ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – It's 4 1/2 miles of souvenir shops, storefront psychics and pizza stands. It's where temptation beckons from neon-trimmed casinos and where no one is safe from the sea gulls. There's something special about the Atlantic City Boardwalk — even now, 135 years after the first one was built here, a crude effort to keep beachgoers from tracking sand into hotel lobbies.
The world-famous wooden way, a pedestrian-only avenue flanked by casinos and storefronts on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, remains the heart of Atlantic City, in all its kitschy, dime-store glory.
"It's the nicest Boardwalk there is," said Brigitta Wagenhoffer, 79, of Lansdale, Pa., taking a break recently from the slot machines to sun herself on a Boardwalk bench. "It's always clean, and that's the most important thing."
The promenade's recent topping of a list of America's best "seaside strolls" is merely the frosting on the funnel cake.
To Reader's Digest, it was the Boardwalk's status as the granddaddy of seaside promenades that prompted its listing this month as first among seven "seaside strolls." The distinction appears in the magazine's "America's 100 Best" issue.
The other boardwalks listed were in Virginia Beach, Va., Santa Cruz, Calif., Santa Monica, Calif., Ocean City, Md., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Rehoboth Beach, Del.
The magazine didn't rank the entries, but listed Atlantic City first because of its history, said Maureen Mackey, senior staff editor.
Memorialized in song, film and the board game "Monopoly," the Boardwalk was synonymous with Atlantic City long before Miss America, Mr. Peanut or Donald Trump arrived on the scene.
The first one was built in 1870, with 12-foot wide sections laid directly on the sand. Removed at summer's end, the planking was widened in 1880 and again in 1884 and 1890 before the modern version was installed in 1896, a 40-foot wide structure with herringbone-patterned decking raised off the sand, reinforced with joists and lined with railings.
Commerce on the Boardwalk grew with Atlantic City, a summer resort renowned for its sea breezes, salt water and sometimes-naughty nightlife. Ocean piers grew off of it, jutting eastward from the Boardwalk and providing theaters where W.C. Fields, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and others played.
It's where generations of Miss America contestants paraded, children played arcade games and lovebirds rode in wicker rolling chairs, a 19th-century invention still in use today.
The 21st century Boardwalk is fundamentally the same, but its sights have changed. In between the facades of the nine high-rise casinos are a Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum, a Korean War Memorial, a handful of arcades and dozens of Mom-and-Pop T-shirt shops and food vendors.
"You'd be hard pressed to find a boardwalk comparable," said Allen "Boo" Pergament, 73, an Atlantic City native and amateur historian. "It's the grandest of all of 'em. It always was and should always remain that. Nobody has a boardwalk like ours."
Beginning this summer, storefront facades will get makeovers, a fountain will be restored and new lights and a bandshell added in front of Boardwalk Hall, the Depression-era arena that has played host to The Beatles, the 1964 Democratic National Convention and dozens of Miss America crownings.
When the weather is warm, the Boardwalk teems with street performers, barkers handing out leaflets and panhandlers begging. When it's cold, gamblers scurry from one casino to the next, hoping a change of scenery can turn their luck.
On the Boardwalk, you can get a box of saltwater taffy for $4.95, a palm read for $1 or a toddler-sized "Someone who loves me went to Atlantic City and got me this T-shirt" T-shirt for $2.99.
Or you can keep your money and just soak up the atmosphere — the sight of the ocean, the smell of fried dough, the caw-caw-caw of laughing gulls and the sounds of unfamiliar dialects. "You can walk 10 blocks and hear 25 different languages," said bookstore owner Robert Ruffalo.