THE ATLANTIC CITY MOTH
Everything dies baby, that's a fact --
But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back . . .
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City . . .
There is a huge set-piece in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn. It's right on the water, and from a distance it looks a bit like a palace of some kind, or an urban mirage. It is actually the set for Boardwalk Empire, the hugely entertaining tale of Prohibition-era Atlantic City on HBO, which stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the real life politico and racketeer of the ‘20s, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.
The show is a thinly veiled fiction and is filled with a lot of very good actors doing some of the best work of their careers -- most notably Dabney Coleman and William Forsythe, playing a couple of homicidally despicable motherfuckers, and the great Chicago actor Michael Shannon as a Prohibition agent with a bad case of Jesus.
Its plot line is dense and rewarding and historically somewhat accurate -- even though it claims to be fictional. If only the real Atlantic City were still somewhat like this.
The first time I ever went to Atlantic City, I was struck by the sheer polarities of its landscape. Donald Trump had just built a huge, glittering, obscenely fucking ugly casino there -- the Taj Mahal, I think -- and directly across the street was the most austere ghetto I'd ever seen in America. The people of New Jersey had been sold that “Casino Gambling” cultural band-aid. You can damn near forgive them; it was 1978 and Atlantic City had to do something. As the saying goes, “A drowning man will grab a snake” -- which is precisely what Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey did.
Casino gambling was supposed to be the cure-all for schools, jobs, and housing for the Jersey shore, but what it did instead was provide a lot of shitty service-industry jobs or make-work jobs and opened the door for organized crime to come in and loot the profitable elements -- slots, dealers, food concessions, linen services and garbage collection, to name a few. Atlantic City was a shithole with casinos.
Every day, the buses full of the geriatric trade would pull in from New York, Philly and North Jersey, and wheelchair-bound, old, blue-haired ladies would pile off of them with their jars of nickels and play the slots for a few hours. It wasn't sexy like Vegas, and unlike Vegas, nobody in Jersey knew how to smile. It was a city of gray, desultory old-age limping through the sequential lights, or young men in SUVs, packing “nines” in their waistbands, plying the crack trade on and around the boardwalk, and speeding down Ventnor and Atlantic Avenues blaring rap music and being chased by squad cars.
But, boy, what it had once been! Like Coney Island, it was one of those places where the playful American imagination took hold, a P.T. Barnum type of place complete with spectacle and architectural curiosities, like “Lucy,” the six-story elephant ensconced on the 9200 block of Atlantic Avenue -- kind of a knock-off of the one on Coney Island except, till this day (through a lot of local boosterism and fund-raising) it still stands -- like a Looney Tunes Trojan Horse for the American promise.
The spoils of the new gambling fortunes in Atlantic City were bitterly fought over by the Jersey, Philly and New York mobs. The “Chicken Man” in Bruce Springsteen's sad, beautiful and elegiac song that bears the city's name, was in fact Dominick Testa, a Philly gangster who tried to muscle his way in -- along with the Bracco family -- to the Jersey and New York outfits’ turf. They blew his house up -- with him in it.
Casino gambling breathed new life into the organized crime of the East Coast, including the nascent Russian mob that quickly took over the “street” trades of drugs, guns and prostitution. The Italians still had gambling, garbage and labor, which is still, after all of these years, the best things to have.
Boardwalk Empire has also generated new interest in this place. A lot of the boardwalk is being renovated into old-timey, amusement-themed places -- and no doubt they will fuck it up.
My favorite images of Atlantic City come from the elegant Louis Malle film from the early ‘80s that starred Burt Lancaster, in the best role of his life, and a ripe Susan Sarandon, who at one point squeezes lemons all over her delightfully naked upper body to rid herself of the scent of seafood while Lancaster surreptitiously watches. The look on his face is one of sadness, regret and animal longing.
A few scenes later, Lancaster is trying to explain this place to a young idiot wannabe coke dealer. As they are walking down the boardwalk, Lancaster, resplendent in a wintery white overcoat and fedora, suddenly stops, looks the punk in the face and says, "See that ocean, kid? Now 30 years ago, that was something, that was an ocean..."
The dope doesn't understand, but at this point, we sure do.
At one time this was a place of dreams -- and Lancaster remembers because he now knows he is this dream's last faithful inhabitant.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.