Study Guide

Boardwalk Empire Visions of Atlantic City

By Nelson Johnson

Visions of Atlantic City

Before the American colonists arrived, Absegami was a campground for the Native Americans who came to avoid the summer heat. (1.7)

As it turns out, Atlantic City has always been a popular vacation spot. As with pretty much everywhere else in the United States, the land was purchased from Native Americans for next to nothing. It might not be pretty, but it's the truth.

Pitney's dream was to build a "city by the sea." He tried selling his idea by touting the healing powers of salt water and sea air. (1.12)

Atlantic City was founded on snake oil. While there might be some truth behind the so-called "healing powers" of the ocean, it's clear that Pitney is simply trying to convince the world that Atlantic City is a good idea. Here's the crazy part, though: It just might work.

Summer 1858 saw a plague of insects that nearly closed the resort down. Greenhead flies, gnats, and mosquitoes tormented the visitors all summer long. (1.52)

It isn't all fun and games in Atlantic City. Although it eventually grows into a sprawling resort, the city begins its life as a backwoods town with zero modern amenities. The beautiful natural environment might be easy on the eyes, but don't let that fool you—this island is as untamed as they come.

"Atlantic City is an eighth wonder of the world. It is overwhelming in its crudeness—barbaric, hideous, and magnificent. There is something colossal about its vulgarity." (2.30)

This certainly hits the nail on the head. As it grows, Atlantic City realizes that going over-the-top is the best way to please the masses. You have to remember, however, that the city isn't courting wealthy tourists; they're going after the middle and working classes. For these customers, being classy is less important than making a spectacle.

When it came to negative news articles about their town, the prevailing attitude among Atlantic City's politicians was always, "Newspaper is what you wrap fish in." (4.18)

The outside world has long been critical of Atlantic City's existence, but this doesn't bum Atlantic City natives out. Instead it creates a stronger sense of community, fostering a classic us against them mentality. Of course the city's government is as corrupt as they come, but residents have come to expect this.

Conceived and created as resort […] Atlantic City and its residents had no qualms about "ripping off" an out-of-towner. (5.87)

And why should they? Atlantic City was founded with the sole mission of convincing outsiders to fork over their hard-earned money—it's practically written into the city charter. For better or worse, that's the way things work in this seaside town.

Atlantic City's residents didn't care that their government was dishonest. What mattered was that the government, through the ward politicians, responded to their needs. (7.88)

At a certain point, residents stop caring about the city's widespread corruption. After all, the leaders might be corrupt, but at least they do their part to build up the community. In a way, this corrupt political machine actually forces ward leaders to respond to citizens' needs, as everything could crumble to pieces if the party loses popular support.

By 1974 Atlantic City was one with Rita—a broken-down old whore scratching for customers. (9.4)

The second half of the 21st century is a rough one for Atlantic City. With Prohibition over, the local Republican Party dismantled, and record low numbers of tourists, all of the town's lifelines have been cut.

The unexpected success of Atlantic City's first casino was like an explosion. It sent out shock waves that stirred interest across the nation. (11.35)

In a moment, everything changes. Although gambling has been an integral part of Atlantic City's economy for, well, forever, legalized casinos represent a brave new world. What's more, this is the first time in a long time that people are talking about Atlantic City in a positive light.

Jonathan Pitney's beach village remains an experiment in social planning grounded in tourism. (12.64)

At the time of Boardwalk Empire's publication, Atlantic City was in the midst of a tourism-fueled upswing. Just a few years later, however, it was right back down in the economic pits. That's just how things go in good old Atlantic City.