Standing alone beneath the pier at twilight, the encroaching tide my only company, it was difficult not to imagine spying a bloated corpse, or soon becoming one. Skulking in the shadows of the pylons was the ideal setting for acts of senseless violence, where any evidence of the crime would be carried away by the carefree waters of the sea. I'd seen the TV show, I knew what happened if you crossed the kingpins of Atlantic City. Fortunately there were no bodies to stumble over and no assassins to rub me out, but neither could I find what I was searching for - the remains of perhaps the grandest street address ever served by the US Post Office: No. 1 Atlantic Ocean.
We all romanticise about our travels before we step foot out the front door. We daydream about the adventures we might have, about sights we'll see and who we might encounter along the way. If you're a fan of the TV show Boardwalk Empire, you might hope to take a rolling chair along Atlantic City's beachfront, peer through the windows of boutiques and take in a broadway show, stare out across the sea to fairground rides balanced on distant piers.
That very much remains the experience to be had today, except the world has moved on since the Roaring Twenties. The show has prompted a deluge of fans to visit, some expecting to find a town preserved in amber, but instead of a colourful panorama of Victorian and Art Deco architecture, the legalisation of gambling in the 1970s means megalithic casinos tower above and flood the boardwalk with neon. Atlantic City has evolved, as all cities do, so what remains, if anything of Nucky Thompson's boardwalk empire?
Although it's now a condominium, the 18 story red-brick Ritz-Carlton Hotel built on Iowa Avenue still looks out across the ocean. Opened in 1921, it was the palatial residence of the real-life corrupt city treasurer Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson, as it is of his fictional counterpart played by Steve Buscemi. From the hotel's ninth floor, Johnson bribed his way through public office, ensuring Altantic City's bars and gentlemen's clubs never ran dry during Prohibition. A short walk away is the colossal Boardwalk Hall, built in 1926 and still home music and sporting events including the Atlantic City Rodeo. Johnson may have found himself admiring the ladies at the Miss America beauty pageant, which was founded in the city in 1921 and later hosted at Boardwalk Hall.
Nearby stands the pride of local businessman Captain John Young, Million Dollar Pier. Stretching over 500 metres into the sea, its extravagance and ornate design attracted movie stars and presidents who would dine at Young's marble villa perched at the pier's end. Its official address on the US postal service route - No. 1 Atlantic Ocean. The pier changed hands several times, fires claimed parts of the original structure and now in its place stands an upscale shopping mall with lavish restaurants and luxury brands. Beneath the pier at the water's edge, any remains of Young's million dollar dream are lost to the waters.
One of the more recognisable stores seen in Boardwalk Empire is Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy, which was first produced and sold in Atlantic City in the late 19th century. The original store and factory are still open, the oldest continuously operating business in the city; Fralinger's merged with a competitor and is now called James, but gift boxes of Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy sell in their thousands and a series of black and white photographs inside the store lead visitors through its history. There's precious little else on the boardwalk left from the era, save for the boardwalk itself. Its path has shifted as a century of landfill and tides crafted the shoreline of Absecon Island (Atlantic City is on a barrier island separate from the mainland) but it's been a permanent fixture on the seafront since 1870; the rolling chairs still offer visitors a leisurely tour along its length, too.
Step back from the ocean and there are other remnants of an earlier age. Absecon Lighthouse was built in 1857 and is the third tallest in the United States - during the days of Prohibition it punctured the skyline and ensured incoming cargoes of illicit booze arrived safely. The lighthouse no longer provides navigational aid for shipping but is lit every night and offers views stretching across the island. On Pacific Avenue stand St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church and the First Presbyterian Church which would have welcomed locals and visitors alike to prayer, as they still do today. At the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Atlantic Avenue is the Knife and Fork Inn where Nucky Johnson was a regular to dinner. It began life as an exclusive gentleman's club; ladies of discretion waited on the second floor for the rich and powerful to summon them, while the third and fourth floors witnessed events of ill-repute. The family that now owns the Knife and Fork Inn opened Dock's Oyster House in 1897, the second oldest business in town and another restaurant noted for its fine dining.
Finally, the most bizarre throwback is to be found further west in Margate, once South Atlantic City. Lucy the Elephant was built in the late 19th century by James Lafferty, one of three elephant shaped buildings constructed at sites along along the US East Coast (including the famous Elephant Hotel on New York's Coney Island). Standing six stories tall, its interior was a bar during the 1920s; folklore says the lanterns in its eyes would change colour from green to red to warn smugglers if it was safe to dock.
Many of the buildings have been razed, but everything Atlantic City was in terms of spirit is there to enjoy. Like the Roaring Twenties you're free to be yourself, or pretend to be somebody else and become lost in revelry and excess. Nucky Johnson's legacy, if not his empire still lives on.
|"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.|
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.