Reinventing Atlantic City
Kate Gliven traces the 20th century fortunes of Atlantic City, New Jersey. From its heydays in the 1920s to the present, Atlantic City continues to reinvent and rebrand itself.
Atlantic City lies in one of the smallest yet most densely populated states in America, New Jersey. Having earned a reputation for being an industrial and cultural morass, it seems ironic that New Jersey’s official nickname is ‘The Garden State’. Sandwiched between the neighbouring metropolises of New York City and Philadelphia, it is thus unsurprising that Atlantic City is perennially overlooked except as the less glamorous sister-city of Las Vegas.
In the Roaring Twenties, however, Atlantic City was the haven from the law, and a place where its moneyed tourists could go partake in drink, gambling, and sex. This is the starting point for the new HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, which is based on Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book of the same name. According to Johnson, under political ‘boss’ Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson, an Al Capone-esque figure, what began as a health resort for wealthy Americans fast became ‘a glitzy, raucous vacation spot for the working class […] a place where visitors came knowing the rules at home didn’t apply’.
Much of Boardwalk Empire – both the novel and TV series – focuses on the 1920s, widely considered to have been the golden age of Atlantic City. It was a time of Prohibition, political ‘bosses’, and racketeering. Whilst the series focuses on the political milieu of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson, an Al Capone-esque figure, the book charts the social and political history of the city through the twentieth century to the monopolisation of the Boardwalk in the 1980s by Donald Trump, who has shaped much of its current appearance.
Before becoming a haven for the various vices, Atlantic City was envisioned as a health resort along the undeveloped New Jersey coast. From its inception, Atlantic City tried to appeal to a wealthy cliental; pamphlets claimed that the Gulf Stream carrying fresh, cleansing sea air flowed directly up past Cape May to Absecon Island. However, bargain round-trip excursion tickets proved more attractive, luring Philadelphia’s blue-collar working class to the resort for $1. Following the opening of its seven miles of Boardwalk in 1870 that claimed to sell everything from cheap tourist souvenirs to the American Dream, Atlantic City established itself as a city of spectacle and entertainment, naming itself ‘The World’s Playground’.
From the city’s heyday in the 1920s, it went into decline due in part to the suburbanisation of America after the Second World War. Bryant Simon’s study of urban development and redevelopment Boardwalk of Dreamsspans some of the early years of the city from 1915 to its degeneration after the Second World War, providing an insightful historical account. Simon explains that by the late 1960s, Atlantic City had become ‘a poster child for urban blight and decay’ and journalists frequently referred to it as the ‘Bronx by the Bay’.
This decline continued until 1976 when in a last attempt to regain popularity, the citizens voted to legalise gambling and the resort become a major venue of casino hotels in America, second only to Las Vegas. In subsequent re-branding, Atlantic City has begun another transformation in line with the HBO series, shrewdly catering for the public’s nostalgic fascination for the Roaring Twenties in its luxury hotels, eateries and entertainment venues.