Bryant Simon. Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. vii + 285 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-516753-5.
Reviewed by Katherine Fichter (MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning)
Published on H-Urban (July, 2005)
Under the Boardwalk: An Unsatisfying Telling of the Decline of Atlantic City
In Boardwalk of Dreams, Bryant Simon seeks to explain the gradual yet dramatic decline of Atlantic City, once one of twentieth-century America's most popular and successful vacation areas. Simon succeeds admirably in capturing the flavor of the prosperous, exciting Atlantic City of 1920-1960; he stumbles, however, in his explanations for the multidecade withering of the city. His strengths lie in the first half of the book, in describing the visual power of the boardwalk, the elegance of the hotels and restaurants, and the energy of the summer crowds, as well as the complex social, racial, and economic structures that underlay the success of Atlantic City. In interpreting the collapse of the city, he fails to convincingly sustain the arguments he makes at the beginning of the book about Atlantic City as a key locus for the creation of the white middle class during the early- to mid-twentieth century. Instead, the reader is left with a typical tale of white flight, botched urban renewal, and ill-conceived municipal quick fixes in the latter half of the twentieth century. By compiling a treasure trove of information on the heyday of Atlantic City, Boardwalk of Dreams makes valuable contributions to the fields of urban history, the history of the vacation as a social idea, and the creation of the American middle class. By attempting to embed his story in the larger--and well-known--history of the decline of American cities, Simon resorts to a generic set of arguments that don't live up to the promise of the first half of his book.
As described by Bryant, the Atlantic City of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was a middle-class utopia for residents of cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Camden, and Baltimore, providing not only a seaside locale and abundance of activities both wholesome and libertine, but also an opportunity to publicly display newly acquired wealth, status, and leisure time. This element of public show--played out daily through carefully-controlled individual and crowd behavior along the boardwalk, in hotels, restaurants, cinemas, and arcades--allowed visitors to Atlantic City, many of them new arrivals to the United States, to share in an experience of Americanization both individual and collective in an environment that allowed them to feel safe and comfortable. Simon expertly captures the electricity of the smartly-dressed crowds that filled the boardwalk shoulder-to-shoulder on summer nights, overflowing into movie palaces, restaurants, and hotel lobbies and taking every opportunity to see and be seen. The Atlantic City described by Simon, particularly its boardwalk, is a place his readers will wish to have seen.
Simon is not blinded by romanticism, for the story he tells of Atlantic City at its zenith is a complicated one. The Atlantic City of the 1920s to 1950s was not a spontaneous creation so much as a place carefully constructed--by hotel- and restaurant-owners, by merchants and cinema-operators, and by local politicians and boosters--to appeal to a certain kind of visitor looking for a certain kind of experience, one that would encourage them to spend their leisure time and money in the businesses of the boardwalk. In particular, Atlantic City designed itself to attract upwardly-mobile residents of the industrial cities of the northeast, those looking for a vacation destination within easy distance of home, but one that could offer a more salubrious atmosphere and better class of attractions than could Coney Island or other, similar, spots. To attract and maintain this audience, the supporters of Atlantic City worked tirelessly to create a backdrop of affordable luxury in which working people could feel, albeit briefly, that they were well-to-do. "A trip to Atlantic City was, then, a public performance of personal success," writes Simon. "On the Boardwalk, the middle-class multitudes cast themselves as successful, free-spending Americans and acted out their parts by creating a public realm built around continuous shows of middle-class respectability and conspicuous spending" (p. 35).
Simon attributes much of the success of early Atlantic City to racial segregation, which adds further complexity and depth to the story. The Atlantic City of the graceful hotels, opulent cinemas, and elegant restaurants was available almost exclusively to those who were white; Atlantic City in its peak decades was strictly segregated, with people of color permitted only in service roles, frequently those isolated from white customers and guests. In Simon's argument, the separation of the races extended beyond what was typical in the United States of the time to become part of the elaborate fantasy creation that was the Atlantic City experience: African Americans, most frequently men, served in subservient roles so that visitors to Atlantic City--many just recently prosperous enough to afford a few days of vacation--could be made to feel superior in ways that they typically could not at home. "The Boardwalk served as a platform for [an] exclusive form of nation building," writes Simon, "as white people--in particular, immigrants on their way out of the working class--acted out stories of making it in America against a backdrop of contrived blackness" (p. 42). This ritualized creation of racial roles played itself out in numerous ways in Atlantic City, from the African-American operators of wicker pedicabs along the boardwalk to the "native" stage shows popular in local nightclubs.
Having successfully established the intriguing notion of a thriving Atlantic City as a created environment designed for the enactment of middle-class values, Simon is tripped up in the second half of his book in several ways. First, he identifies numerous commonly-held theories for the decline of Atlantic City--from the growth of the suburbs to the invention of air conditioning to the ease of airplane travel to the hosting of the 1964 Democratic National Convention--but it is difficult to distinguish which he is holding up merely to refute and which he actually accepts. Second, he falls into anachronistic interpretations about the racial and class attitudes of the actors of decades ago, failing to understand their decisions within the constraints and realities of their time. Without a doubt, the neighborhood-clearing policies of urban renewal seem inhumane to us now, but it is more interesting to try to understand the actions of the time within their own context, rather than reiterate what we believe about them today. Third, and most importantly, Simon is ultimately unable to do justice to his early arguments about the unique role of Atlantic City in the creation of the middle class--the middle class that built suburban America--settling instead on an oft-told urban tale of racial conflict, misguided revival schemes (including casino gambling), and the small-minded antiurbanism of white Americans. In the final analysis, the promise of Simon's early arguments about Atlantic City as a public space and stage are not fulfilled.
Atlantic City collapsed as a popular middle-class vacation spot because it ceased to be able to offer its visitors the vacation experience they wanted--a controlled environment in which to show off their new-found prosperity--at the same time that other locations began to do it better. The reasons for this are undoubtedly many, and Simon has made a significant contribution to the field by attempting to identify and explain them. For this reason, Boardwalk of Dreams is worthwhile for any scholar or layman interested in Atlantic City itself or in the changing nature of American vacationing. However, Simon seems to have been led astray by the dual charge of his title: Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America. In not only trying to tell the story of Atlantic City--a fascinating and vexing history--but also to connect it to the larger arc of twentieth-century urban American history, Simon sacrifices some of the uniqueness of the Atlantic City story for a more typical, and typically woeful, narrative of the decline and failed attempts at rescue of a small American city. Atlantic City in its heyday was no ordinary place; its fate should not be told as one either.
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Katherine Fichter. Review of Simon, Bryant, Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.
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