Cape May, N.J.: Salt Air and Cultural Riches

The Victorian seaside resort has long attracted those with primary homes in Philadelphia. But now more New Yorkers are moving in.

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Stephanie and Jeffrey Schrader, who live near Philadelphia, had spent the 36 years of their marriage renting vacation homes and looking for a permanent one. Then they found themselves at Cape May Point, on an island at the southern tip of New Jersey.

About three miles from the picturesque Victorian city of Cape May, the community was like none they had seen before. It was next to a nature preserve with thousands of migratory birds and monarch butterflies, but had only 600 houses, one owned by the rock goddess Debbie Harry.

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By The New York Times

“We’re not really beach-beach people,” Ms. Schrader said, repeating the word to evoke the fanaticism of others. But the couple, both 61, love to walk on the local beaches, with their sunsets, sea creatures and distinctive pieces of sparkling quartz known as Cape May diamonds.

While renting, the Schraders noticed that a new four-bedroom house on Coral Avenue, not far from the beach, had been sitting on the market for two years (no one could say why). They negotiated to buy it for $1.07 million and closed last July.

If theirs was a typical story, the couple would now be scheming to live full-time in their vacation home. Cape May (population 3,500) is the oldest seaside resort in the United States, which means it has had time to develop cultural riches — fine dining, two theaters — and nurture residents so interconnected and quirky that they could be captured and released on HBO. The island, which includes Cape May, Cape May Point, West Cape May and a piece of a sprawling municipality called Lower Township, hums throughout the year, albeit on a low key with the departure of the summer crowd.

The season extends until December, when you can take a candlelight tour of Victorian houses dressed up for Christmas, and picks up again around Presidents’ Day. The salt air melts snow, reducing the need for shoveling what little snow there is. Is it any wonder that baby boomers routinely target it for retirement?

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Victorians on Beach Avenue flaunt their stacks of balconies.Credit…Steve Legato for The New York Times

Ms. Schrader, an account executive for Dell, said she would join the boomers “in a heartbeat,” except that her husband works as an accountant. Based on the comparative property and estate taxes in their home and second-home states, he concluded that they should continue living in Pennsylvania, but die in New Jersey. “I’ve got to get sick at exactly the right time,” she said.

Cape May and its sister municipalities have long been a playground for Philadelphians. Here you will find hoagies (not subs), gravy (not pasta sauce) and scrapple, the thrifty assemblage of hog parts and cornmeal that is a legacy of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers. But now more New Yorkers are showing up.

“We have a New York influx that didn’t exist too much 20 years ago,” said Jackie Schifalacqua, a former jockey who worked as a publicist in Philadelphia before moving in the early 1990s to West Cape May, where her grandparents had summered since 1912. “I kind of enjoy them because they insist on better meals. The restaurant quality has gone up.”

Ms. Schifalacqua, who is in her 70s, added a few tart observations about newcomers: “The big shock most people have when they first come down here is that this is an entirely red district in a blue state. They think they’re going to Cape Cod. But nobody bothers you. Nobody talks politics.”

She has nothing against out-of-towners, she insisted, being one herself. “I don’t want to hear griping from people who don’t like that there are a lot of outsiders now,” she said. “Neighbors are neighbors. If you come down from New York City, just remember that everyone knows each other and it’s going to take a while to work your way in. But you can.”

She offered a final word of caution: “Don’t come down here if you don’t like seafood.”

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24 OCEAN STREET | An eight-bedroom, nine-bathroom house on 0.13 acres, built in 1880, listed for $2.999 million. 609-884-1007Credit…Timothy Fleming Photography

What You’ll Find

Clustered on the end of a peninsula that juts into Delaware Bay and is divided by a canal from the mainland, Cape May, West Cape May and Cape May Point are quite different.

With its painted-lady Victorians, its balcony-encrusted, pendant-flapping, ocean-facing hotels and a pedestrian mall lined with independent boutiques and food shops, the city of Cape May is “quaint as hell, quaint on steroids,” said Starr Taylor, a real estate agent for Long & Foster. She described the housing stock as a smorgasbord, from one-bedroom condos to Queen Anne mansions, with a median price of $995,000. The beaches, she said, are “Goldilocks beaches — not too big, not too small.”

