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The Deal of the Century
ON A WARM SUNDAY MORNING IN AUGUST 1926, Morris L. Shapiro climbed into his new Willys-Knight sedan and started alone down the New Jersey coast. The idea was to break the car in slowly by taking it out for short drives, until the odometer reached one hundred miles. At that point, he could drive as often and as far as he liked.
The Shapiros—Morris; his wife, Jennie; their sons, Jerry and Herb; and their daughter, Muriel—were spending the month of August in a large Victorian rental on Fourth and Ocean Streets in Bradley Beach, a popular summer resort along the northern New Jersey shore, an hour’s drive from the bustling cities of Newark, Elizabeth, and Irvington. It was an extravagance, to be sure, but one Morris could afford. He owned the largest shoe store in Elizabeth, near the busy port, and recently had ventured into real estate, buying and selling land and building single-family homes in the Elmora section of the city.
Morris was supposed to go only a short distance that morning, but the ride was so pleasantly distracting that he didn’t notice the miles slipping by. Soon, he was in Ocean County, on Route 9, a winding two-lane blacktop then no wider than a farm road. Ocean County was one of the largest in the state. But it was far from the cities and isolated, with small fishing villages shouldering Barnegat Bay, blueberry and cranberry farms squeezed inside a sprawling forest of pygmy pines and cedar creeks, and black-water rivers and bogs spilling into lush salt meadows. Many of the towns and crossroads appeared to Morris to have more in common with the sleepy Deep South than the busy Northeast.
When he reached Manahawkin, a fishing colony located on the southernmost edge of Barnegat Bay, Morris saw a wooden sign advertising Long Beach Island and on a whim turned left onto a rickety wooden bridge only a foot or two higher than the water. It is unclear whether Morris had ever heard of the slender barrier island before, but he probably hadn’t. It was a slow, nerve-wracking drive across the bay, but the view was spectacular. The vibrant colors exploded at Morris—the blue-green swirl of the shallow bay, no more than six feet deep in most places; the golden ridge of sand dunes across the water; and the even deeper chromatic blue of the Atlantic Ocean limning the horizon. The popular beach resorts at the time, including Asbury Park and Long Branch in North Jersey and Atlantic City to the south, were small cities, with redbrick hotels, crowded boardwalks, and amusement piers projecting dangerously over the ocean. By contrast, Long Beach Island was nearly virgin and empty. Morris didn’t see any boardwalks, piers, or tall buildings. In fact, other than a small cluster of cedar-shake bungalows at the end of the wooden causeway connecting the island to the mainland, he didn’t see any houses at all.
Morris turned right and drove four or five miles along a sand-and-gravel road toward an area of the island now known as Beach Haven Park. What he saw was a flat, windswept space with rolling sand dunes along the ocean and clumps of bayberry, ivy, honeysuckle, and wild blackberries near the bay. The island itself was eighteen miles long from tip to tip, but low-lying and narrow. Morris guessed it couldn’t be more than a half mile at its widest. In any case, it wasn’t so wide he ever lost sight of the ocean or lush salt meadows bordering Barnegat Bay.
Morris slowed his sedan, enthralled and curious. At a certain point, he encountered a man standing outside a humble plywood office. As best as anyone can recall, the man’s name was Renaldo Kenyon. He was the owner of one of the few hotels on the island and, like Morris, fancied himself a developer on the side.
Without trying to appear too eager, Morris inquired whether Kenyon knew of any land for sale.
As a matter of fact, Kenyon replied, he happened to have a fifty-three-acre plot available, and Morris was standing on it. Best of all, Kenyon added, it stretched from the ocean to the bay, nearly one square mile of prime real estate.
Kenyon was asking $1,000 an acre—or $53,000 altogether. It was a lot of money even for someone as relatively well off as Morris Shapiro. But Morris did some quick math to determine how many lots he could fit on fifty-three acres, and decided it would be enough to double or triple his investment. But before he purchased anything, he informed Kenyon he needed to talk to his wife, Jennie. She was his partner in everything he did, smart, with her own knack for numbers. Morris told Kenyon he would return in a week. He wanted to bring Jennie to show her around. If she approved, he would buy the land.
* * *
A week later, Morris and Jennie Shapiro made the long drive to Long Beach Island. Initially, Jennie was unimpressed. She was used to the busy North Jersey beaches, which filled with visitors on weekends. The scruffy, narrow island was wild and remote. The streets were gravel and sand, and there were hardly any houses or businesses, as far as she could see. She asked Morris who would want to travel all the way out here, miles at sea, so far from the cities.
It was a good question, and Morris didn’t have a ready answer. Long Beach Island was located midway along the 141-mile-long New Jersey coast, with no major highways connecting it with the cities. The nearest resort, Atlantic City, was an hour’s drive to the south; the urban centers of Philadelphia, Newark, and New York City were hours away by train.
