Atlantic City’s origin story, in a billboard

    The DO AC campaign, a $20 million push to bring more visitors to Atlantic City, includes billboards from Boston to Washington, D.C. about Atlantic City.

    My favorite is on Callowhill St. between 5th and 6th in Philadelphia (Jersey folks, you pass it on that weird transition from I-95 South to the Ben Franklin Bridge). It reads “The city created to escape the city.”

    I like it because, in one short phrase, it gives Atlantic City’s origin story.

    Thomas Budd bought Absecon Island, which is today home to Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport, for four cents an acre in 1695. Not much changed over the next 150 years. In 1850, the island only had seven houses. By 1877, though, thanks to the construction of a railroad and promises by Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a mainland resident who marketed the island as a place where you could be cured of any ailment by fresh ocean air, Atlantic City had become the getaway spot for working class Philadelphians. Round trip train tickets only cost $1.25, so for almost nothing, the working class could get out of the hot, humid city to the shore, which became known as Philadelphia’s lungs. 

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    By the turn of the 20th century, Atlantic City was the destination vacation spot, and not just because of the ocean. It was a release valve, whether that release came from seeing three first run movies in one day on a Boardwalk pier, or from one of Atlantic City’s other less legal draws of booze, broads and backroom gambling. Boardwalk Empire — both the non-fiction book and the fictional HBO show — explain that brilliantly. 

    That’s what Atlantic City is still trying to do: be that getaway destination, and one that relies less on the fact that it has gaming (because Pa., N.Y., Md. and Del. have that now), and once again on being on an island next to the Atlantic Ocean.

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