Atlantic City

 

 

Standing alone beneath the pier at twilight, the encroaching tide my only company, it was difficult not to imagine spying a bloated corpse, or soon becoming one. Skulking in the shadows of the pylons was the ideal setting for acts of senseless violence, where any evidence of the crime would be carried away by the carefree waters of the sea. I'd seen the TV show, I knew what happened if you crossed the kingpins of Atlantic City. Fortunately there were no bodies to stumble over and no assassins to rub me out, but neither could I find what I was searching for - the remains of perhaps the grandest street address ever served by the US Post Office: No. 1 Atlantic Ocean.

 

We all romanticise about our travels before we step foot out the front door. We daydream about the adventures we might have, about sights we'll see and who we might encounter along the way. If you're a fan of the TV show Boardwalk Empire, you might hope to take a rolling chair along Atlantic City's beachfront, peer through the windows of boutiques and take in a broadway show, stare out across the sea to fairground rides balanced on distant piers.

That very much remains the experience to be had today, except the world has moved on since the Roaring Twenties.  The show has prompted a deluge of fans to visit, some expecting to find a town preserved in amber, but instead of a colourful panorama of Victorian and Art Deco architecture, the legalisation of gambling in the 1970s means megalithic casinos tower above and flood the boardwalk with neon. Atlantic City has evolved, as all cities do, so what remains, if anything of Nucky Thompson's boardwalk empire?

Although it's now a condominium, the 18 story red-brick Ritz-Carlton Hotel built on Iowa Avenue still looks out across the ocean. Opened in 1921, it was the palatial residence of the real-life corrupt city treasurer Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson, as it is of his fictional counterpart played by Steve Buscemi. From the hotel's ninth floor, Johnson bribed his way through public office, ensuring Altantic City's bars and gentlemen's clubs never ran dry during Prohibition. A short walk away is the colossal Boardwalk Hall, built in 1926 and still home music and sporting events including the Atlantic City Rodeo. Johnson may have found himself admiring the ladies at the Miss America beauty pageant, which was founded in the city in 1921 and later hosted at Boardwalk Hall.

Nearby stands the pride of local businessman Captain John Young, Million Dollar Pier. Stretching over 500 metres into the sea, its extravagance and ornate design attracted movie stars and presidents who would dine at Young's marble villa perched at the pier's end. Its official address on the US postal service route - No. 1 Atlantic Ocean. The pier changed hands several times, fires claimed parts of the original structure and now in its place stands an upscale shopping mall with lavish restaurants and luxury brands. Beneath the pier at the water's edge, any remains of Young's million dollar dream are lost to the waters.

One of the more recognisable stores seen in Boardwalk Empire is Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy, which was first produced and sold in Atlantic City in the late 19th century. The original store and factory are still open, the oldest continuously operating business in the city; Fralinger's merged with a competitor and is now called James, but gift boxes of Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy sell in their thousands and a series of black and white photographs inside the store lead visitors through its history. There's precious little else on the boardwalk left from the era, save for the boardwalk itself. Its path has shifted as a century of landfill and tides crafted the shoreline of Absecon Island (Atlantic City is on a barrier island separate from the mainland) but it's been a permanent fixture on the seafront since 1870; the rolling chairs still offer visitors a leisurely tour along its length, too.

Step back from the ocean and there are other remnants of an earlier age. Absecon Lighthouse was built in 1857 and is the third tallest in the United States - during the days of Prohibition it punctured the skyline and ensured incoming cargoes of illicit booze arrived safely. The lighthouse no longer provides navigational aid for shipping but is lit every night and offers views stretching across the island. On Pacific Avenue stand St. Nicholas of Tolentine Roman Catholic Church and the First Presbyterian Church which would have welcomed locals and visitors alike to prayer, as they still do today. At the intersection of Pacific Avenue and Atlantic Avenue is the Knife and Fork Inn where Nucky Johnson was a regular to dinner. It began life as an exclusive gentleman's club; ladies of discretion waited on the second floor for the rich and powerful to summon them, while the third and fourth floors witnessed events of ill-repute. The family that now owns the Knife and Fork Inn opened Dock's Oyster House in 1897, the second oldest business in town and another restaurant noted for its fine dining.

