The fist-size roll from the Formica Bros. Bakery has seen more than most clumps of dough. The Italian-style bread, which first appeared on Atlantic City tables in 1919, has witnessed the heyday of the boardwalk, World War II training exercises, mobster shenanigans, the roller-coaster ride of the casinos and now the uncertain future of this once charmed Jersey Shore destination.
If you’re not careful, you could choke on all the history baked into this simple ball. But take small bites, and it will all go down smoothly.
Before I met Temple University professor Bryant Simon, the humble foodstuff would have meant about as much to me as the piece of toast I’d eaten on Wednesday. But accompanied on a tour by the author of the acclaimed history “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America” (Oxford University Press, 2004), I learned that by biting into it, I was tasting the American Dream — and Nightmare.
“It’s hard to imagine a place this small that generates so many stories,” said the 49-year-old director of American studies, who moved to Jersey at age 12. “Atlantic City is America on steroids, its best and worst features bloated and exaggerated.”
Known for its casinos, its beaches and its 24-hour bars, Atlantic City occupies a permanent spot in our collective consciousness. In fact, with 35 million annual visitors and 3.3 million viewers of the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” you could even say that it’s been a little overexposed. Our mental memory cards hold such iconic images: the wooden boardwalk lined with benches; the sandy strand dotted with colorful umbrellas; the dazzling casinos; the deserted lots and disheveled houses.
But these fragments don’t add up to a whole Atlantic City. Nor do they tell the complete story of a city that splits its personality between being “America’s Playground” and being “Always Turned On.”
For the unabridged version, I had to follow Bryant into areas where the present had abandoned the past, and the future looked backward.
But first, I needed to finish my roll.
Trim and stylish in casual black, Bryant looked more like a World Series of Poker player than a scholar. Instead of sensible shoes and wire-rim glasses, he wore dirt-stomping boots and mod frames. He walked with purpose and was drawn to both the light and the dark. He was the perfect Atlantic City tour guide, or Texas Hold ’Em coach.
“I got interested in AC riding my bike on the boardwalk,” said the married father of two, who has lived and worked in the area on and off for 25 years, “trying to make sense of how to connect the dots between the wonderful photographs of the crowds, hotels and piers of the past and the strange and uneven landscape of the casino town.”
Most people start their visit in one of three places: the boardwalk, the Walk outlets, or Borgata, the glittery casino-hotel that helped lift AC’s reputation when it opened eight years ago. We, however, began in the grumbling belly of the city.
Leaving Formica’s, we crossed the street to the White House Sub Shop, a corner restaurant proud of its age and the famous mouths it has fed. Outside, a man dressed in kitchen whites was locking a shopping cart to a streetlight. The cart was filled with loaves of Formica bread that would soon be stuffed with Genoa salami, meatballs, Provolone cheese, chicken parm and other fillings.
The sub shop — don’t dare say it sells heroes or grinders — opened in 1946, when Italian Americans reigned over Ducktown, the neighborhood named after the fowl raised in cages along Absecon Bay. Some of the restaurant’s earliest customers were World War II soldiers who trained on Atlantic City’s beach, a stand-in for Japan, and spent their downtime eating Italian subs. Diners recognizable by last name or hair — Sinatra, Monroe, DiMaggio, the Beatles — also lined up at the counter. Their mugs now peer down from crammed walls. Famous or not, everyone gets the same treatment, a giant meal and a wad of napkins.
“That’s a big sandwich,” cooed a man to his friend, who was gripping his lunch like a baseball bat. “It’s not a sub, it’s a marine.”
Atlantic City, actually a 48-block-long barrier island, is arranged in a grid, with ocean-named streets running east-west and state streets north-south. (For a refresher course, dust off your old Monopoly board.) Before the voters approved gambling in 1976 and the first casino-hotel opened two years later, Atlantic City resembled a mini-globe, with ethnic neighborhoods (Irish, Italian, Jewish) evoking the motherlands themselves.
Residents occupied brick and clapboard rowhouses, living on the upper floors and running shops and restaurants on the ground level. A few remnants of this era still exist — walk the side streets for a fading snapshot. But many of the houses were demolished for AC’s next generation.
“Atlantic City’s history has been bulldozed,” said Bryant. “If you really want to see the history, you have to go to the museums and the restaurants and look at the pictures on the walls.”
One of those museums is the Atlantic City Historical Museum, co-founded by Vicki Gold Levi, daughter of the city’s first official photographer, (Al Gold, from 1939-1964), and a consultant for the HBO show. Another is, unofficially, the hallway of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Only members of the Ritz condo association (or interested buyers) can enter the gilded lobby, but you don’t need to drop any names to walk through the long marble entryway. Black-and-white photos decorate the walls, and the pictures are so large, I felt as if I could crawl into the frame and go back a century.
If that were possible, I would have been able to join the dolled-up women and jaunty men as they peacocked up and down the boardwalk. I could have lined up to see such carny spectacles as the boxing cats, the 65-foot-long whale and the diving horse that plunged 40 feet into the water. If it were Bryant’s decision, I would have escaped into the image showing a gaggle of grinning beachgoers, all white except for one dark face. While there, I would have tactfully inquired about the mixing of races, shocking for those times.
“I would love to know the story about that one,” Bryant said. Before full integration in the 1960s, he explained, African Americans were largely restricted to the blacks-only Chicken Bone Beach.
Unfortunately, the photos are meant to amuse the eye, not educate the mind.
The house of Vera Coking, a widow who battled a modern-day Goliath named Trump, is also lacking historical signage. You can probably figure out the story using visual clues, though: a white town house standing alone in the shadows of the Trump Plaza, a tiny mouse surrounded by hulking elephants.
