Sunday, July 14, 2013

Atlantic City Minus the Glitz and Glamour

Part of my collection of non-casino-related Atlantic City brochures

 Atlantic City is not a place I go often, and I seem to have a talent for not going to casinos. Yesterday, as I attended a writing workshop there, I recalled other times I visited this city without gambling or glitzy shows on my mind.

Boardwalk Hall (formerly known as Convention Hall)
 Way back in my college days, our marching band accompanied the Temple University football team to an indoor game at Convention Hall (now called Boardwalk Hall).
Boardwalk Hall Detail
This was a special event, probably designed to please big donors. Gambling in AC was still a sparkly new idea. Before we arrived my mind stretched to imagine what football played indoors would look like. Once the game started and appeared much like any outdoor game I had attended, my mind became preoccupied with imagining that this was the same space that hosted the Miss America Pageant for decades. I remember missing the beach so much that  night that I snuck out of the hall with my friend, clarinets in hand, just to touch the beach and get sand between my fingers.

A few years back I received a writing assignment from a magazine. They wanted  an article about Atlantic City activities and destinations that did not involve gambling and nightlife. That was easy for me: I covered the new outlet shopping center called The Walk, fancy boutique shopping on shopping mall piers, and boardwalk strolling on the famous four-mile Boardwalk. I reminded readers that you don't even have to walk the boards, you can hire a three-wheeled rolling chair usually pushed by an ambitious young person anxious to make some dollars. Atlantic City's beach is still there, of course, even though it is overshadowed by some very tall, well lit, modern buildings.

Have you heard of the White House Sub Shop?
This world-famous restaurant is just down the street from yesterday's writing conference. Its walls are covered by autographed 8x10 photographs of famous people who have dined there. We sat under Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and a cluster of former Miss Americas. The steak sandwiches are remarkable, partly because of the ultra-fresh rolls, baked daily at a bakery across the street. This piece of authentic Atlantic City is a cool place to go for lunch, and lines around the block of hungry diners are legendary.

Then there's the Absecon Lighthouse, a grassy oasis in the city just a few blocks from the casino culture. Absecon is the name of the island on which the city sits, and also the inlet just to the north. The lighthouse is New Jersey's tallest with 228 steps. It was built in 1857 and contained a first-order Fresnel lens, the most powerful of the time. We visited Absecon Lighthouse on a tour of New Jersey's eleven lighthouses for an article I have been working on for years. (It's a slow-burn inspiration.)

St. Michael's Catholic Church (left) and Dante Hall (right)
That writing workshop yesterday took place in Dante Hall, a smart little building that used to serve as a parish hall for the adjacent St. Michael's Catholic Church, and a community theater. Here's the connection: Dante Hall is administered by Richard Stockton College of NJ with which Murphy Writing Seminars, LLC, partners. Little bas-relief busts of Dante appear throughout the building next to doorways, an appropriate inspiration for writers swimming in words for a day. This day was called
the Shore Thing Writing Getaway. We talked about writing and received prompts from Peter Murphy that encouraged us to surprised ourselves with our writing. I sat on the Boardwalk to write about an extraordinary day, required to incorporate fortune cookie fortunes. (I'm collecting those now, so don't throw them away!) These prompts were tough, and my results were not my best writing. My best work of the day was a short piece about a lie. I've been lucky (or naive) and couldn't think of many lies I have been told, but one stood out about a person who lied to me for years about his birth date. Not important, maybe, but for years I bought him milestone birthday cards one year too late. The nice essay was worth the deception, I suppose.

Contemporary AC is more than just casinos and nightlife just as the Prohibition-Era Atlantic City of my favorite show Boardwalk Empire had more to offer than gangsters and Speakeasies! My next Atlantic City excursion will probably be to visit a destination visited for over a hundred years by gangsters, flappers, real estate moguls and ordinary folks: Lucy the Elephant in nearby Margate, built in 1881!

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