Finally, the most bizarre throwback is to be found further west in Margate, once South Atlantic City. Lucy the Elephant was built in the late 19th century by James Lafferty, one of three elephant shaped buildings constructed at sites along along the US East Coast (including the famous Elephant Hotel on New York's Coney Island). Standing six stories tall, its interior was a bar during the 1920s; folklore says the lanterns in its eyes would change colour from green to red to warn smugglers if it was safe to dock.

Many of the buildings have been razed, but everything Atlantic City was in terms of spirit is there to enjoy. Like the Roaring Twenties you're free to be yourself, or pretend to be somebody else and become lost in revelry and excess. Nucky Johnson's legacy, if not his empire still lives on.

 

 



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

DC museums

 



David Whitley braves an all day downpour to go and indulge his geek tendencies in Washington DC

And if there’s a better collection of museums, monuments and downright fascinating stuff anywhere in the world, he’d like to see it. It took a single look out of the window for my heart to sink. It was pelting it down in almost Biblical proportions, and the only pedestrians I could see were fighting a losing battle with thoroughly inadequate umbrellas
 

It was the sort of day that you just want to write off, staying in the hotel and developing an unhealthy fascination with cable TV. Unfortunately, my time in Washington DC was somewhat limited, and I really had no choice but go out there and brave the elements. Even if the Washington Monument did look like the main mast of a giant shipwreck, slowly sinking into a storm-ravaged sea.

Mercifully, there can be few better cities in the world for indoor attractions. Washington is geek heaven, and even people who really don’t like museums can probably find half a dozen that they’re absolutely fascinated by. Many of these are strung out along the National Mall, a 1.9 mile stretch of grassland that includes roughly 4,000 attractions that would be the showpiece highlight of any other city. The obvious big hitters are the Capitol Building at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other and the hilariously phallic Washington Memorial in the middle. 

But flanking the wide open space in the middle are a series of pompously self-important buildings, all devoted to a theme, ranging from natural history to American Indians and African Art. Amazingly, almost all of them are free to enter as well.

So, with the National Mall looking more like the National Boating Lake, I decided to make myself a willing sacrifice on this altar of worthiness. And you know what, there’s something to be said for losing yourself in a bombardment of information and Very Cool Stuff for a day. 

That’s Very Cool Stuff in a never-kissed-a-girl-and-unlikely-to way, incidentally. I’m not going to try and fight the “museums are sexy” battle here – but you can’t do sexy all the time, can you? Sometimes, it’s OK to settle for the loving embrace of an exhibition about a man who paints portraits using fruit (National Gallery of Art) or the glass of wine and game of Scrabble on the sofa that is the history of Nylon. The latter can be found in the National Museum of American History which, as all of these museums are, is enormous and covers far too much for your tiny mind to take in.

The best bit is probably the surprisingly stirring story of the American national anthem, which Americans seem to treat as a minor deity. Analysed, it’s a load of mawkish nonsense about a man who saw a big flag from a boat in 1814. What is incredible is that said Star-Spangled Banner still exists in a special protected chamber. And, to say it was handmade by one woman from Baltimore, it is absolutely gigantic.

But the daddy of the Mall’s museums has to be the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Hundreds of the exhibits in here would be worthy of a museum devoted to themselves elsewhere. You’re bombarded with space rockets spanning three floors, landing modules from the Apollo missions, space suits worn by Neil Armstrong and the get-up used for the first ever space walk.

That’s before you even get onto closer-to-home achievements.  We have the Kevlar ‘basket’ from the Breitling Orbiter 3 (the first balloon to fly non-stop around the world), the first plane to fly non-stop across the Atlantic and – amazingly – the Wright Flyer. For the uninitiated, this was the plane used by the Wright Brothers for the first ever powered flight in 1903. The simple wood and fabric construction in the forerunner of the jumbo jets that we take for granted nowadays; as a token of history, it is virtually unsurpassable.

This love letter to Washington’s museums could go on for months. For anyone of an even vaguely nerdy persuasion, the museums of the National Mall are rainy day nirvana. All they need now is a covered walkway between them…

Photos here

 

DC

 

David Whitley chats to an Australian bar owner, and discovers that there’s far more to Washington DC than first meets the eye.

 

If you fly into Washington, try and tick off the highlights and then leave within a couple of days, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s not much more to it than showpiece monuments and a rather unfulfilling downtown area. And it’s true that this is one major part of Washington. The museums and memorials around the National Mall are what a lot of people come for, and if you don’t venture too far afield from there, you’ll be surrounded by suit-clad types intent on showing how big their wallets/ balls are in hugely expensive be-seen steakhouses.

