Atlantic City

Atlantic City was the first tourist resort of its kind in the United States. Its history is marked by a number of major turning points (French tourism research group Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes (MIT), 2005) and it has become one of the most famous tourist spots on the northeastern coast of the United States (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. The waterfront in Atlantic City, the line of casinos and hotels along the Boardwalk and the beach. In the background, the white Trump Plaza casino, now closed (photo by Philippe Violier on August 20, 2010).

A US invention

The invention of Atlantic City as a tourist destination occurred around the same time as similar developments on the coasts of Europe. The first hotel was built in 1853, confirming that it was part of a larger trend. Prior to this, tourism was primarily for the privileged and wealthy, but with the rise of industrial society, it became more accessible to the general public. This change was made possible through innovations such as printed guides, tour operators, and resorts (Tissot, 2000).

Dr Jonathan Pitney (Ill. 2), the founder of the health resort, partnered with Richard Osborne, a civil engineer from Philadelphia, to design the resort with a grid layout (MIT Research Group, 2005: p. 75) (Ill. 3 and 4). The boardwalk, a wooden promenade, offers a view of the beach and the ocean beyond the broad strip of sand (III.5). These new features were also accompanied by the diversion of the railway, which was initially used to transport industrial goods. Atlantic City was connected to Philadelphia by train in 1854, and it took 21 and a half hours to travel between the two cities (MIT Research Group, 2005).

Ill. 2. Atlantic City expresses its gratitude to Jonathan Pitney, who is considered its “father” (photo by Philippe Violier, August 21, 2010). Ill.3. Richard Osborne is also recognised for his role in designing the grid layout of Atlantic City. He named the avenues parallel to the coast after the seven seas and the cross streets after the states of the Union (photo by Philippe Violier, August 21, 2010). Ill. 4.  The grid layout (photo by Philippe Violier on August 21, 2010) Ill.5. The boardwalk, with a broad strip of sand and a pier extending out over the ocean on the left and casinos facing the ocean on the right (photo by Philippe Violier on August 21, 2010).

A first turning point in 1929

After a peak during the roaring twenties, Atlantic City experienced a turning point as it was buffeted by changing tourism practices. Not long after the turn of the 20th century, cold water swimming and pale skin fell out of fashion in the United States and were replaced by the desire for a “warm ocean and a tan”, influenced in part by Jack London’s description of surfer Duke Kanahamoku’s brown body in The Cruise of the Snark, his account of crossing the Pacific. This shift led to a migration of “snowbirds” from Canada and the Northeast Megalopolis towards warmer climes. To attract tourists who had deserted the city, Atlantic City built the Boardwalk Hall, a gigantic convention centre (Ill.6) that could host a variety of events such as political conventions, sports events, and the all-new Miss America pageant.

Ill. 6. The huge ocean-front convention centre, built on the Boardwalk in 1928 (photo by Philippe Violier on August 21, 2010).

A second turning point in 1976

The bustling energy of Atlantic City began to fade. In the eponymous film directed by Louis Malle in 1980, the atmosphere was portrayed as quite grim. However, a new wave of support from the government helped to revitalise the city, which is something that is not as common in the United States as it is on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1976, the federal government gave the States the power to authorise casino gambling. This privilege, which had previously been held by Las Vegas (granted after World War II to compensate for the closure of a military base), became available to all the States, at the discretion of their leaders. New Jersey gave Atlantic City exclusive rights to casinos, and the city eventually had up to 12 establishments, including the Trump-owned Taj Mahal (Ill.7). This helped to turn the city around, but the glitter also masked the poverty and neglect of neighbourhoods and public spaces near the Boardwalk (Ill.8).

Ill. 7. Facing the ocean, along the Boardwalk, the Trump-owned Taj Mahal casino, in its heyday, topped by the hotel tower. There was clear competition with Las Vegas (photo by Philippe Violier on August 21, 2010)

Ill.8. Not far from the Boardwalk, the public space is quite dilapidated (photo by Philippe Violier on August 21, 2010).

And now?

After being the second largest casino city in the United States, Atlantic City has fallen into crisis again.  Many casinos have closed, including the Revel, the Showboat and Trump Plaza, all in 2014, and Trump Taj Mahal in October 2016, resulting in the loss of 3,000 jobs. The city was even “sued by the state of New Jersey’s educational services, to ensure that the city would honour its financial commitments to schools” ( with AFP, published April 5, 2016).

Philippe Violier


  • Équipe MIT, 2005, Tourismes 2. Moment de lieux. Paris, Éditions Belin.
  • Malle Louis, 1980, Atlantic City. Film produit par International Cinema, Selta Films, Merchant Films, Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), Cine-Neighbor, Famous Player Limited, 104 minutes.