As one might imagine, the venerable resort has creaky infrastructure, too. Cape May’s 36-year-old mayor, Zachary Mullock, advocates raising an occupancy tax on lodgings from 2 to 3 percent to pay for water treatment, flood-mitigation and sewer projects and to support the police. He also plans to add 200 parking spots to accommodate the rising load of tourists, and to put solar panels on every public property — no small ambition for the only city in the U.S. to have been declared a national historic landmark in its entirety. (The panels must be invisible from the street.)

“As a young mayor,” he said, “I’m looking forward to the future of where the city is going to be, not just three years from now, but 50 years from now.”

Mr. Mullock is an apple that has fallen close to the preservation tree. His father, Robert Mullock, who founded the Cape May National Golf Club, rehabbed the 146-year-old Chalfonte Hotel, which he acquired in 2008, and more recently raised the funds to transform a 1799 former pastor’s house in ruinous condition into the Harriet Tubman Museum. The building, whose opening has been delayed by the pandemic, aims to foster recognition for Cape May’s historic but now barely visible Black community, an effort also reflected in the conservation of the 1846 house across the street that was built and occupied by Stephen Smith, a freed slave who became a wealthy supporter of the abolitionist movement.

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22 CONGRESS STREET | A five-bedroom house with one full bathroom and two half bathrooms on 0.06 acres, built in 1848, listed for $1.595 million. 609-884-9070Credit…John Lore

Until recently, West Cape May was Cape May’s affordable, artsy neighbor — home to farmers, laborers and resort workers, and with a vibrant Black community. Now only 5 percent of the 1,100 residents are Black, and the median home price has soared to $745,000.

“Many of the African-American families were self-employed and actually supported Cape May with their businesses,” said Vivian Wright Lockett, a West Cape May native who founded the West Cape May African-American Historical Society, and now lives in Pleasantville, N.J. She blamed a lack of opportunities for the decline; in the 1960s and ’70s, young people who didn’t go to college often left to join the military, she said. But keeping youth tethered to the island appears to be a challenge that transcends period and race. Even Mr. Mullock referred to a general concern about “brain drain.”

West Cape May residents seem delighted with the place; they have easy access to Cape May, sometimes on foot, yet feel removed from the tourist frenzy and traffic. They also enjoy a farm called Beach Plum, a winery called Willow Creek and a restaurant called Exit Zero that is built into a service station. Diners can enjoy meals privately in an Airstream.

“West Cape May is hallowed ground to us,” said Dana Walker, 56, who works in the communications and development office of the Cheltenham school district, near Philadelphia. Since 1997, she and her husband have spent summers in the community. They recently built a house there for their anticipated retirement.

“From our front porch, we can hear the horns of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, and from the back deck on quiet evenings, the sound of the crashing ocean waves,” she said. “Everything a person could need in life is right here, in New Jersey, of all places.”

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165 STIMPSON LANE | A three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom house on 0.25 acres, listed for $649,000. 609-884-1007Credit…Long & Foster Real Estate

Cape May Point lacks the fanciful architecture of Cape May, but is identified with a historic lighthouse in Cape May Point State Park. Its beaches are sandy coves where the ocean meets the bay. While the houses appear relatively modest, their median price of $1.09 million is the highest on the island. Zoning keeps them generally under 2,100 square feet (including decks and porches), on lots that are mostly 50 by 100 feet.

“It’s very strict what you can and can’t do with your property,” said Ms. Schrader, the would-be New Jersey transplant. “If you cut down a tree, you’d better plant another one in its place.” And swimming pools, she added, are so contentious that they became a hot-button issue in a local election.

What You’ll Pay

According to Ms. Taylor of Long & Foster, a surge in housing prices is driving locals to look for primary homes in areas like North Cape May (off the island) and increasing the share of second-home owners beyond their historically substantial numbers. She is also seeing deep-pocketed buyers of high-end properties take them off the rental market.

