The Evil of Banality
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.