In 1993, Donald Trump wanted to evict Coking so that he could add a limo parking structure to his casino-hotel. Coking refused to take the six-figure bait, and a bitter eminent-domain case ensued. The longtime resident prevailed, only to lose the house to the city over property taxes. The house now stands empty, except of significance.
While I cheered Coking’s fortitude, Bryant explained that some folks contested her heroism, claiming that she was motivated by something other than the spirit of David.
No one, however, would venerate Paul “Skinny” D’Amato — except Atlantic City.
Across the street from Jay Z’s nightclub, a bronze plaque honors the 500 Club owner, who was allegedly linked to the mob. “Mr. Atlantic City” ran an illegal gambling den in the back of the club on Missouri Avenue. (It burned down in 1973.) The friend of mobsters — and Sinatra — hired such crooners and cutups as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to draw crowds. The sign recognizes D’Amato’s legacy as a club impresario; neither Martin nor Lewis earned such commemoration.
(Just so you don’t think that AC is completely delusional, the city does not exalt the legacy of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the corrupt Prohibition-era politician/racketeer whom “Boardwalk Empire” celebrates.)
Atlantic City never gained the same notoriety or criminal lineup as Philly, Chicago and New York. “This was a dumping ground for the mob,” said Bryant, referring to the town’s secondary status in the mobster world. It did, however, exercise some control over the cement mixing and trash removal industries and provided, well, protection to the gay clubs that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s.
New York Avenue was the place to throw a boa around your Adam’s apple and slip your man paws into a pair of stilettos. Gay and drag clubs abounded, including one venue decorated in velvet erotic art and Val’s, which was embroiled in a legal case that predated Stonewall. When officials shuttered the bar, Val’s fought back — and won. An early victory for gay rights.
“This became a gay resort destination after they clamped down on Cape May’s gay scene,” said Bryant, as we stood near the Babes! sign of a strip club on New York Avenue. “But it was blown out by gambling.”
Casinos, now numbering a dozen, performed dramatic plastic surgery on Atlantic City. The behemoths, unnaturally blinged-out with neon, created an impenetrable wall between the boardwalk and, well, everything else. The hotels’ elevated walkways — fresh air is so overrated — further divided and darkened the city. Walking under the bridges at high noon feels like midnight.
“Atlantic City became as themed as anything at Disney,” said Bryant. “You have a Moorish castle and a French chateau. They’re ripping Vegas off.”
Inside Trump Taj Mahal, I followed Bryant as he speed-walked through Spice Road, the hotel’s new restaurant row built to compete with Borgata. We whizzed past Starbucks, Sbarro and Mrs. Fields Cookies, chains more representative of a mall food court than an exotic trading post.
“Where are we?” Bryant asked with the same tremor in his voice as a visitor lost in a Delhi market. “This can’t be the way forward, can it?”
To paraphrase Burt Lancaster in Louis Malle’s classic film “Atlantic City”: “You shoulda seen Atlantic City in those days.”
The city’s original incarnation in 1840 was as a health resort catering to urbanites desperate for ocean breezes to cleanse their lungs. Ads promoted the destination as a place to come “breathe the ozone.” The first boardwalk took shape in 1870, with planks leading over the sand to the ocean. The version we see today — running parallel to the water — appeared in 1896 and attracted a new breed of visitor: fancy folk who would saunter up and down the promenade as if they were on the Champs-Elysees. Furs, hats and cashmere came out of the closets, a fashion moment even in the summer heat. Now, the stores lining the boardwalk sell clothing best suited for strumpets, but in the 1900s, the shops bartered in high-society goods and services, despite the middle-class pedigree of most guests.
“It was an urban fantasy of how the rich acted,” said Bryant. “It was their access to the American Dream.”
To help me understand the red carpet scene, Bryant pointed to the benches, which face the boardwalk, not the ocean. Of the two views, the people parade was more coveted. (For those who thrill on Hollywood inaccuracies, check out the benches in “Boardwalk Empire”; they face the Atlantic.)
The city suffered two declines: the first from 1955 to 1978, the second in the recent economic downturn.
“Atlantic City needs to look back to its past,” said Bryant, referring to the pre-gaming period. “This is the moment to challenge the casino model. We need to emphasize what is great about Atlantic City, and that is its boardwalk.”
In response to falling gambling profits, declining visitor numbers and substantial casino layoffs, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took unprecedented action in February to gain state control of the casino district. One part of his multi-pronged plan is to resuscitate the $2.5 billion Revel hotel-casino project, which has been been stalled for months.
After Bryant and I strutted our stuff to an oblivious audience, we ventured over to Revel, the easternmost development on the Boardwalk. We parked in a perpetual construction zone of empty lots and sagging buildings, one with a junkyard for a front lawn. Interestingly, the down-at-the-heels surroundings were not reflected in the hotel’s mirrored facade. I saw only clouds drifting across Revel.
Slated to open in summer 2012, the 1,100-room resort breaks from casino tradition: It’s not campy, unless urban glass office building counts as a theme. A red crane stretched its long neck to the top floors. Yet even though it was a weekday afternoon, the machinery was idle.
Bryant said that the resort’s design incorporates a wave shape, but we couldn’t make out the tidal swoop from our position on the sidelines. We attempted to view the structure from the front but had to abort the plan because a large chunk of boardwalk was missing. Bryant climbed a dirt hill terraced with wooden boards for a higher perch. I tried to guess what might materialize on that spot, running my idea by Bryant.
“Yeah, that’s just what Atlantic City needs,” he said wryly, “a public infinity pool.”
For a wider perspective, we drove over to Gardner’s Basin, the tip of land on Clam Creek. After grabbing a beer and a bite at Back Bay Ale House, we stood in the parking lot and looked toward the changing skyline of the boardwalk. From this vantage, I could finally see the Revel’s wave.