 

But once you get beyond the area where it’s all about impressing dignitaries, interns and monument-loving visitors, the city starts to get a whole lot more interesting. I spent my second evening in the city in a small bar in the up-and-coming district of Columbia Heights. You’d really have to know Room 11 was there and target it directly, as there’s no way you’d accidentally stumble across it.

 

It’s the sort of place that Washington is, quietly, starting to do well. It doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s all about the people you talk to rather than the people who see you there, and it shows that this city can be cool without having powerdress and surround yourself with opulent marble.

 

Over an enormous glass of wine (“we don’t believe in micropouring...”) I end up chatting with Ben Gilligan. His accent is more east coast Australia than east coast US – unsurprising, given that he grew up in Brisbane – and the conversation provides a classic lesson. It’s easy enough to get an idea of a city by walking around it and looking at things, but to really delve into it and begin to understand how it all holds together, you’ve got to talk to people. It’s the faultlines that make Washington fascinating. The reason the capital was built here was because it is where the north meets the south. During the American Civil War, the two sides could stare at each other in their own territory across the Potomac River. The city’s character owes as much to Atlanta and Memphis as it does to New York and Boston.

 

Race matters too. Washington is a majority African American city and the contrasts between the upmarket northwest and much poorer south-east are stark.  It’s the most staunchly democratic city in the country – over 90% voted for Barack Obama – but there are still major political divisions. In the recent Democratic primary for the mayoral election (essentially the mayoral election given that no other party has a chance), incumbent Adrian Fenty lost, even though he won in 58 of the 61 majority white areas. He won just 10 of the 118 majority black areas. If Americans try and tell you there’s no racial divide in their country, the evidence suggests otherwise.

 

But in Washington, the most interesting areas are where the ‘white’ half and ‘black’ half of the city lap at each others’ shores. U Street is the classic example – it was the scene of riots in the 1960s, but now there’s a relatively easy coexistence between people of all races and incomes. This is spreading north to Columbia Heights, and to little pockets such as H Street in traditional no-go areas.

 

As Ben says, “Washington is finally getting little enclaves that are starting to grow – it’s an unpretentious version of the New York thing where a lot of people rarely leave their home area.” There’s still crime in Columbia Heights, but three years ago, a place like Room 11 would have never taken off here.

 

“Getting Obama in has eased a bit of the tension in the city,” says Ben. “It’s still a tense city, though – and that’s what makes it exciting.”

 

Tense, exciting, whatever you want to call it – Washington is certainly a lot more interesting than it first appears. Step beyond the Mall, explore the borderline neighbourhoods that get the tag “new DC” and you uncover a city you just want to know more about. Most of all, though, it’s a great lesson – it’s good to talk.

 

 

Details: Room 11 (Room11DC.com) can be found at 3234 11th St. NW in Columbia Heights. David stayed at the Dupont Hotel (Doylecollection.com) and W Hotel (Starwoodhotels.com/whotels).

 

Museumed out



David Whitley tries to cram too much in, then tries to work out whether we really regret not seeing things 

The Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress is utterly beautiful inside. It’s covered with paintings, murals and sculptures that should make the heart sing.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that because my eyes had glazed over. I felt slightly faint, my whole body was weary and I was desperately craving a nice sit down and a beer.

That, of course, is exactly what I should have gone for. On the first full day in Washington DC since I’d flown in, I’d already covered a fairly impressive amount. I’d walked the length of the National Mall, I’d been on a walking tour of many of the big sights, I’d gone around the Capitol Building and I’d parked myself inside the House of Representatives.

It’s OK to be flagging at the end of all that. The natural, sensible thing to have done would have been to call it a day, find a bar and slump at it. Or, in the world of things that make sense, I’d have gone back to my hotel room for an hour or so’s recharging the batteries.

But the idea of seeing the world’s biggest library spurred me to a last kick off energy. I’d regret not seeing it, I was fairly certain.

Well, I’m glad I did see it. But I wish I’d come back another time. I was, to use the technical term, utterly museumed-out.

This isn’t a rare phenomenon. It can happen to all of us when we look at how much we want to do in a destination and how much time we’ve got to do it in. The temptation is always there to try and push beyond the tiredness barrier to fit it all in. It can apply to single museums too – the urge is to see absolutely everything in it, even if by doing so you collapse in a weeping heap by the end.

