Thursday 11 June 2015

John McPhee's "The Search for Marvin Gardens"

"In the 1930's, men visiting Atlantic City went to jail, directly to jail, did not pass Go, for appearing in topless bathing suits on the beach." (John McPhee)

An engineer named R. B. Osborne surveyed a bathing village on the seacoast of New Jersey, a result of the railroads which converged there.  He planned roads like Pennsylvania Ave and Kentucky Ave,  Businessmen erected hotels on streets like Mediterranean, Baltic and New York.  Carpenters laid down a boardwalk in the sand for visitors, dressed in their suits and gowns, to admire the Atlantic.  Men were required to wear full length swimsuits at the beach.  Law and order reigned.  

The bathing village grew into a small city, attracting big names:  John Philip Sousa's band played The Star Spangled Banner there; Jack Dempsey staged a fight there; Al Capone held conventions there.

In the 1930's, a gentleman named Clarence Darrow cut out a piece of linoleum.  He cut out blocks of wood to serve as houses and hotels.  He cut out cards with names like Pennsylvania Railroad and St. Charles Place.  He drew squares on the linoleum, including one in the corner marked "Go Directly to Jail".  His board game, Monopoly, would become one of the most successful games in history.  The "bathing village" had become a busy vacation destination, Atlantic City.

Somewhere between Pennsylvania Ave. and Kentucky Ave., something went wrong.  By the 1970's, when writer John McPhee arrived in the famous city, it had transformed from a seaside resort to a "saltwater ghetto".  "[It looked] like Getz in 1919, Cologne in 1944," explained McPhee.  Evidence of decay was on every corner:  the houses were falling apart; glass littered the streets.

John McPhee had one question:  Where was Marvin Gardens?  It was the only property in the Monopoly game that he could not locate in Atlantic City.  After much investigation, the writer learned that Marvin Gardens was a suburb of the city seemingly untouched by the decay; "a citadel of the middle class".  A visit to Marvin Gardens might give the visitor a hint of Atlantic City's former glory.  

Here is an excerpt from John McPhee's brilliant essay, first published in the September 1972 issue of The New Yorker (

Indiana Avenue was the address of the Brighton Hotel, gone now.  The Brighton was exclusive -- a word that no longer has retail value in the city.  If you arrived by automobile and tried to register, you were sent away.  Brighton-class people came on private railroad cars.  Brighton-class people had other private railroad cars for their horses -- dawn rides on the firm sand at water's edge, skirts flying.  Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddell, the sort of name that would constrict throats in Philadelphia, lived, much of the year, in the Brighton.

Atlantic City Boardwalk circa 1920's courtesy

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