Friday, August 17, 2012

"Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City"

Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
Now, they blew up his house, too
Down on the boardwalk they're gettin' ready for a fight
Gonna see what them racket boys can do

Now, there's trouble bustin' in from outta state
And the d.a. can't get no relief
Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade
And the gambling commission's hangin' on by the skin of its teeth

Well now, ev'rything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe ev'rything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the central trust
And I bought us two tickets on that coast city bus

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
But with you forever I'll stay
Were goin' out where the sands turnin' to gold
Put on your stockings baby, `cause the nights getting cold
And maybe ev'rything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe ev'rything that dies someday comes back

Now, I been lookin' for a job, but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers and don't
Get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well, I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So, honey, last night I met this guy and I'm gonna
Do a little favor for him

Well, I guess everything dies, baby, that's a fact

But maybe ev'rything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

(Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City" [1982])

Last weekend  my wife and I celebrated our 33rd anniversary with our children and their spouses/fiancees and grandchildren in Atlantic City.  We were there because our granddaughter Mackenzie was participating in her first feis at the Sheraton Hotel right off the Atlantic City Expressway.

In the late 19th century Atlantic City became the holiday destination for working class Philadelphians to escape the sweltering summer heat of their brick rowhouse neighborhoods (hence the old moniker "the lungs of Philadelphia," repeated by Burt Lancaster's Lou Pascal in the brilliant 1981 film, "Atlantic City;" by contrast, the rich flocked south to Cape May and the religious to the dry, "family-friendly" resort of Ocean City).  By the early 20th century, Atlantic City had become the nation's premier resort, with a boardwalk 4 1/2 miles long, the central portion of which was lined by grand hotels and multiple piers jutting out into the Atlantic filled with amusements for young and old alike.  By mid-century, however, Atlantic City's glory was fading, leading to the referendum in the 1970s to allow gambling with the purported goal of revitalizing the city which by them had deteriorated to the point of being a massive slum with a large boardwalk.

The city still had mystique, however.  I can still remember looking north along the coast from the 4th Street beach in the more respectable Ocean City during the blessed summers of 1965 and 1966 to view the skyline of Atlantic City a mere ten miles to the north.  On a couple of occasions we actually traveled those ten miles to walk the boardwalk.  Even as a child, the sheer size of the piers and beauty of the old hotels amazed me and remain vivid in my memory to this day.

But the glory of Atlantic City was not to last.  Even before the allowance of gambling, the great Hotel Traymore was imploded in 1972 (this tragic event is shown at the start of the film "Atlantic City").  Once gambling became legal, one by one the great hotels began to drop like dominoes to the wrecking ball: the Breakers, the Chelsea, the Brighton, the Shelburne, the Mayflower, and, most tragically, the Marlborough-Blenheim, whose implosion may be seen at the beginning of the brilliantly stark video to Bruce Springsteen's austere classic, "Atlantic City."  Of the great hotels, only four survive as parts of larger casino complexes: the Dennis, the Claridge, Haddon Hall, and the Ritz-Carlton, from whose 9th floor "Nucky" Johnson ran his "boardwalk empire."

Today, Atlantic City engenders an overwhelming sense of melancholy, even sadness, in me.  The promised "revitalization," the subtext for the classic artistic contributions of the 1981 film and 1982 Springsteen song mentioned above, has not come after almost 40 years.  Large swathes of vacant land lie where rundown rowhouses and smaller hotels and businesses used to sit.  The old Italian neighborhood, Ducktown, now houses a variety of strip clubs in the shadows of the giant casinos along the boards (did no one even consider the Las Vegas factor?).  The boardwalk is full of litter, tacky stores and scores of "massage houses" and palm readers.  Topping everything is the sheer aesthetic wasteland that the city skyline has become.  No one should ever underestimate the sheer malevolent stupidity of property developers and their enablers among any city's "powers that be," who are only concerned with efficiency and profit margins, the public good be damned.  Atlantic City at one time boasted a string of beautiful hotels which were the envy of the world.  Today, with only a few exceptions, they have been replaced with vacant lots and ΓΌber-tacky hotel casinos.  This is not only sad.  It is (or at least it should be considered) criminal, like much of the other activity promoted by the casinos that litter the beach line.  I leave you with a few photographs I took last week, along with some of the irreplaceable hotels knocked down in the name of "progress."

The Traymore Hotel in 1930. Note the old Madison Hotel at left
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The empty lot at to the right is where the Traymore used to stand.
The ugly parking garage next to the Madison was the garage
for the since demolished Sands Casino

Bally's wretched 1979 tower and tacky surroundings, sitting on the spot where
the glorious Marlborough-Blenheim once sat proudly.
The Marlborough-Blenheim in its prime
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Dennis Hotel today, restored (thankfully) by Bally's

The Dennis Hotel back in the day. Note the southern end of the Marlborough-Blenheim at the right of the picture (picture@

The Claridge today

The Claridge in its old context, with the Marlborough-Blenheim to the south and Brighton to the north (


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