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People & Events: Atlantic City

Atlantic CityAbsecon Island, where Atlantic City was built, was known to the Lenni Lenape Indians as Absegami, or "Little Sea Water." In 1852 a group of New Jersey businessmen, anxious to develop the shoreline, received a railroad charter from Camden to Atlantic City. Engineer Richard Osborne named and designed Atlantic City. Since it was the shortest distance between Philadelphia and the sea, Atlantic City grew quickly as a resort town.

By the 1870s, a boardwalk had been added, providing more people with access to the sea. The city boasted a prototype rollercoaster by the late 1880s. In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, middle and working class Philadephians, and soon others from up and down the East Coast, would come to play by the seaside. Vendors hawked their wares. James' Saltwater Taffy became "Famous the World Over." Mechanical marvels took tourists on daring rides that made their stomachs turn. Children rode carousels, and families dined in seaside cafes. Concerts were held on the sand every evening and the many hotels up and down the shore held gala dances.

Atlantic City seemed to have developed two personalities. On the one hand, the resort was promoted as a restful and wholesome vacation spot, offering sun and surf. On the other hand, tourists reveled in the boisterous atmosphere spawned by a festival of midways, numerous amusement piers (such as the one H.J. Heinz purchased to popularize his 57 varieties of pickles), and a selection of rollicking rides. Atlantic City and its older sibling to the north, Coney Island, became extravagant playgrounds. In New Cosmopolis (1915), James Huneker wrote, "Atlantic City is not a treat for the introspective. It is all surface; it is hard, glittering, unspeakably cacophonous, and it never sleeps at all. Three days and you crave the comparative solitude of Broadway and 34th Street; a week and you may die of insomnia."

By the 1920s, Atlantic City also had become a pre-Broadway show tryout town, a practice that continued until 1935. With the entrance of show business, the resort increasingly attracted celebrities who added a special element of glamour. Even as the city declined as a Broadway showcase, the celebrities continued to grace the city in the decades to come. Over the years people like Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice, Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Guy Lombardo, Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, and many more would be spotted around town.

Its tourism and light-hearted revelry made Atlantic City the perfect spot to hold the first Miss America Pageant on September 8th, 1921. King Neptune himself greeted the beauties competing along the shore. At the time, Atlantic City was known as one of the premier spots to market to a national audience. For years, the Underwood Company attracted large crowds to its "World's Largest Typewriter" at the Garden Pier. In 1932 Goodyear had a truck haul a 12-foot tall rubber tire around the city as "the World's Largest Tire." At night, along the boardwalk and around the city, thousands of light bulbs lit up signs advertising everything from cigarettes to razor blades. What better place to present and package the nation's reigning ideal of femininity -- Miss America?

Though the economy hit hard times in the 1930s, people continued to flock to Atlantic City. It became even more well known when it became the city featured in the Depression-era hit game, Monopoly, where players handled large sums of money and strategized to buy the best property along the boardwalk. Today, Monopoly is still the most popular board game in the world.

With the advent of air travel to vacation spots like Florida and the Caribbean, the city hit a decline in the 1950s. The city was beset with economic problems for the next two decades. In 1976, the city legalized gambling and supported the construction of casinos. At the time gambling was brought in, proponents heralded it as a "unique tool of urban development." Casinos have brought tourism back to the city and created new jobs. At the same time, over the last three decades, the city has been faced with a decaying inner city and a high poverty rate, challenging citizens and casino owners to manage the city's day-to-day needs as well as it serves its tourist visitors.

Since 1921, the Miss America Pageant has chosen to stay in Atlantic City. Every September the pageant brings in celebrity hosts like Donny and Marie Osmond and Tony Danza. Next door to the Convention Center, one of the biggest trade shows for the beauty pageant industry sets up shop in a casino. Pageant hopefuls are seen everywhere on the boardwalk and in the hotels, adding to the excitement of being in Atlantic City.

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