At the beginning of the twentieth century, walking the boardwalk of a seaside resort like Atlantic City, would have been a sensory overload. The densely packed pathway with the sea on one side, and rows of shops, nightclubs and hotels on the other, jostled with tourists and hawkers; music and megaphones. The boardwalk was also a boundary, between the traditional Victorian values of leisure and recreation, and the newer, more progressive ideologies of the modern world.
The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Atlantic City is memorialised in HBO’s mammoth Boardwalk Empire, where these old-fashioned values are challenged by violence and vice. The city prospered under prohibition. It was perfectly located to host rum-runners and bootleggers, docking their supplies of illegal alcohol from across the border in Canada, and from across the pond in Ireland. A welcome drink awaited you at boardwalk venues like The Irish Pub and Babette’s Supper Club. Their prime location was a powerful message by those in charge of the city’s tourist-based economy: to ‘provide whatever was needed to make the visitors happy.’
Despite its progressive attitudes towards alcohol and gambling, racial segregation and prejudice remained, with the majority of the city’s black residents confined to the neighbourhoods of the Northside. Tucked away from Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk, black residents and visitors were relegated to a comparatively tiny stretch of sand between Missouri to Ohio Avenues. ‘Chicken Bone Beach’ was named after the picnics, brought by visitors to the shore, after many were shunned by the (theoretically) unsegregated restaurants in town.
In Boardwalk Empire, the Northside is the home of Albert ‘Chalky’ White, an associate of Atlantic City kingpin Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson. The two share a complicated relationship; pragmatic and business-minded but rooted in what appears to be a genuine mutual respect. This is tested when (spoiler alert), Chalky proposes a business opportunity: the Onyx Club. Excited at the prospect of a prime boardwalk nightclub, where black performers are the stars of the show, Nucky cuts him off: “There’s a dividing line. Why is that so hard to understand?” The exchange is one of the most poignant of the series; Chalky’s ambitious, idealistic push for change stands in direct opposition to Nucky’s matter-of-fact acceptance of what he sees as both realistic and attainable. Chalky eventually gets his club, on the painful condition that its audiences remain strictly white-only.
Clearly, Atlantic City’s boardwalk was much more than a boundary between land and sea, and it would take something with a universal appeal to attempt to bridge these borders. A few blocks behind the boardwalk, four clubs proudly catered to audiences of all colours; Club Harlem, Grace’s Little Belmont, the Wonder Gardens and the Paradise Club, all on the Northside’s Kentucky Avenue. Between them, they played host to the likes of Count Bassie, Billie Holiday, B.B. King and Sammy Davies Jr. (and later, the whole Rat Pack), while also nurturing new talent.
As their popularity grew, the clubs began offering a full day’s worth of shows, from Club Harlem’s breakfast, to the afternoon matinees at Grace’s Little Belmont. Now, white and black audiences could escape the same midday heat, from their separate beaches, by cooling off indoors at one of these daytime performances.
Of course, the clubs were far from an idyllic vision of equality. Some acts were more appealing to white audiences, such as the Paradise Club’s gyrating dancers and African drummers, who, as Bryant Simon writes, performed as ‘the natives in a Tarzan movie’. They did, however, give an important platform to artists who were prohibited from performing in many of the all-white venues on the south side of the city. Music, in particular, was a canvas on which the hypocrisy and futility of segregation could be played out. While black and white performers and patrons were united under the same roof, the four Kentucky Avenue clubs offered a brief glimpse into what might be possible, if, like their audiences, people were prepared to listen.