Growing up (and to this day), I was always a big board game fan. I played everything from Chutes & Ladders to Candyland to Hungry Hungry Hippos. And when we had 4-5 hours to kill, there was MONOPOLY! I had a love/hate relationship with that game. I liked the concept of trying to acquire the various 'properties', coveting BOARDWALK and PARK PLACE, and I got nervous attempting to avoid the game's pitfalls like "GO TO JAIL. GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL" or any of the other (often-negative) CHANCE cards on the board.
LET THE GAME BEGIN!
On a recent trip to New Jersey's southern-most tip, I learned for the first time that all of the 'properties' found in the original version of MONOPOLY are taken from actual streets in Atlantic City, otherwise known as "America's Playground". As I cruised down PACIFIC in search of street art (I'd heard of a recent festival), I began to find myself fondly remembering the more innocent time of my youth, when the worst thing that could happen was having to "TAKE THREE STEPS BACKWARD" or "PASS GO WITHOUT COLLECTING $200". As I walked, my quest for murals was intermingled with memories of playing the game with my brothers and sisters oh so many years ago. I passed one 'property' after the next: PENNSYLVANIA and NORTH CAROLINA (the greens), TENNESSEE and NEW YORK (the oranges), and KENTUCKY, ILLINOIS (now MLK) and INDIANA (the reds). It wasn't until I hit PARK PLACE that I veered off toward the beach and walked along the shop-strewn BOARDWALK, a Ferris wheel spinning slowly in the distance. And I began to wonder why? Why was MONOPOLY, which was created in 1930s, based in this little town in South Jersey? Turns out, it had a lot to do with the same nostalgia I was feeling.
Actual streets in Atlantic City that became the color-coded 'properties' in MONOPOLY
SO, WHY ATLANTIC CITY OF ALL PLACES?
Charles Darrow, credited with the creation of MONOPOLY, was a heating and engineering equipment salesman who lost his job during the Great Depression in 1929. After that, he decided to make a handmade version of what was then called "The Landlords Game", which he sold to close friends. Darrow had fond memories of childhood vacations to the beach-side resort town of Atlantic City and decided to use the names of the town's streets in his game. So, in 1933, marketed as MONOPOLY, he patented his 'invention' and sold it to a broader audience. Today, there are 1144 versions of the game, making it something of a 'monopoly' in the boardgames world. (See what I did there?)
THE ATLANTIC CITY OF TODAY
Unfortunately, unlike the great success of Darrow's board game, the town which inspired the game has had a history more akin to a roller coaster of financial ups and downs. The end of World War II marked the first collapse of Atlantic City's economy. The decrease in travel by train and the increase in travel by private vehicles meant vacationers from nearby Philadelphia and New York could now choose destinations further afield and could come and go as they pleased rather than staying a week at a time based on train schedules.
In addition, following WWII, many city-dwellers now moved to the suburbs. And with that came other luxuries like air-conditioning and private pools, making it less desirable to take a trip to Atlantic City only to have the same comforts as home. Then came air travel, a further blow to the interest of this small resort town as a travel destination, when places like Miami and Mexico became a viable option.
By the 1960s, resorts and hotels were closing their doors or being demolished. Unfortunately, new businesses weren't coming in to take their place. The town had to figure out something to save itself from becoming a ghost town.
In 1970, a glimmer of hope arrived when New Jersey voters chose to put their money on legalizing gambling, starting off with a lottery, and subsequently, casinos. The latter failed to pass at the state level so it was re-introduced for Atlantic City only, and the first casino opened in 1978, Resorts International. At a time when legal casinos only operated on the other side of the country, this was a potential boon to the economy. And it certainly was, for a while.
Resorts International, the first casino to be built in Atlantic City, still stands today
As time went on, casinos began to pop up closer and closer to Atlantic City, offering more competition to the gambling that was now central to their livelihood. Two casinos opened in Connecticut in the 1990s, which were then followed by Native American tribal communities opening their own enterprises not far from South Jersey. As more gambling spots opened, Atlantic City's casinos suffered losses that they ultimately couldn't recover from, with 6 casinos closing between 1999 and 2014.
At it's worst, unemployment hit rock bottom at about 14%. It now sits right around 8%. (about double the national average)
IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR ATLANTIC CITY?
The small resort town still has a lot to offer. The beach continues to be beautiful (despite the damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012), and the local waters are a haven for wildlife. It has world-class fishing and a great boardwalk for strolling and watching the waves crash along the coastline. It deserves another chance to shine, as it had in the Golden Era. Thankfully, there are people who are working hard to make this happen.
One such group is 48 Blocks AC, and their focus has been to build community through the arts on a local level and to create some pretty wonderful murals which will hopefully be yet another draw for potential vacationers or street art enthusiasts. I, for one, went to Atlantic City for that very reason.
I'm happy to show you some of the work from this year's docket of talented muralists, which includes two New York City artists (BK Foxx and Denton Burrows), as well as Felipe Ortiz (see our SOLD story on the mural festivals in Lynn and Salem, Massachusetts), Glenn Taylor, Mark Chu and Charles Barbin. This year they decided to focus on quality over quantity, with five beautiful walls to add to the landscape.
One thing about Atlantic City is that unless you arrived by car, plan on doing a bit of walking to track down the art that has been put up in the streets. And with all of that walking, you are going to need some sustenance. I've got you covered with a phenomenal spot that was recommended to me and definitely did not disappoint: El Rincon del Sabor! They even have some art on the outside of their restaurant, work by Amor Bautista.
I ordered the Tacos Mixtos which had four different tacos: barbacoa, pollo, bistek and tripas. I was a little worried about the tripe, but they were all delicious. Washed down with a glass of tamarind agua fresca and I was ready to take in all the sights of Atlantic City!
CHECK OUT THE REST OF THE ART!
In addition to the latest walls, the 48 Blocks AC project has installed quite a bit of public art over the past few years, over 35 murals since 2017! Here are some of the ones you can find around town. And, thankfully, they have even put together a convenient interactive map to make it easy for you to find them all.
'Find Your Way' by Bernie McCabe, 'Gà' by Mark Chu, 'Bright Skies' by Manuela Guillén, 'Mind Power' by Luz Sanchez and Marcus Hughes, 'Universal Love' by Edwin Rivera, 'Jelly Fish' by Charles Barbin, 'We Call It Home' by Air Rat, 'Free For All Wall" by Casey B, and 'Abstract Street Art' by Luv One
Map of mural locations to be found in Atlantic City
WHY NOT GAMBLE ON ATLANTIC CITY?
So, whether you are looking for a beachside vacation, hoping for some board game nostalgia while checking out the beautiful public art, or if you want to take in a bit of gambling at one of the many casinos, there is definitely something for everyone... in 'America's Playground'.
So, what are you waiting for? Atlantic City is calling!