Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.
Temple University historian Bryant Simon opens with the story of Jordan Sayles, an African American who for years pushed white people in rolling chairs along the Boardwalk. The white visitors defined--in the manner of David Nasaw's Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1993)--as middle class, by their exclusion of blacks, provided work for Sayles and thousands like him, while enjoying the feeling of being rich enough "even to afford to pay someone else to carry [them] from place to place." (p. 7) Bank tellers, salesmen, and carpenters basked in the dazzle of Atlantic City hotels and movie palaces. Simon sees Atlantic City as a precursor of Disneyland's appeal to white middle-class aspiration and exclusion. From its origins as a commercial venture to bring Philadelphians by train to the sea in 1854 through its development of the boardwalk, the Mediterranean-themed Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, and the Steel Pier with its diving horse and incubator babies, he shows how Atlantic City found a niche in the middle--between Coney Island and more upscale resort towns.
This enviably sparkling book is more a work of the scholarly journalist than the typical fare of academic urban history. Simon skillfully blends the stories of Atlantic City oldtimers and the documentation of traditional archival, newspaper, census, and literary sources. His story of Atlantic City's "life, near-death, and recent reincarnation" is broadly what you might expect: the history of the late 19th century settlement, the early-20th century expansion, the postwar decline, and the decision to turn and consequences of turning to the casino in 1976. Yet it is far more than a nostalgic view of the past splendor of the seaside or tight-knit neighborhoods all destroyed by greedy outsiders and replaced with self-contained gambling plants designed to efficiently park and plunder day visitors. Simon takes issue with urbanists who glorify the public space of the old Atlantic City. He stresses how both as a resort and a lived place it was built on racial exclusion and the delusion of upward mobility. In this way, there are strong parallels between the old and new Atlantic City.
Inevitably, some of the traditional apparatus of the academic historian gets lost: we do not see many dates and historical nuances of pre-1945 or even pre-1960 Atlantic City in a story that repeatedly takes the perspective of the personal experience of still living witnesses. Simon chooses not to look for subtlety and contradiction in his image of the middle-class visitors that came in many (albeit white) ethnic and income/occupational expressions. Instead he focuses on the picture that these people wanted to give each other--nattily dressed and genteel despite the fact that they may have been cigar makers or garment workers. And, the perspective is resolutely local and American. While Simon finds the gaudy structures across from the Boardwalk as offering "visitors a quick, cartoon tour of world architecture" (p. 27), an anticipation of Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, British cultural critique Richard Hoggart might have seen expressions of a distinct working-class love for the "sprawling, highly-ornamental, rococo extravagance." (Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, 1957, p. 119). This is not to suggest that in any way Boardwalk of Dreams is parochial. It makes reference to a wide range of sources and literature.
Simon's themes are presented in a model of narrative detail and memorable images. The "midway" world of the "black and tan" Paradise Club and Club Harlem that catered to "slumming" whites as well as the Entertainer's Club (with its not-so-secret accommodation to drag queens) is vividly revealed, and Simon gives us a tour of pre-1960 movie palaces and the Atlantic Avenue shopping district. He paints intriguing sketches of neighborhoods, from the African-American Northside with its rich community life to the Italian Ducktown and the ethnically mixed white district of South Inlet with its front porch cultures.
Simon's deepest passion, however, lies in what happens after 1960 when first run-movies gave way to pornography and crime seeped even onto the Board-walk. The story of business and residential flight is detailed and even poignant rather than statistical. He pays special attention to how people on the street understood the decline: the consequences of TV, lack of parking, and business greed. But Simon also sees the impact of a changing crowd--hippies and gays, and, with the successful assault on Jim Crow, blacks and Puerto Ricans--and the flight of whites to a substitute Atlantic City, Disney's Lands.
Simon's characterization of the city's resurrection at the hands of outside developers and corporate casinos as a "devil's bargain" seems apt. The renewal after 1976 not only was limited to the profit centers built on top of the ruins of the old playground, but speculation and rising land costs compounded the decline of the old residential areas of Atlantic City insofar as foreclosures and suspicious fires further drove out old residents. And crime rose after the casinos opened. We might well doubt that the old Atlantic City could ever be revived. As Simon notes, the drive-up gambling culture built at Atlantic City with easy access from freeways via "the New Grand Boulevard," vast parking decks, and ribbons of walkways leading over the town and into casinos is "the national mood." (p. 199) Simon understands the appeal of the gambling craze and why the aesthetic of the old Boardwalk culture disappeared. Still, most of us would share his final lament that Atlantic City has become a town of "twelve separate, inward-looking casino villages that leave only crumbs on the Monopoly streets around them."
Pennsylvania State University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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