Wednesday, December 8, 2010
The empire that was
Nelson Johnson's Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City is a decent little book that covers, in both a concise yet rich manner, the history of Atlantic City from an uninhabited wetland circa the U.S. Civil War to the present day. It covers much more ground than the HBO series based on the book: the series focuses on the Prohibition years in Atlantic City, which the book covers in roughly its middle third. So, in the book, you also get lots of stuff about 19th century investors, seeing resort possibilities, trying to convince the railroads to establish rail service to Atlantic City (then an uninhabited, mosquito-dominated wetland known as Absecon Island), and, in the later going, a detailed account of fairly recent casino developments in A.C. (lots about Resorts International, Donald Trump, etc.). It's all fascinating.
Also, for readers who live in the Philadelphia/southern New Jersey region, there's an added bonus. We learn all about political boss and central A.C. figure Frank Farley, whose name most people in our region only know from the automobile rest stop on the Atlantic City Expressway that's named for him. Well, now I know a lot more about Mr. Farley ("Hap" to his friends). After all the blatant corruption described in this book, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that an acknowledged boss of the New Jersey rackets (though one who was smart enough to use buffers to maintain a little distance) is honored today with his own rest stop on the way to Sin City East.
Author Nelson Johnson doesn't mince words or soften his presentation in his desriptions of the rackets, and their bosses, that ran Atlantic City for most of its history, but in the end, he's not overly hard on them. After all, as he points out, yes, it was an undoubtedly corrupt machine (politically, criminally, socially, etc.) that held sway in Atlantic City for seven or eight decades, but that machine kept everyone happy and built and maintained one of the true jewels of the East Coast, making it a "must visit" destination. Sadly, it was in a later era of cleaner, more transparent government and more lawful day-to-day life in Atlantic City that the resort saw its decline, a decline that not even legalized gambling and multi-billion dollar casino operations have been able to adequately reverse.
The book ends on a somewhat upbeat note, acknowledging that Atlantic city has come back at least a little from its abandoned, burned-out nadir of the 1960's, sporting once again at least a few glimmers of its Roaring 20's heyday. The final pages present some interesting ideas for keeping this former oceanside icon moving in the right direction and fulfilling its unrealized potential.
Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City is available for $9.02 on Kindle.