Atlantic City: Empire or Fantasyland? An Interview with Bryant Simon

Historians in the News

A new HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, premiered this weekend. Worlds away from what we see on Jersey Shore, it has reignited interest in New Jersey history and culture. Bryant Simon (author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America and Professor of History at Temple University) has been interviewed for the accompanying HBO documentary, and here we ask him some questions about the “dreamlike” place that is AC.

You’ve described yourself as a native of South New Jersey. What drew you to writing the history of Atlantic City?

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in Vineland, Philly was not the place that drew us; it was more Atlantic City. That was where we went for splurge meals, special occasions, amusement parks, parades, and shopping. In fact, that’s where I got my bar mitzvah suit! Years later, my family moved just outside of Atlantic City and I watched, while riding my bike in the morning on the Boardwalk, as gambling woke the place up and irrevocably transformed it. I was transfixed by the city, by people’s nostalgia for it, by its nervous energy, and its aching sadness and painful poverty in the midst of plenty. Really, it had everything I wanted to write about it – it was like a Springsteen song, a place that could be mean and cruel, but a place of romance and possible redemption. How could I resist?

Compared to places like Las Vegas or Coney Island in its heyday, how did/does Atlantic City epitomize the urban playground?

All of these places share something in common – they are each the tale of two cities. They are places built in the interests of visitors, not necessarily residents; they sell (or sold) fantasies – fantasies that put tourists as the center of the narrative and allowed them to slip their daily skin and imagine themselves not as they were, but as they wanted to be. That is what people paid for when they went these places – they paid for fantasies....

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