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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

This is the book the HBO series used for its basis. Contrary to popular myth, Atlantic City was not a summer playground for the rich but rather a working class getaway that catered to every illicit whim. Brothels and gambling flourished, but Prohibition really made Atlantic City famous and rich. Under “Nucky” Johnson, the “Commodore’s successor, anything nominally illegal elsewhere could be had in Atlantic City. “A naughty time at an affordable price.”

The short history of Atlantic City presented at the beginning of the book is really quite interesting. The land was bought up originally to develop a health spa, but then, in order to make it accessible a railroad was required to get people from New York and Philadelphia. But in order to compete with Cape May, summer playground of the rich, they tried to appeal to the working man so prices had to remain low. Soon there were four railroads delivering customers (in spite of swarms of green flies and mosquitoes that sometimes drove horses crazy - not to mention people.) To serve customers cheaply, labor costs had to be kept low, and poor southern blacks who had suffered as slaves and were then abused after Reconstruction was destroyed politically, migrated to Atlantic City to fill the jobs. Whites wanted nothing to do with them socially and soon the city was segregated into white and black ghettos. "[The] irony of it all was cruel to Blacks. They earned a respectable wage, could vote, and own property. They performed the most personal of services and were entrusted with important responsibilities, but they were barred from restaurants, amusement piers, and booths; were denied shopping privileges by most stores; were admitted to hotels only as workers; were segregated in clinics and hospitals; and could only bathe in one section of the beach, but even then had to wait until after dark."

Louis Kuehnle, otherwise known as the “Commodore,” was soon running the town, but in a wise, if corrupt, manner. He focused on infrastructure, building water and transportation systems that functioned well, and paving the streets. “Commodore understood that Atlantic City’s business owners would gladly sacrifice honest government for a profitable summer and he gave them what they wanted. Kuehnle protected the rackets from prosecution and worked with the tourist industry to ensure its success. In exchange, the community let him call the shots.”

Unfortunately, following the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Presbyterian antithesis to anything fun and later president, to the NJ governorship cramped things. “Wilson was a crusader who saw things in black and white. Impersonal in his relations, he attracted supporters in much the same way people latch on to an abstract principle.” His attorney general went after election fraud and that resulted in Kuehnle’s imprisonment, opening the way for “Nucky” Johnson who was far more corrupt and even more controlling. Johnson got himself appointed City Treasurer, a non-elective office, which he held for decades and which held the key to all graft. The 18th amendment played right into the hands of Nucky and all during Prohibition booze flowed freely and openly as Atlantic City became a huge transit port for liquor.

Johnson had a gift for understanding people, their desires, and needs. He managed to control the city to such an extent that virtually everyone owed their jobs to him. “Crucial to his power and the control of the Republican organization, he learned how to manipulate Atlantic City’s Black population. He continued the Commodore’s private welfare system, but the assistance he gave Johnson went beyond what Kuehnle had done for blacks; come the winter he was their savior. Long stretches of unemployment in the off-season could be devastating. Johnson saw to it that the Northside had food, clothing, coal, and medical care. “If your kid needed a winter coat, all you had to do was ask—maybe it wouldn’t fit but it was warm. If the grocer cut off your credit, the ward leader told you where to shop on the party’s tab. The same was true if someone needed a doctor or a prescription filled.” Corruption as good government.
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