Beyond Buildings

 

The Evil of Banality

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Boardwalk

 

America can’t even do tacky right anymore. That became evident to me last week when I spent a few hours in Atlantic City, but it only confirmed to me what I think has been evident for at least a decade: the sanitization and appropriation of what used to be the exuberance of the underclass has proven unstoppable. Times Square is the most obvious example, with its sex workers and neon signs for cheap eats and sleazy shows replaced by stock tickers and Disney extravaganzas. In Las Vegas, I have over the last two decades watched not only the disappearance of the gimcrackery old hotels and their immense bursts of colored lights that hid their basic banality, but even the replacement of the original sign for Treasure Island, which at least was a sculpture that made reference to outlaw culture, with a generic animated reader board.  The Strip has given way to City Center, a facsimile of an upscale Edge City. Route 66 has sprawled into endless chain restaurants, big box retail and endless acres of beige.

In Atlantic City, the Steel Pier is now a multilevel shopping mall with the same stores you find in all the shopping malls on the other side of the Pine Barrens. The hawkers are licensed. The Boardwalk is immaculate and patrolled by cops on electric scooters. Instead of salt-water taffy you buy Starbucks coffee. Even the Convention Center, or Boardwalk Hall, a magnificent Art Deco container for boxing matches and pageants, is now an almost unused hockey rink with metal and glass storefronts jammed behind its stone façade.


The boardwalk always had a basic problem: it is one-sided. As any retail expert will tell you, it is very difficult to keep people moving not only in one direction, but also back and forth, when only one side holds their interest, while on the other nothing but sand and the always chilly Atlantic Ocean beckons. It used to be that there were so many stalls and hawkers that the actual buildings were mostly an afterthought. The typical beach scene came from the confusion of temporary and often movable bits and pieces, but also from such spectacles as the human cannonball. Now boardwalks feel empty (granted, I was there on a sunny afternoon after Labor Day), but, more than that, the monotony of the large hotels that dominate the promenade’s central area deaden any sense of life. The Bally and its kin are so atrocious, so badly scaled and faced, that just the memory of them makes me shudder.


Blaring music and advertisements, signs for expensive shows and goods, and the endless sameness of the boardwalk itself create an environment without any sense of differentiation, complexity or, what is most important, uncomfortable and unknowable edges. You see it all, it all overwhelms you, you are told where to go, and only the absence of cars makes it all strange. Could this really be the same place celebrated in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, whose scrumptious evocation of the boardwalk’s early and glory days just premiered?



I know it is romantic and elitist to miss the ticky-tackiness of such space, but I also know that, over the years, it was exactly the demands of marginal (both economically, socially, and spatially) marginal spaces that produced the images, forms, and spaces that have inspired us, that have given us freedom to experiment, and that have created bridges between elite culture and the realities most of us live. Unless we continue to invent, nurture, and make room for what the Atlantic City boardwalk used to be, we are doomed as a culture and a society.

 

 
 

Comments (7 Total)

  • Posted by: RobertRobert | Time: 12:55 AM Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    Hi Aaron. I can't imagine ever bothering to visit the Boardwalk today. Nothing bubbling up from below. Robert Campbell

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:49 PM Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    Oh Yes due to one boardwalk being less tacky, we are doomed, doomed I tell you!!! Where is a decent editor to counteract this nonsense.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:43 PM Monday, September 27, 2010

    Ahhh yes, it still smells like the Jersey Shore, but it doesn't look or "feel" like the old Jersey shore. I treasure my faded photo of Uncle Pete and Daddy in white straw hats and Panama suits, grinning from their seats in the wicker "hacks" as they were transported up and down the original boardwalk in the nineteen twenties. Those were the good old days of divergent shops and entertainment stalls!!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:42 PM Monday, September 27, 2010

    Ahhh yes, it still smells like the Jersey Shore, but it doesn't look or "feel" like the old Jersey shore. I treasure my faded photo of Uncle Pete and Daddy in white straw hats and Panama suits, grinning from their seats in the wicker "hacks" as they were transported up and down the original boardwalk in the nineteen twenties. Those were the good old days of divergent shops and entertainment stalls!!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:00 AM Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    I grew up in New Jersey during the 60's and have many fond memories of walking the Atlantic City boardwalk with my parents. There was such a wonderful sense of life and excitement. The smells, sounds, and sights were a delight. A few years ago while visiting my parents, who now live in a NJ retirement community and feeding grounds for the casinos, we took a day-trip to Atlantic City. Your article brought back the sadness I felt during that boardwalk stroll. The boardwalk had lost its character and had become a cold lifeless space. The majority of the people were sitting in large windowless rooms, mindlessly pushing the buttons on the endless rows of slot machines.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:00 AM Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    Check out this video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkWdjDMgxww&feature=youtube_gdata All the best, Mario MARIO MADAYAG www.mariomadayag.com

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  • Posted by: Doug | Time: 10:20 PM Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    Aaron, I used to walk along the boardwalk (and under the boardwalk) about 50 years ago and I remember the ocean air and smells of food stands; cotton candy, pizza, salt water taffy and of course the people, all shapes and sizes, so beautiful...the casinos brought nothing to Atlantic City and did not fullfill their promise to rebuild the ghettos to the west of the boardwalk. The corrupt officials and casino owners did not have a clue about the character and fabric of the Steel Pier, only the busloads of tourists to bring into the casinos.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.