In 1926, Morris Shapiro and his wife, Jennie, bought fifty-three acres from ocean to bay on Long Beach Island for $53,000. Today, that same tract is worth about $400 million. (Courtesy of Herbert Shapiro)
According to the U.S. Census, the year-round population of Long Beach Island was fewer than seven hundred people in 1920. Half lived in Beach Haven, an established resort near the southern end of the barrier island. It had several large hotels that catered to Philadelphia patricians eager to escape the summer heat and enjoy a few weeks of cool ocean breezes. Another small hotel straddled Tucker’s Island on a wild, migrating spit of sand across from the Beach Haven Inlet, also near the southern tip of the island. It had been developed by Quakers in the 1800s but was now being reclaimed by rising water, and would soon vanish entirely. Most wealthy industrialists of the day headed to Atlantic City, with its notable hotels, glitzy boardwalk, and Jazz Era speakeasies. Or, if they preferred a quieter setting, they might travel to Cape May, with its stately Victorians and deep Quaker influences, or the equally historic Methodist camp of Ocean Grove, in North Jersey. Altogether, the few thousand houses and businesses on Long Beach Island were worth just $3 million when Morris Shapiro arrived, real estate records from the day show. A single city block in Atlantic City was worth more.
And yet, Morris saw a unique opportunity in the pristine but hard-to-get-to island. Sure, most of it was wild now, he told Jennie, but it wouldn’t always be like this. The American economy was strong; people had jobs and money. The beach resorts were growing. Look at Miami and Charleston, South Carolina. Even Galveston, which had been flattened by a hurricane in 1900, was booming. With the resorts close to the big cities already crowded, vacationers would soon begin to look elsewhere to escape. Why not Long Beach Island? It was beautiful and unspoiled.
As it happened, a handful of developers were already advertising the charms of Long Beach Island in the Philadelphia and Camden newspapers. “For sale: 240 splendid seashore lots $40 each,” one advertisement read. “And they say money won’t buy happiness. Well, they’d better guess again,” exclaimed another. The way Morris figured, it was only a matter of time until state officials built a highway from the more populous northern counties to open the island up to development. The smart choice was to get in early. And so, he made his case to Jennie: “I have a good feeling,” he said. “People are going to want to come here. You’ll see.”
Morris Shapiro had a gift when it came to real estate. A few years earlier, he’d begun buying empty lots in Elizabeth for $100, and then quickly turned them around for $200. Morris used the profits to build single-family houses and a commercial office building in downtown Elizabeth with half a dozen tenants. Soon, he had a steady stream of rents and cash. It was a lot easier and far more lucrative than selling rubber boots to dockworkers for 99 cents a pair.
“My father was a smart man. I think he saw right away he was in the wrong business. Real estate was the business to be in,” recalled Morris’s son Herb, now ninety-six but still possessing a subtle memory. “I remember the first time I came here to the island. I was probably four years old. There was nothing here. It was desolate, with wild blackberries growing in the streets. But my father had a vision. He could see opportunities no one else saw.”
Eventually, Jennie saw it, too. The more she listened to her husband, the more she warmed to the idea. Morris had brought along a check for $53,000 made out to the Highland Beach Corporation, Kenyon’s company. It was an interesting name, given that the island was only seven feet above sea level at its highest point. Not that Morris was worried about elevation or storms at that moment. That was a concern for the distant future, for his children and their sons and daughters.
Today, the fifty-three acres that Morris Shapiro purchased in 1926 would be worth around $400 million, according to my analysis of property records. That’s an appreciation of over 7,500 percent in ninety years—or a 530-fold increase, after adjusting for inflation.
Still, even as inspired an investor as Morris Shapiro couldn’t possibly have imagined the extraordinary land rush that would one day transform Long Beach Island from a humble fishing village and blue-collar resort into an increasingly lavish confection for the rich. Today, nineteen thousand houses and businesses crowd the low, slender barrier island. Vacation houses sell for an average of $1 million, with oceanfront houses topping $10 million. There are traffic jams, floods from overwhelmed sewer and stormwater systems, and barely a whisper of air between the ever-larger beach houses stacked side by side in many neighborhoods.
The story of Long Beach Island mirrors the larger narrative of America’s coasts, now congested with trillions of dollars of lavish yet astoundingly vulnerable property. The slim barrier island has been wrecked twice by storms, bookended almost fifty years apart, with about a billion in damages in Sandy alone. Yet officials and developers ignored the palpable risks and built back after each storm, aided by government disaster dollars and federal flood payments. That, too, mirrors the larger, often contradictory narrative of America’s coasts, conceived in modesty by men such as Morris Shapiro, but now gilded with entitlement.
Copyright © 2019 by Gilbert M. Gaul
Maps copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey L. Ward