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Atlantic City: Empire or Fantasyland?

A new HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, premiered this weekend. Worlds away from what we see on Jersey Shore, it has reignited interest in New Jersey history and culture. Bryant Simon (author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America and Professor of History at Temple University) has been interviewed for the accompanying HBO documentary, and here we ask him some questions about the “dreamlike” place that is AC.

You’ve described yourself as a native of South New Jersey. What drew you to writing the history of Atlantic City?

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in Vineland, Philly was not the place that drew us; it was more Atlantic City. That was where we went for splurge meals, special occasions, amusement parks, parades, and shopping. In fact, that’s where I got my bar mitzvah suit! Years later, my family moved just outside of Atlantic City and I watched, while riding my bike in the morning on the Boardwalk, as gambling woke the place up and irrevocably transformed it. I was transfixed by the city, by people’s nostalgia for it, by its nervous energy, and its aching sadness and painful poverty in the midst of plenty. Really, it had everything I wanted to write about it – it was like a Springsteen song, a place that could be mean and cruel, but a place of romance and possible redemption. How could I resist?

Compared to places like Las Vegas or Coney Island in its heyday, how did/does Atlantic City epitomize the urban playground?

All of these places share something in common – they are each the tale of two cities. They are places built in the interests of visitors, not necessarily residents; they sell (or sold) fantasies – fantasies that put tourists as the center of the narrative and allowed them to slip their daily skin and imagine themselves not as they were, but as they wanted to be. That is what people paid for when they went these places – they paid for fantasies.

As you researched the book, what memorable anecdotes did you come across that really captured the heart and history of Atlantic City?

One of the first things I learned about Atlantic City stayed with me throughout the project. I remember looking at a postcard from the 1920s or so. In it, the benches on the Boardwalk were pointed away from the beach. I asked if this was a mistake. “No” an expert on the city told me, “That’s how it was.” That was my first lesson that Atlantic City was essentially a stage and the visitors were both actors and audience.

You’ve been interviewed for a documentary that’s set to run in conjunction with the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire. What do you make of the series’ take on Atlantic City, and what to your mind does it say about public perception of the city?

If the show is a success, it will no doubt draw tourists to town, looking for the romantic, if still violent, past the program surely mythologizes. Yet the real Atlantic City Boardwalk of today has little relationship to the past except its common geography. Most of the dreamlike hotels – buildings that looked like French chateaux and Moorish palaces – have been torn down. The amusement piers are long gone or covered up and turned into air-conditioned malls. The crowds of people dressed in their Sunday – really their sleek and elegant Saturday night best – have been replaced by people in t-shirts and flip flops. Except for the ocean and the Boardwalk, most of Atlantic City’s past has been sacrificed and erased to make way for the neon splashed casinos. People will still find plenty of “booze, broads, and gambling,” but these things on the ground may not carry the same romance as they do on film.

This isn’t a topic that has gotten much coverage elsewhere, but could you elaborate on the role race played in the politics of prohibition in Atlantic City?

Boardwalk Empire suggests that Atlantic City in the era of prohibition was a “wide open town” and all about “booze, broads, and gambling,” but that was only part of the truth. People did come to drink and to play, but that wasn’t the city’s only draw. Instead, many first generation immigrants and their families came to show off – to publicly announce, really – that they had made it, which they could do by parading along the Boardwalk stage in their dressiest clothes.

Crucial to this staging was segregation. The Atlantic City celebrated in Boardwalk Empire was not just a city of mobsters, speakeasies, and brothels. It was, in the words of a longtime resident born in Georgia, a “Jim Crow for sure.” Its schools, clubs, neighborhoods, and movie houses were segregated. In 1923, just three years after the start of Prohibition, the city opened a brand new school that included a 1,000-seat auditorium and a 6,000-pipe organ, at a total cost of over $1.75 million. It also included an indoor pool, but rather than have whites and African Americans swim together, officials covered it up.

In fact, segregation was more important to Atlantic City than prohibition or mobsters. Visitors – those legions of recent immigrants and their children – would not have embraced an integrated tourist city. To them, making it in America meant being white and living apart (and drinking apart) from people of color. That’s how the rich did it, and that’s how the people who emulated them on the Boardwalk wanted to do it.

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  2. Dr. Oz

    I love the contrast of “old vs. new” and what that means to the atmosphere of the entire place. I have to wonder though, Las Vegas has undergone a similar transformation, yet the atmosphere remains the same. I have to wonder what the difference between the two cities is and why the change of atmosphere hasn’t really occurred there.

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