“I don’t know if it’s Covid-related,” she said, “but my sense is that it’s a real change. People with more money have come into Cape May than used to be the case.”

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Mermaids Restaurant, on the oceanside of Beach Avenue, serves Mediterranean cuisine.Credit…Steve Legato for The New York Times

Median sale prices appear more palatable than asking prices, which are driven up by garotte-tight inventory, but they still reflect the boom. In May, according to Redfin, the median sale price of homes in Cape May was $655,000, based on 25 transactions, a year-over-year increase of 65 percent. The figure for West Cape May was $735,000, based on one transaction, a year-over-year increase of 33.6 percent. And the figure for Cape May Point was $925,000, based on two transactions, a year-over-year decrease of 21.7 percent.

As of June 15, a six-bedroom Cape May cottage built in 1920, four blocks from the beach, was listed for $1.65 million, with annual taxes of $8,465. A six-bedroom shingled house, built in 2018 at the western edge of West Cape May, was listed for $1.5 million, with taxes of $8,283. And an 1898 two-bedroom cottage a block from Lake Lily, in Cape May Point, was listed for $849,000, with taxes of $3,300.

The Vibe

In the early 1990s, Deanna Brown moved from New York to her grandmother Antoinette’s house in Cape May and opened a hotel named in her grandmother’s honor. When her father moved into the attic after her mother died (the rooms were needed for paying guests), he made dollhouses as a hobby and Ms. Brown displayed them on the front porch.

“I realized things in Cape May are really simple and lovely, and less stressful,” said Ms. Brown, now 74. “I knew I couldn’t get rich, but I knew I could live longer and be happier.”

Ms. Schifalacqua, the retired jockey, said the disadvantage of the close-knit community is that “everyone knows everyone else’s business, and everyone knows about your family for generations, and everyone’s related in one way or another.”

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With pandemic restrictions eased, Cape May’s tourism is in high gear. As elsewhere, short-staffed business owners are struggling to meet demands for services.Credit…Steve Legato for The New York Times

The Schools

Cape May and West Cape May each has a prekindergarten-to-sixth-grade elementary school, soon to be overseen by a shared superintendent. Parents in Cape May Point send children to the elementary school of choice. Middle and high school students are part of the Lower Cape May Regional School District and attend school off the island, in Lower Township.

In the 2018-19 school year, Cape May City Elementary School enrolled 151 students, 66 percent of whom identified as white, 24 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Black and 2 percent native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. On 2017-18 state tests, the last reported, 48 percent of students met standards in English, versus 50 percent of third through eighth graders statewide; 68 percent met standards in math, versus 50 percent of third through eighth graders statewide.

In 2018-19, West Cape May Elementary School enrolled 94 students (79 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Black and 1 percent native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander). On 2017-18 state tests, 69 percent met standards in English and 56 percent met standards in math.

Last year, 483 students attended the Richard M. Teitelman Middle School. On 2017-18 state tests, 44 percent met standards in English and 42 percent met standards in math.

Lower Cape May Regional High School enrolled 807 students in 2019-20. The school’s 2020 average SAT scores were 544 in reading and writing and 541 in math, versus 536 in both subjects statewide.

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Our Lady Star of the Sea Church on Washington Street Mall dates from 1918 and has more than 40 stained-glass windows.Credit…Steve Legato for The New York Times

The Commute

There is no direct public transportation from Cape May to New York City or Philadelphia (even bus travel requires a transfer). Driving time to Lower Manhattan via the Garden State Parkway is about two and half hours in light traffic. The trip to Center City in Philadelphia via the Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway is about 90 minutes.

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry makes daily trips from Cape May to Delaware. A one-way adult fare (without a vehicle) at summer rates is $10. The one-way charge for a vehicle (not counting the driver) is $35 on weekdays. The trip takes about 85 minutes.

The History

A decade before the American Revolution, Cape May was luring tourists with the delights of sea bathing and seafood. As it developed as a resort through the 19th century, its hotels grew increasingly lavish, but often burned down. After an 1878 fire took out 35 acres of grand architecture, the city was rebuilt in the scaled-down Victorian style that characterizes Cape May today.

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