by Jim McGee
I have vivid memories of Atlantic City as a child growing up in the late sixties and early seventies. Every summer my parents would get a room on the little barrier island of Brigantine for a week long vacation at a little efficiency motel called the Ocean Front.
Those were slow motion weeks of roaming the beach, crabbing from the piers, and exploring the dunes. But every year one day was set aside for the highlight of the week - a short trip over rickety old bridge that connected Brigantine to Atlantic City. To a small kid the boardwalk was about as cool as it got: Steele Pier with it's rides, roller coasters, skee ball, pinball, and a day of junk food ranging from pizza and cotton candy to Atlantic City's own salt water taffy.
As an adult I discovered more exotic places than my parents had for vacations and on occasional day trips to the shore I was more likely to notice what had changed than what was the same. Gambling had come to Atlantic City in 1977, and ever since a college assignment of calculating the odds at the gaming tables had cooled any interest in gambling I might have had. So when the assignment came in to photograph Atlantic City as a travel destination I decided to take a fresh look, to see what was the same as well as what had changed. I also wanted to get a feel for how Atlantic City differed from big sister Las Vegas - America's gambling mecca.
I arrived in AC (as the locals call Atlantic City) on a cool rainy afternoon. The Atlantic City Expressway was built to speed traffic into AC from Philadelphia and points south via interstate 95. It replaces old route 30 which still serves as the main street for numerous small towns in New Jersey's interior. On the expressway, as you fly along at 10 to 20 mph over the posted speed limit its impossible to escape the presence of the casinos. The density of casino billboards increases dramatically as you approach the city with every other billboard and every casino laying claim to the most generous slots in Atlantic City.
This gives you your first inkling of how Atlantic City differs from Las Vegas. While Vegas certainly profits from it's slots they are far more important to Atlantic City's casinos because there is such a difference in the nature of the players. In Vegas the majority of tourists stay for several days to a week. That means that they are spending as much money on shows, restaurants, and other entertainment as they are in the casinos.
In Atlantic City the vast majority of tourists are day trippers. They arrive by car, train and in an overwhelming fleet of buses. These folks are primarily slot players and buffet eaters and a large percentage are seniors. And just as there were in the 70's there is still a large influx of tourists driving in from surrounding shore communities. In this Atlantic City and Vegas are similar - they need to be able to accommodate families with kids as well as adult gamblers. But they do so in vastly different ways. It's here where the new Atlantic City meets the old Jersey Shore.
Stroll down the Atlantic City boardwalk today and much is the same as it was when I was a child. The cotton candy, pretzels, pizza, and other assorted junk food are still there and the stands are still staffed by immigrants. The difference today are that the Italian, Polish, German, and Irish accents have been replaced by Russian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean accents and today the stands may be stuffed under the facade of a nearby casino.
Steele Pier is still there with it's collection of rides, and tame roller coasters, but today signs for the "famous diving horse" are gone. Instead sign for the Taj Mahal casino dominate it's facade and video games are shouldering out the few remaining pinball and skeeball machines.
A stroll down the boardwalk shows that it is still dominated by t-shirt and beach shops where you can buy beach balls, fluorescent colored sunglasses, and hermit crabs for the kids; and you can still get real salt water taffy from Fralingers. More importantly for those of us beginning to get gray in our beards is that we can still catch a ride in a boardwalk push cart if we get tired of carrying around all that equipment.
But what if you're looking for the grand themed casinos, the kind you find in Vegas? Well you're not likely to find that kind of grandeur strolling in off the boardwalk. Walk through the doors of any casino and you'll find an entrance directly onto the casino floor. There are few elaborate themes ala the Luxor or the Venetian in Las Vegas. The day trippers are ushered directly onto the floor so as to more efficiently introduce them to the slot machines and gaming tables.
Easy walking distance from the casino floors are the huge buffets favored by the day trippers. Walking through the casinos and glancing at menu boards I was "enlightened" by more than one senior about the best places to put on the feedbag AC style. Similarly you won't find elaborate shopping plaza's ala to Caesar's in Las Vegas.
