walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Boardwalk of Dreams_, Bryant Simon (kindle)

Subtitled: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America

Simon is readable, and his subject matter is inherently interesting. The story he tells is straightforward: Atlantic City rose, fell and sorta rose again as a tourist destination, but always in a highly problematic way that paralleled urban areas around the nation. He describes the physical layout of the small city on an island in detail, laying the groundwork for describing how that physical space changed as a result of individual choices and public policy. He also describes the resort area and the attractions in the resort area, again in enough detail that he can clearly convey how the shape of the resort area changed over time, and how the attractions in the resort area changed as well.

Simon draws an explicit, and usefully detailed comparison between the attractions on and around the Boardwalk and Disneyland (and, to a less extent, refers to DisneyWorld as well). This comparison exists primarily to draw a parallel to suburbanization and white flight in cities across America as legal structures of exclusion were replaced by more complex physical segregation. When Simon arrives at the era of casinos, he draws an explicit, but much less usefully detailed comparison to developments in Las Vegas. Simon also refers to, but provides no detailed analysis, of the much further flung vacation destinations that took traffic from Atlantic City.

Simon is at his best when he's describing vibrant neighborhoods just before public policy is about to annihilate them: Ducktown's aging Italian residents and New York Avenue's gay street party scene just before the city and state decided to legalize gambling in Atlantic City. He does a nice job skewering the New Urbanist rebuild, as well, comparing it to a more ethnically diverse neighborhood with older buildings and activity on the street other than cars.

It's a good book, but it suffers from a problem beautifully captured in something I'm reading now.

"This book...aims to avoid presenting tourist destinations and resorts as stage sets for tourist fantasies. It will also eschew the tendency to perceive all tourists as undifferentiated agents of destruction, while remaining mindful of the ambivalent consequences of tourism." I sort of wish Simon had had a little bit more of that perspective. He has some of it -- maybe he came in as well-meaning as this quote from _The Frontier of Leisure_. His perspective is very broad, which is admirable, and every book suffers (and benefits) from choices in scope -- that's just unavoidable.

But public policy in Simon's hands is blunt and stupid, mostly because it is bigoted. He doesn't use any of those words, but the point is hard to miss. And while in retrospect, Atlantic City land use decisions were quite spectacularly dumb on the downward path, and fantastically destructive of its history on its sorta recovery, they had a problem that was never, ever mentioned by Simon. Atlantic City was the wrong size. It was too big to be small, and too small to be big, and they never had a wealthy, stable population as any fraction of its makeup. Small towns can get away with stupid. Big cities have a persistence all their own, an inertia hard to move quickly up or down. And rich people tend to make sure that some enclave of their own is protected when everything else goes to shit. Atlantic City was sort of like a rural area that turned out to have mineral wealth, or a place in the middle of other places that armies repeatedly run over. It is not clear to me how much say Atlantic City has ever had in its own destiny.

Transport issues are mentioned occasionally; I'd have been happier if more time had been spent on them. I felt like the railroad-rich people with cars-everyone has cars-roads widened transitions were all important and somewhat neglected.

However, do not let these concerns in any way slow you down from reading this. It's a ton of fun, and you'll learn a lot. I'm still not sure I ever want to go to Atlantic City, but at least I'll pay a little more attention to it now.
Tags: book review, history
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