Atlantic City Is a Hard Place to Love

Somewhere around Indiana and Pacific avenues, I had a sinking feeling. Atlantic City seemed to consist entirely of strip clubs and skin dens, convenience stores and empty store fronts. The beach was a few blocks away, true. But would a sparkling bit of ocean be enough to make the uneasy feeling in my stomach subside? This seaside resort, stacked with casino resorts dwarfed by their cousins in Las Vegas, did not look promising as I drove up to my hotel.

It was a dive of a place, recommended to me by a fellow travel writer, and someone I think of as an Atlantic City aficionado. He told me to try the Inn at the Irish Pub, a spot perched precariously above a dark watering hole, emphasis on the hole, that’s open 24 hours a day. The hotel is the sort of place that charges a deposit of $5 when you’re handed a brass key fastened to a plastic yellow diamond, stamped with a number.

I hiked up the stairs to my room, whose bathroom connected to the room next door, and flopped on the lumpy bed. I needed to call my friend, Robert Reid, and ask him if he’d set me up for an elaborate travelers’ joke, sending me to the inn to see if I’d actually go.

Traveling the American Road – Trying to Love Atlantic City

I told him, “This place is a dump,” to which he replied, “Oh no, I love that place!” I still didn’t believe him. “I wonder if you got a bad room,” he said. “I mean, it’s old, I know. I had fun there… You don’t like the room?” I mentioned that while I’d stayed in worse, that’s not really saying much, coming from a guy that’s slept in a hammock in a garage in Nicaragua, among other less-than-luxe places. “To me, you know what, it’s one of my favorite hotels in America.”

He explained: “Most of my hotel stays are forgettable, cookie-cutter experiences. My room was totally fine. It was clean, this kind of mixed-matched random old furniture, slightly slanted floors, the window with the lace curtain blowing, the people are hilarious. It’s just like, ‘Why does this exist?!'”

Robert’s interest in the hotel was unique, though, being informed by his Monopoly quest. See, the street names in the real estate game were drawn from Atlantic City, and last year, he set out to learn the stories of the avenues that we all know from the board. His trip-and resulting video-gave me high hopes for AC, even if they would soon be dashed.

For those not on a Monopoly quest, like me, it’s a tough place to visit. There are vacant lots, disused by everyone except a lone golfer I saw, swinging an iron simply because he had the space. There’s the grime you’ll find at any casino resort, set a little deeper and in need of a month-long scrub. There’s unemployment, too, bad and deep and forecast to last for many more years.

The boardwalk is a dimly bright spot. Even on a weekday evening, it was busy with families and couples, the famous pushcarts carrying tourists north and south. (There’s a big billboard advertising Boardwalk Empire, the HBO show that’s at least putting the name Atlantic City in people’s homes again.) The casinos, with Wild West, Roman, Mughal themes, do have visitors, if only a few. As my friend told me, “It just isn’t quite Vegas. It’s not even quite Reno.”

Robert insists–and I believe him–that the people in AC are proud of their hometown. But for those not interested in where Monopoly comes from or cheap blackjack tables, it’s a tough place to love. At least you can still get unbelievably good sandwiches at White House Sub Shop on Arctic and Mississippi. I took mine to go.

Vintage Coney Island: postcard from 1938 Fortune Magazine

Summer has officially started and for many New Yorkers, summer is synonymous with Coney Island‘s boardwalk, beach, and hot dog eating contests. Fortune Magazine has just republished a story from their archives about Brooklyn‘s famous “island” (really, it’s been connected to the mainland for many years and is an island only in name, though technically it is part of Brooklyn, which is part of Long Island) when a day at the beach cost only 10 cents (round trip!) in subway fare.

The fascinating and evocative article chronicles the history and then-current status of New York‘s “nickel empire” after its 1920s heyday and at the beginning of its decline that led to the closure of most of Coney Island’s original attractions.

Back in 1938, there were sixty bathhouses where you could rent a locker, use the pool facilities, and even rent a bathing suit for fifty cents or less (nowadays you can try to change in a municipal restroom, but the only pool will be the overflowing sinks). Though it may seem a world away from the Coney Island of 2011 (men in white sailor suits cleaned the boardwalk each night!), a lot of parallels can be drawn about the waning popularity of urban beach resorts and revitalization efforts of Coney Island then and now.

Other highlights of the article include:
-The saga of Feltman’s frankfurters, who could once serve 8,000 meals at a time until a young upstart named Nathan undercut the hot dog business by a nickel and took over the market.
-Observations from chief lifeguard of 37 years John McMonigle on beach rescues: ” The fat dames is different. Hell, you don’t have to worry about them — can’t swim a lick — but they go in, dog paddle around two hours, an’ never touch bottom. By God you can’t sink ’em.”
-The oddly intriguing practice of baby incubators on the boardwalk with a charge to view (Boardwalk Empire viewers will recall seeing this in 1920 Atlantic City). Turns out they were opened by a pragmatic and kindly doctor who treated poor and ill infants, using the admission fee to pay for the medical care and facilities.
-The difficulties of running a freak show, where acts included “The Spider Boy; Singing Lottie, Fat Girl (O Boy, Some Entertainer); Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head (See Frisco, the Wonder Dog); Professor Bernard, Magician Extraordinary (He will fool you); Professor Graf, Tattoo Artist (Alive); and his star act, Belle Bonita and her Fighting Lions (Action, Thrills).”

Read the whole article (maybe on your way to Coney Island on the subway) here.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Albany_Tim.