There comes a time when nothing more will go in. It’s like over-revising for exams, of over-filling a bath. Everything that goes in forces an equal amount out, creating nothing more than a big mess.

What is achieved by pushing yourself to overflow like this? Very little other than saying you’ve done or seen something. That something won’t have been particularly memorable or even, in many circumstances, enjoyable. And if that’s the case, would it have been best not to do it?

I think my comparison point would be Cape Town. There was a lot I did there that I enjoyed immensely. There was also a lot that I didn’t have time to squeeze in – I didn’t go to the Cape of Good Hope, I didn’t get to the top of Table Mountain, I didn’t get to Robben Island. How do I feel about that? If I’m honest, it’s not regret. It’s something different – perhaps anticipation. It’s a city that I’m really excited about the prospect of going back to. I don’t know when that’ll be – but until that time, it’ll always be a city that I remember very fondly, where the idea of a repeat visit fills me with excitement.

That’s a feeling I should remember when charging round trying to complete the checklist. Surely it’s better to spend 90 minutes looking at part of a museum, or tackling two attractions a day well rather than trying to squeeze in the third, then feel like I want to come back?


Newseum



David Whitley finds the experience of going round a museum about his own profession both odd and – eventually – challenging 

A look through the newspapers from across the United States is rather illuminating. The front page of the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska features the tragic tale of two wolves being killed in the Denali National Park. The Hartford Courant in Connecticut has “Berry Good News” – fruit crops are likely to be a week to ten days early this year.

In Indianapolis, residents are being encouraged to protect their ears ahead of the Indy 500, whilst in Nebraska a shortage of helium is causing problems for party decorators.

The New York Post runs with the tale of a woman who was fired for having big breasts, whilst the Oklahoman celebrates a basketball victory before noting in a subheading “At least eight people shot after game”.

If ever you want an insight into how diverse the US is, a stroll along the front of the Newseum in Washington DC should do the trick. There’s one front page for every state, put up every day. And there’s a staggering lack of agreement on what the big stories are.

With Washington having so many free museums, it’s tempting to ignore the ones that you have to pay to get into. The Newseum is arguably the best of the non-free ones (even at an eye-watering $23.27 to get in). It’s an occasionally too po-faced exploration of the world of journalism, which charts print, broadcast and online media throughout the years. There’s also a memorial to journalists killed in action and numerous special exhibits ranging from election coverage to the relationship between the FBI and the media.

The unquestioned highlight, for me, is the collection of Pulitzer-prize winning photographs. Most of them are just extraordinary, managing to tell a complex story or invoke powerful emotions in just one shot.

But there’s something odd about going round a museum devoted to your profession. I found myself flitting past sections, thinking: “Yeah, yeah. I know all that.” And I’m sure that wouldn’t be the reaction for most visitors. I wonder if dentists go round a museum of dentistry wishing that they were learning something new? Or whether chocolatiers go round a museum of chocolate thinking that the whole experience clearly isn’t for them?

The most enjoyable parts of the experience are interactive – pretending to be a TV reporter reading from an autocue script, a race against time to discover the real story behind a fire at a circus, that sort of thing.  But the most challenging – and illuminating – section of the Newseum concentrates on ethics.

On the screens, you’re presented with ethical dilemmas such as pretending to be crazy to get into an asylum and expose practices there, or taking weapons past checkpoints to test airport security flaws. The interesting thing is that the views of the public have been collated against those of professional journalists. For the most part, there is broad agreement on what’s right and what’s wrong, but one question was particularly striking.

You’re shown an image of a famine-ridden child crawling along the ground, with a vulture behind it. The question is, upon seeing this, do you take the photograph or help the child? My reaction was almost instantaneous – you’ve been sent to cover the famine, the vulture isn’t actually going to attack the child, and there’s very little I can do to help him anyway. I’d take the photo and then, after getting the right photo, I’d take a look around to see if there was anything I could do to help the child. 72% of journalists said they’d do the same. The public? Just 28%.

That’s the most jarring one, but there were also divergences on sneaking a camera into an execution chamber to watch someone dying in the electric chair. The problem there was a straight yes or no question. I’d have approved of sneaking the camera in, but not necessarily run the resulting photographs. Again, the public seemed far more aghast at the idea than the journalists.

It seems the front pages aren’t the only places to find wildly divergent views of what’s important…