Luxury is found opposite the boardwalk by those arriving for a stay in the casinos. Drive up to the guest entrance of the casino hotels and you'll find grand drives and fountains, elaborate lobbies, comfortable upscale bars, and easy access to the better restaurants. This is the side for fine wine and cigars, and Atlantic City's casinos serve up a good selection of fine restaurants.
Atlantic City also offers a good variety of shows (as you'll see on the billboards on the way into town) featuring Vegas style stage shows, comedians, and concerts for every age group and the quality of these shows has improved markedly in the past few years.
Atlantic city is unique for photographers. This quiet image of a romantic couple on the beach was photographed from the boardwalk only steps from the entrance of a casino. Obviously the casinos themselves offer numerous photo opportunities both inside and out. Just remember that some of the most spectacular fountains and facades are on the side opposite the boardwalk. But don't forget that Atlantic City is also a beach town. Mornings have dramatic sunrises over the Atlantic ocean and during the day all the usual beach photo ops are there for the taking.
There are some limits on photographers however. Don't even think about pulling your camera out on a casino floor. You'll immediately be approached by one or more casino security guards who will tell you politely but firmly that NO photos are allowed on the casino floor. The reasons you'll get will vary from casino to casino but they all amount to no. Several told me that it was a law imposed by the New Jersey Gaming Commission. Two told me that it was a privacy issue using the same line "what if you were on the casino floor with your mistress and a photo of the two of you together was published?"
Not having a mistress I explained as how I didn't see the problem - not to mention the fact that they encourage you to take photos in the lobby and other public parts of the hotel. I guess mistress photos are only damaging if you're at the craps table.
I fared no better approaching security directly to find out who could authorize a photo on the floor. I had in mind a photo of a blackjack dealer at an empty table with cards fanned out in front of them. After presenting my credentials and explaining that I was doing a travel article on Atlantic City I was told that it would have to be arranged by the casino. Several week's notice was required and that they would have to place notice boards at every entrance to the casino to inform anyone entering the floor that their photo might be taken. "It's a privacy issue you know." Hmmm. With a deadline approaching I decided that I really didn't need the shot that badly. C'est la vie.
Away from the casinos and the boardwalk Atlantic City is changing as well, the pace just isn't as fast. Many of the run down neighborhoods that characterized Atlantic City in the 70's are seeing the start of a renaissance. Clubs and bars dot the landscape to serve those wishing to venture outside the big hotels, and some of the better establishments from the old Atlantic City, such as the Irish Pub and the White House restaurant still survive.
Definitely worth a visit the little White House restaurant is a step back in time. There's usually a line out the door to get into this snug little eatery with it's Formica tables and long lunch counter. The reason is simple. They have the best Philly cheesesteaks and hoagies (subs) you've ever tasted. I know of guys who'll drive the hour from South Philly, home of the Philly cheesesteak, to get a White House cheesesteak. Given South Philly pride this says a LOT about the White House.
The walls are covered with signed pictures of famous folks, some recent, some faded with age, some are famous names that you'll recognize, some are entertainers who've faded from public memory. If you get to Atlantic City don't miss this place.
Atlantic City is a unique mix of old and new. It has a history and a character that make it a completely different destination than Las Vegas and a personality all it's own. Twenty five years after gambling came to this seashore city Atlantic City is finally figuring out what kind of gambling town it wants to be.
There are unique photo opportunities here, a lively night life, great food, and the casinos for those so inclined.
Out on the boardwalk if I squint my eyes a bit I can still see the Atlantic City of my youth, but I found that if I open them wider I see a city I like a lot more.
To a small kid the boardwalk was about as cool as it got
In Atlantic City the vast majority of tourists are day trippers
Luxury is found opposite the boardwalk
Don't even think about pulling your camera out on a casino floor!
Atlantic City is a unique mix of old and new
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing