April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
Atlantic City has an intriguing past hidden behind her gambling palaces
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.
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.
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.