Under The Boardwalk

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My two most vivid memories of Atlantic City both involve storms. Once, in the late seventies, I went to Atlantic City with my parents on what became an extraordinarily dark and gloomy afternoon. We walked on the Boardwalk, traipsing in and out of bright, tacky stores and passing by casinos while heavy rain poured down. To my eyes the Boardwalk seemed to be disintegrating. I recall feeling depressed by it all when we left and having a very strange impression of the city, which I was sure would soon be washed away. Another day, when I was younger, my father had brought me to visit my grandmother at the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, where she stayed for two weeks every summer. To hear her tell it, there was nothing better than to come to Atlantic City, stay at the marvelous Blenheim Hotel, and stroll the Boardwalk each day to get sun and exercise. The day began promisingly, but clouds came on early. We walked the Boardwalk, where everyone was looking up at the darkened sky, then went back to the hotel, first onto its ocean-view terrace, and finally to my grandmother’s room, a cozy triangle with heavy curtains and high ceilings. Lunch in the vast dining room seemed like the last meal on the Titanic ; the storm whipped up outside, and I like to think that waiters were lurching with their trays and coffee cups were sliding over the tablecloths. Yet I felt safe there, and I understood why my grandmother loved that huge hotel. I was fond of both these memories, and I was curious, after a long absence, to see what, if anything, was beneath the city’s glittering surface. I certainly hoped to discover something of the past and to see the city that lay beyond the hotel lobbies. Had my grandmother ever ventured farther than the end of the Boardwalk?

In Gardner’s Basin, about two miles away from the onion-domed Trump Taj Mahal Casino Hotel, Buddy Plageman is making lobster traps. He looks out on docks where the rumrunners of the 1920s moored boats full of illegal Canadian liquor to keep the party going in a city where it was never meant to stop. “That building over to the right side of the basin was a rumrunning station,” Buddy tells me, “and the Coast Guard built a station right next to it to keep an eye on those boys.” Gardner’s Basin, a cove off Absecon Inlet, where eighteenth-century pirates once retreated from raids, is now a restored historic maritime village. It’s just a scattering of wood buildings and appears sparse and quiet at first, but like much of the history struggling to surface in Atlantic City, it yields up more than meets the eye. At Bayside Basin Antiques I ask about a white iron cylinder with portholes circling the top that sits outside the shop. The proprietress tells me it’s a diving bell, and later, while watching a documentary about Atlantic City, I see footage of a couple on the old Steel Pier climbing into the bell—billed as “a thrill of a lifetime”—to get married underwater in 1948.

Buddy shows me his small museum inside the lobster store “dedicated to old fishermen.” Here are antique compasses and steering wheels and photos from the forties and fifties of men working on the docks, fishing, and tending boats. Buddy points to the handmade nets and traps piled up outside and the fishermen working nearby. “Those are dying arts,” he tells me. “There may be no one who’ll do that once these men pass on.”

I had driven to Atlantic City the night before, and on the drive at night the city itself was obscured; a long line of sparkling casinos was the first thing I saw. This seductive but deceptive view captures a lot of what is wrong and what is right with the city, for while the casinos are its calling card, drawing in thousands each day, they are also what keeps it from thriving. Although current reports say that the casinos are finally beginning to contribute to the improvement of the city’s economy, they still control the life of the city. The self-contained world of these hotels means that visitors never spend their winnings around the city; they are encouraged to stay inside. Many employees of the casinos do not live in Atlantic City, and they don’t spend their paychecks there because the casinos provide everything for them during the day, so they need not leave. Atlantic City’s tourists, noting the generally dilapidated look of the town, rarely wander the city’s main streets or any of its back streets. Their experience consists of the casinos, the Boardwalk, and the beach. But that wasn’t always so.

Originally called Absecon Island, a rough and unattractive stretch of land full of marshes and dunes, the spot seemed worthless until a nearby resident, Dr. Jonathan Pitney, saw through the blemishes. He believed there were curative powers in the island’s air, and he envisioned a summer town that people would flock to for health and leisure. In 1852 the Camden & Atlantic Railway began building tracks from Philadelphia, and soon hotels, boardinghouses, churches, and other wood-frame buildings appeared on the previously barren soil; by 1860 four thousand tourists could be housed alongside a population of about seven hundred, and by 1890 Atlantic City had a solid reputation as a resort. The construction of the piers and the Boardwalk, whose original purpose was to keep sand off the hotel rugs, signified Atlantic City’s debut into the world of carnival-style commerce and entertainment.