Under The Boardwalk

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Atlantic City’s piers—the Million Dollar Pier, Steeplechase Pier, and Heinz Pier—were its stages, the places where guests from the Boardwalk’s elegant hotels went to play and experience Atlantic City’s unique brand of suspended reality. The variety of amusements and products that found their way onto the piers was boundless; it was said that in the days before radio or television, Atlantic City was the best location for marketing a product to a national audience.

Opposite the piers stood Atlantic City’s grand line of massive hotels: the Claridge, the Dennis, the Traymore, the Brighton, and the Marlborough-Blenheim. These beautiful giants had luxurious ballrooms, revolving bars, entertainment, and visiting celebrities. Conventioneers poured into the city and spent ample money in what was then a thriving seaside town. By the time my grandmother was making regular visits, very little of this elegance lingered, but the remaining old hotels made the suggestion of it still hang in the air.

Even as early as the late forties, when increased travel by car and plane made both shorter stays and other destinations a reality, vacancy rates climbed, and the city slowly lost its manic edge through the fifties and sixties. Then the old hotels started tumbling down, first the Traymore in 1972 and almost all the rest soon after. Gambling was legalized in 1976, and though it fit Atlantic City’s image as a place born with something to sell, it contributed to the town’s further decline.

On my first night in Atlantic City, a hot and drizzly Friday evening, I took a walk on the Boardwalk. It was quiet and eerie, though everything was still open—mostly souvenir stores and sub shops. Roger’s, a seedy karaoke bar and pizza joint, is noteworthy for its unlikely inheritance of the facade of the palatial old Warner movie theater. Occasionally a couple being pushed along in a canopied wicker rolling chair—an Atlantic City tradition—glided past, but most people were walking toward the casinos. As in Las Vegas, all the casinos here feature frosted-glass doors and windowless insides, no clocks, and constant jangling noise. The buildings are so big that one seems to blend into the next, and mirrors and lots of reflecting brass add to the sense of a hotel without end.

A late-afternoon walk on the Boardwalk was more lively; people were strolling or lying on the beach, stopping into the casino shops and souvenir stands. Few elegant stores remain on the Boardwalk itself; most are now inside the casinos. Steel’s Fudge, founded in 1919, still thrives, as does James’ Original Salt Water Taffy (“Cut-to-Fit-the-Mouth”). Both stores are old-fashioned and quiet enough to be a welcome relief from the relentless clamor of the Boardwalk.

Though most of the piers were destroyed by natural disasters, a few, like the Steel Pier, remain. Once home to boxing kangaroos, diving horses, and Abbott and Costello, the Steel Pier is now an amusement park jutting out into the ocean; it’s filled with game booths, spinning rides, and go-carts and is quite beautiful when lit up at night.

Near the end of the Boardwalk is the Garden Pier, once known for its lush gardens and exhibits such as a giant Underwood typewriter. Now it is the sedate and well-restored home of the Atlantic City Arts Center and Historical Museum. An elaborate fountain decorated with marble seals and gargoyles crowns the pier, and ceramic sea eagles rescued from the Marlborough-Blenheim perch on the outside of the building.

Much of the historic photography one sees around Atlantic City and in the Historical Museum is the work of Al Gold, the town’s chief photographer from 1939 to 1964. A portrait of Gold hanging in the museum captures what that job must have been like: Pants legs rolled up and camera dangling by his side, he stands grinning between two bathing beauties. That same spirit of unrestrained fun that permeated the old Atlantic City (“the World’s Playground”) is everywhere in evidence at the museum, which packs in every bit of beach, Boardwalk, and hotel life memorabilia that the small space will allow. Gold’s daughter, Vicki Gold Levi, is the museum’s cofounder and exhibit director as well as the author of the excellent Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness , so visiting the museum is a bit like walking into the pages of the book.