactive at best, almost dead as a draw for the younger population.
A study in sub-groups
Being young and frequenting the beach doesn't mean you're looking for trouble when the sun goes down every night. Mark Sturgis, 20, and Nick Chiara, 21, hang out at the beach playing volleyball, not hanging around in cars late at night.
They come to Hampton on weekends mostly, when they're not working at their jobs in Massachusetts. They have "a ton of friends" at the beach, and say there are sub-groups of kids, some better behaved than others.
"We know of people who do it (harass people). It's the punks. There are the metal heads, they wear tight pants and long hair; the steroid heads, they have big muscles; and then there are the deadheads. I have a roommate who's a deadhead, and he never has any problems with anybody. His philosophy is live and let live," says Chiara.
Both young men agree the beach scene can get rough, but Sturgis says the police officers aren't always the nicest.
"Some of the cops are young and over-anxious," Sturgis says. Chiara adds, "Sometimes they come down hard on you, but I wouldn't want to be a cop. They have a tough job. Look at all the people here."
With cooperation and serious planning, French sees the crowd at the beach calming down, changing and still including kids like Chiara and Sturgis. "I was young once. I remember all that. I don't remember being disrespectful to adults, though," says French. He says his agency is still grappling with change, and how it affects the beach.
"People used to come to the beach and stay all summer. Dads worked, came up on the weekends, and mothers stayed with kids at the beach. There was a stable community, and you knew your neighbor.
The kids grew up and took jobs on the beach. Now people can't afford to have one parent home all summer. So both parents started working. They started coming for two weeks, and then two days. Most people stay a couple of days, three or four. There are quite a few available cottage rentals at the beach this summer."
French says the effort to transform from the "carnival atmosphere" of Hampton Beach into a calm family place will take time, and is by no means a black-and-white issue.
"This is very complicated," he says. "There are no bad guys or good guys. Sure, greed is a factor for some of the merchants, but mostly they're dealing with overvalued land, high taxes, big mortgages. The community itself has` forced the issue."
As director of one of the busiest, most active chambers in the state, French is accustomed to controversy, for there have been many at the beach. Continued efforts to restore a family image are certain to generate more.
"We could eliminate parking completely," he says. "But then if we are doing that we're taking away parking from senior citizens, too, and they need it. But I guess I feel, that at some point in the day, it's time for people to start quieting down."
And at some point, Hampton may become a quieter beach, but everyone agrees, it will take more than a parking ban, which may only have been the opening shot in what will be a lengthy battle.
(Jan Waldron photos)
(Jan Waldron photos)