I don’t really think of myself as a slouch, but I’m sure there are times when I walk where my eyes tend to lurk more toward my feet than straight ahead. The photo below captures one of those moments:
What are these weird rectangles in the unusually sandy ground? They look almost like cemetery plots, but that doesn’t really make sense; they’re too close to one another. And only one of them—the middle one, referencing Alice Walsh—is commemorative in nature. The others aren’t entirely clear…except when I stop slouching and look back up.
Okay, so now it should be a bit more obvious: these are blocks within a walkway, which private citizens have purchased. And it’s not just any pedestrian path: it’s the direct access from the town of Dewey Beach, Delaware to the beach itself. Embedded walkway messaging.
As is often the case, people walking from the edge of the developable area (the final row of homes with direct views of the ocean) must sidle their way between beachfront houses, up a minor crest created by sand dune activity. It often looks something like this on the “interior” of those beachfront homes opposite Dewey Beach, where beachgoers benefit from rockstar parking on the oceanfront access road:
And then, after ascending the mild elevation created by the sand dune, visitors can look back at those pricey beachfront homes. Notice how a disproportionate number of windows face the direction from where I took this photo: out onto the Atlantic Ocean, obviously.
It is this point along the walkway where I encountered the “gravesite marketplace” of memorials and advertisements lumped together. This spot in the jam-packed town of Dewey Beach (only .33 square miles of land area, but as dense as Greenwich Village in the summer) is the one and only place I have witnessed such a tactic, though I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to find elsewhere.
And I suspect, in time, it will become increasingly common. For many people (including me) who see public beachfront access as sacrosanct, this embedded walkway messaging represents an uncomfortable fusion of civic responsibility and monetization—two almost paradoxical means to a shared end—a goal of raising private money to further stewardship of public lands. Those who subscribe to the “by any means necessary” philosophy should find no problem with this tactic: it vaguely evokes the Adopt-a-Highway program, in which non-profits, civic associations, private clubs, or local for-profit businesses donate money to sponsor clean-up of litter and trash along a segment of public highway, with the understanding that their funds (and sometimes labor) will earn recognition through a public sign along the road. At this time, I count 29 partnering state entities (mostly Departments of Transportation); Delaware is among them. Adopt-a-Highway (and its labor-free, exclusively fiduciary counterpart Sponsor-a-Highway) is not without controversy, in part because some of the sponsoring civic groups themselves are polarizing amidst the culture wars (e.g., Church of Satan, the Ku Klux Klan, Trevor Project). But, more pertinent to this instance of embedded walkway messaging, Adopt-a-Highway is effectively a means of circumventing roadside advertising regulations. The signs are prominent and effectively serve to promote the sponsoring agency, which is particularly problematic in areas that restrict billboards. Why? Simply put, the cost for sponsorship or the volunteer labor to clean up the side of the road is cheaper than the lease on most billboards. So Adopt-the-Highway is low-cost publicity of private businesses that DOTs fully support…on ROWs that otherwise feature directional and safety information.
I don’t find this argument against Adopt-a-Highway compelling. First of all, a billboard allows exact artistic freedom, including any sort of message or mottos or promotional offerings or directions to the bricks-and-mortar location. The Adopt-a-Highway sign features the organization’s logo, at most; in some states, the publicly funded blue signs offer nothing more than the name of the organization in the same font as the rest of it, thereby nullifying the embedded bias of a public-private partnership and keeping the recognition as neutral as possible. Lastly, these signs are informational at their core—and highway directional signage has announced private restaurants at the upcoming exit ramp, nearly always featuring logos, for the last few decades.
But this seems different. Unlike the time-tested approach of Adopt-a-Highway, these embedded walkway messaging efforts don’t seem all that strict or uniform. I’ll concede that they’re exclusively textual—no logos, no images, no decorative features. Graphics would be difficult given the crude nature of the undertaking. I don’t really know what this material is used to “pave” this walkway—perhaps some sort of reinforced polymer, maybe even fiberglass, but it clearly isn’t cement (too heavy) and it’s not wood (not resilient enough when this close to water and potential tidal surges). It needs to be something durable, non-slippery, and resistant to the elements. Whatever this material is, it clearly accommodates printing, with different fonts and varying sizes, emphasizing some text over others. In this instance in Dewey Beach, some of these panels suggest dedications—just as innocuous as a commemorative bench in a public park—but the one in the back with “SEASCAPE CONDOS” is almost certainly vaguely promotional in intent. Even if it isn’t referencing a time-share or some sort of AirBnB arrangement, it ventures close enough into promotional territory semantically that it opens the doors to eventual abuse. And besides, this is 30 feet from the sand that forms the actual beach–an area that the public sector aims to remain as unspoiled from marketplace commercialization as possible. Save the ad space for boardwalks, and, once out on the beach, the only things allowed to advertise are those boats and jets with banners that pass by.
Unlike neighboring towns (Bethany Beach, Rehoboth Beach), Dewey Beach doesn’t have a boardwalk. The heart of Dewey Beach is the Coastal Highway (State Route 1) just a block or so away from all these images; bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and beachcomber tchotchke shops line both sides of the street.
But Dewey Beach—the beach itself—does not have a boardwalk; fundamentally it is not a commercial or commercialized beach. And it directly abuts a strictly private beach (Indian Beach), in which the unaffiliated aren’t even allowed to stake their umbrellas, as I noted a few years ago. I still believe that, at its heart, this embedded walkway messaging represents sponsorship and dedicatees—a tribute to people who devoted their time and money to keeping this stretch of coastal Delaware clean and unsullied. But the looseness of the method for recognizing these people slips dangerously close into purchasing influence; it would be just as easy for a private business to sponsor cleanup of the sand dunes, then earn a panel on this pseudo-sidewalk to include the business name, address, and a slogan. And then it’s nothing more than private marketing on public lands.
If I’m making a mountain out of a molehill (or a sand dune in this case—not much bigger), it wouldn’t be the first time. But public-private partnerships must abide by strict standards of transparency and consistency, or they absolutely run the risk of carrying the appearance of a conflict of interest. And, as most ethicists will tell you, the appearance of a conflict of interest is as bad as actual corruption. I hope I’m wrong here in Dewey Beach. I’m sure Alice Walsh deserves the best. So, Dewey Beach-bums, let’s honor her memory with a plaque that doesn’t position her next to a sign that vaguely evokes VRBO or Craig’s List.