- Historic Sites
Under The Boardwalk
Atlantic City has an intriguing past hidden behind her gambling palaces
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
A very different kind of history is on display at the Kentucky Avenue Museum, a narrow storefront on a nearempty block. The museum’s walls are completely covered with clippings about black life in Atlantic City from the 1940s until the present, with ample space devoted to entertainers who have come and gone. Almost all these performers flocked to the Club Harlem, which opened in 1933 and was torn down only four years ago. In its day the club was the biggest entertainment center for blacks outside of New York City. Willie Gainer, a local businessman and the museum’s founder, purchased the entire contents of the Club Harlem, and he proudly showed me several original red leather doors, each with a different performer painted on the front. Gainer has set up other pieces to replicate, though in limited space, a bit of the club’s atmosphere. Tables and chairs line a wall in front of a piano, and a counter and barstools stand in front of a beatnik-era mural with a sign announcing weekly 2:00 A.M. poetry readings. Gainer keeps the club’s spirit alive by turning the museum into a part-time cultural and civic center. One of the most telling exhibits in the museum is a series of dioramas of long-gone local businesses, attesting to what Gainer calls the transformation of an “economically successful community to complete deterioration.” A brochure that Gainer gives me explains that the neighborhood’s nickname, “K-y at the curb,” was invented during Atlantic City’s heyday when many felt “there was no place left for African-Americans, except the curb.”
One resilient piece of old Atlantic City that survives is Lucy the Elephant, who resides in the suburb of Margate. Sixty-five feet high and made of wood and sheet metal, Lucy was built in 1881 by James V. Lafferty, a real estate developer who hoped she would attract buyers for surrounding lots. By the 1960s she had deteriorated badly, and residents formed a “Save Lucy” committee, which resulted in a five-hundred-thousand-dollar restoration. Lucy now looks stunning. I took an extremely informative tour of the elephant with two teenage guides. You enter through a door in one of the legs and then emerge from a winding stairway into the belly, now an exhibit hall, which resembles the hull of a ship. Photos of Lucy in various stages of decay and rejuvenation are tacked up on the wall, and a lifetime’s worth of elephant memorabilia fills a glass case in the middle of the room. Climbing higher, you can gaze through Lucy’s eyes out onto the ocean, but the best view is from the howdah, a brightly painted Indian-style traveling box perched on Lucy’s back. As I stood up there looking out on the city and the sea, I felt I knew what it had been like to come to Atlantic City many years ago, when you could cavort all day long on the Boardwalk and then climb atop an elephant to see the sunset.