As we saw in Trenton today, Atlantic City is fighting for its life, again. It has gone from urban fantasy destination for an emerging middle class to an impoverished outpost and back. And it’s once again looking to re-invent itself. Bryant Simon wrote “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.” He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Thank you for being with us. Exactly how is the fate of urban America linked to Atlantic City?
Simon: Well in many ways Atlantic City is a kind of hyper version of American cities. Its fate mirrors the fate of much larger cities. It was in its heyday really a fantasy of an urban space. A place to see and be seen, a place with big, gorgeous buildings and in some ways the great boulevard which is the boardwalk.
Williams: But its original vision got sidetracked. How did that happen?
Simon: Well, its original vision was as a health resort. That kind of got exhausted but that’s really the story of Atlantic City. Atlantic City’s ability to remake itself and its inability at times to fit the kind of broad fantasies of the middle class explains its growth, explains its death — near death — and perhaps it’s reemergence in the next 25 years.
Williams: How does the architecture of the 1920s Atlantic City reflect the atmosphere of the city then versus the tall glass towers of today’s casinos?
Simon: Yeah, in Atlantic City’s heyday it was a kind of long stream of ornate beautiful buildings. One had the onion shaped domes of a Moorish temple, another looked liked a French chateau and yet another looked like the Empire State Building. And those buildings were not just ornate on the inside, they were ornate on the outside and that outside decoration was there in some ways to entertain the people on the boardwalk. It said that they mattered and the spaces outside mattered but if you look at the casinos that were built in the ’80s and ’90s, they were mostly flat glass walls. They were basically hyped up Days Inns and they said that everything that mattered was in the inside. So, it is probably not surprising the boardwalk and the shops on the boardwalk died along with that kind of defining architecture.
Williams: How did racial segregation affect the city in the 1950s?
Simon: Well, for most of Atlantic City’s history, it was a segregated city. Some people called it a Jim Crow town. The neighborhoods were segregated, the boardwalks was largely segregated and that segregation actually helped Atlantic City. White visitors wanted to go to a segregated area. But, in the 1950s, Atlantic City couldn’t segregate anymore. This happened in cities all over America and what the response was, white flight. Atlantic City though had two streams of white flight — white flight of residence and white flight of tourists. Tourists who went to places like Miami, to Disneyland that themselves could segregate.
Williams: How did legalization of gambling in the 1970s lead to the situation that Atlantic City is in today?
Simon: Well in many ways nobody in the city and in the state was prepared. By that I meant they hadn’t really thought through what gambling meant. The point of gambling, for Atlantic City, was to rebuild the city but the point of casinos is to take all of the people’s money. That’s why they have slot machines and craps tables, but it’s also why they serve free drinks, give away rooms and have comps on restaurants. They essentially wanted to take all of people’s money and that meant there wasn’t any money from the casinos and from the people who visited to trickle down into the city itself. So they had a kind of crazy situation in Atlantic City. Twenty years after casinos came, 20 years after millions and millions of people came to Atlantic City every year, Atlantic City as a city was worse off. It didn’t have a movie theater, it didn’t have a supermarket and had lost 200 restaurants since gambling had come to town. In fact, it had lost population.
Williams: The casinos and not much around it, and now four casinos closed in Atlantic City last year, the city’s on the verge of bankruptcy. Based on what you know about the city’s history, can the city reinvent itself one more time?
Simon: Yeah, I think it can reinvent itself, and will reinvent itself. It will be something. The question is what it will be and who participates in the conversation. For the most part, the people who’ve participated in the conversation about the rebirth of Atlantic City have not been the people of Atlantic City. They’re often just repeating what they’ve done in the past. I think the Revel is the good example of that. In the last crisis of Atlantic City, it built a bigger casino. I don’t think that will happen this time, but I think that is a product of having people who imagine Atlantic City simply as a tour resort and a place for suburban day trippers and as long as that’s the case, I think the kind of disconnect between the tourist part of the city and the residential part of the city will continue.
Williams: Bryant Simon, thank you for being with us.
Simon: Thanks for having me.