Friday, July 11, 2008

RUSTBELT PLACE OF THE WEEK: ATLANTIC CITY


Alright, so I don't love gambling. But here I am in Atlantic City. Amidst the glitter and bling of the casinos, I feel like a teetotaler in a beer garden or a monk in a strip club. I'm more conservative with my money than the most hard-core deficit hawk. The thought of losing my hard-earned cash to the house (inevitable given the odds) makes me jittery with angst. More than that, I find slot machines and their customers depressing. Windowless casinos are dreary places, especially when the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and the temperatures are in their upper seventies and low eighties. But there is something compelling about AC, even if gambling leaves me cold.

AC is close to home (only an hour from Philly and two hours from New York). The restaurants, from hoagies to haute cuisine, are great. And the beaches beckon, even if the occasional soda bottle or condom washes up alongside the hermit crabs and oyster shells. My health-conscious significant other wants to work on her tan for the first time in several years (all those years of 50 spf sunscreen give her the excuse to indulge a little this weekend). We'll ride our bikes on the boardwalk, admire the bronze bodies of summer, listen to some jazz on Chicken Bone Beach, go drinking and dancing, take day trips to Cape May and Sandy Hook, and have a blast on a rare long, kid-free weekend.

Atlantic City is a place of abundant contradictions. It embodies the economic, racial, and cultural schizophrenia of modern America. Its history--as a place of escape and fantasy for blue-collar and middle-class Philadelphians and New Yorkers--is the subject of Boardwalk of Dreams, an extraordinary book by historian and Rustbelt Intellectual fellow traveler Bryant Simon. A witty and learned writer (seldom are the two characteristics found in a single author, especially an academic), Simon powerfully evokes the fantastical and the mundane, and at the same time, decodes the racial and economic realities that make modern AC both unbelievably gritty and super posh. Read Simon, but if in the meantime, if you've never been to AC, you can take a virtual tour of its glitz and grime in this great photo essay at Philly Skyline.



AC is one of the poorest cities in New Jersey, yet home to some of the state's most upscale dining emporiums and fashionable clothing boutiques. Like nearly every city in the Northeast, AC benefited from the real estate boom and saw some new condos and town houses spring forth from its pockmarked landscape of vacant lots. But all the casino revenue in the world can't undo the combined and mutually reinforcing processes of racial segregation and economic marginalization. Atlantic City is a case study in uneven development. Billions have gone into casinos and hotels, yet to shop for groceries or go to a movie requires getting in a car and driving to the dreary, sprawling suburbs on the other side of the bay. Casino dollars have not trickled down to the 'hoods. The public schools are lousy. And Atlantic City is--as it has always been--segregated by race.

It's a place of fantasy and decadence--and for a few days, we'll partake of the unreal life in the city. But outside our massive parking garage, just a short walk away (if anyone here bothered to walk), is a place every bit as real and ruined as North Philadelphia or inner city Detroit or Chicago's South Side.

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