The rise and fall of Atlantic City
New professor Bryant Simon traces the iconic city’s history in a new book.
His hands swathed in white cotton gloves, Bryant Simon gently pulled out a decades-old, black-and-white newspaper photograph from a file in Temple’s Urban Archives and studied it intently.
“Look at this,” he said, his finger delineating the orange crop marks on the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin glossy of Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk, circa April 1954.
The photo documented a Boardwalk jammed with hundreds of people, so jammed that bodies blocked the path of three human-propelled rolling chairs trying to move through the crowd.
“See all the minks?” said Simon, peering at the photo behind dark-framed glasses.
Certainly, the all-white crowd, decked in furs and fedoras, dresses and high heels, suits and wingtips, looked well-to-do. Back then, looks were everything on the Boardwalk, said Simon, a new history professor and author of the new book Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.
From its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s through the 1950s, the Boardwalk in Atlantic City “was essentially a luxury experience at a middle-class price,” said Simon, one of eight faculty members to join the history department this year. “It was this grand place where you could act sweller and swankier than at home.
“A trip to Atlantic City was a public performance of personal success,” he continued. “People came to the Boardwalk to show off their hard-won middle-class status by acting like classy men and women. They came to celebrate the American dream of inclusion and social mobility.
“Of course, in its heyday, the Boardwalk was completely segregated. Throughout most of the 20th century, segregation prevailed in Atlantic City.”
Though a native of South Jersey — he grew up in Vineland — Simon spent little time in Atlantic City during his youth. But, while a grad student at Yale, he took a summer job working in the kitchen at Lou’s, a famous — and now defunct — subterranean deli on the Ventnor-Atlantic City border.
“I was on my way to getting my Ph.D. and, at that point, I was learning how to think about the world,” Simon said.
Simon’s study of the city allowed him to focus on issues that intrigued him, such as race, class, urban history and culture.
His research also allowed him to conduct scores of interviews, including some right there in the kitchen at Lou’s, however informally.
From older (white) customers at Lou’s, Simon heard the melancholy stories of the seashore resort in its heyday as he served up corned beef and grilled knockwurst sandwiches.
“These people made Atlantic City seem like Disneyland — even better, really,” he said. “It sounded to me like a scene from one of those great Frank Sinatra songs: lush, smoky, urbane, cool and fun.”
From an older black co-worker he learned about the resort’s Jim Crow past.
“He told me about earning more money than he had ever seen by making chocolate milkshakes and banana splits for white couples out on dates. He talked about not being allowed to eat where he worked and about not being able to go to some beaches in town. And he told me about seeing Miles Davis play a breakfast show, starting at 6 a.m., in front of an all-black audience at a local nightclub.”
For a lot of people, Simon said, “Atlantic City is this remarkably iconic place. It represents the most unsullied memories they have.
“But there’s a nostalgia about the place that doesn’t exist,” Simon continued. “My fascination is about what people remember and what they erase from that memory.
“I kind of like sad stories. I wanted to understand why the city fell apart. Writing the book really changed the way I look at the world. It taught me how streets, cities and spaces work.”
Simon collected tidbits of information — phone numbers, leads, newspaper clippings — for years before deciding to write Boardwalk of Dreams. But five years ago, after the birth of his first son, he knew the time was right in his personal life and his academic career to move forward with the project. Much of his research, conducted when he was teaching in Georgia, led him to Temple’s Bulletin archive. Many photos from the archive appear in the book.
In Boardwalk of Dreams, Simon maintains that the influx of casinos in Atlantic City in 1978 signaled the end of the city. With a journalist’s eye for detail and a historian’s precision, he documents how the expressway has replaced the Boardwalk as the main thoroughfare in Atlantic City.
“In the 25 years since Resorts [International] opened, the city has lost a third of its population and housing stock,” Simon wrote. “Now there are more casino employees than city residents, and most of these people live in the suburbs.
“The Boardwalk is no longer a magical place. Most Atlantic City visitors don’t really care about the ocean or the Boardwalk, not when there are jackpots to be won and traffic to beat.”
While Atlantic City’s casinos have provided 43,924 jobs and $6 billion in investment, “the gaming industry has not saved Atlantic City,” Simon said. “In many ways, the city as a place to live is now worse than ever.”
The casinos, Simon notes, are designed to keep people inside, not on the city’s streets.
“By setting themselves off from their surroundings, the casinos generated an eerie a-geographic, a-historic feel,” Simon said. “They could just as easily have been plopped down at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport or in downtown Orlando.”
Simon views Boardwalk of Dreams as more than the story of Atlantic City. Other cities, including Philadelphia, which is instituting slot machine gambling, can learn from the seashore resort’s mistakes.
“People make cities — people on the sidewalks, in cafes, in front of movie theaters and in stores,” Simon said.
“This dance of people out in public is what brings life, vigor and energy to cities. Casinos spend a lot of time and money trying to create the opposite effect.”
It’s fitting, Simon said, that Boardwalk of Dreams was released just as he prepared to move his family to Philadelphia and join Temple’s faculty. He’s committed, he said, to living in an urban environment, and he’s excited to be teaching Temple’s diverse student body.
“We were happy in Athens [Ga.], and my wife, who is a Temple nursing school graduate, and I both said the only place we’d move is Philadelphia,” Simon said. “The urban space is attractive to both of us. I’m anxious to see how getting involved with students who have very diverse backgrounds affects how I teach … and how I think.”
Simon will sign copies of Boardwalk of Dreams on Tuesday, Oct. 19, at House of Our Own Bookstore, 3920 Spruce St., at 6:30 p.m.
-By Barbara Baals
Read Bryant Simon's op-ed recently published in The Philadelphia Inquirer