Thursday, 7 June 2012


Have you watched "Boardwalk Empire" starring Steve Buscemi, on HBO?  It chronicles the history of Atlantic City from the days of prohibition and is the story of its political boss, Nucky (Enoch) Johnson. Johnson (named Thompson on the TV series) was the head of the Atlantic County Republican Executive Committee. He considered it beneath his dignity, as a true political boss, to ever run for office. His reign ended  in about 1941 when he went to jail.


Atlantic City was my home town. I graduated from its high school in 1956.  In 1964 after college, law school and military service I moved to Vancouver to attend my best friend's wedding and stayed.

When I learned a few years  ago that many of Vancouver’s departments had been dispersed outside City Hall to various locations throughout the city, I thought of my home town.

Atlantic City  had a commission form of government. Each of the five department heads was an at large, elected commissioner. They would not have thought of doing anything without checking first with Nucky. 

No one had to communicate with anyone else. This left the planners free to plan more streets. It was said that this was part of their social planning efforts to reduce the percentage of crime on any one street.

Others said that the contractors were paying off the Commissioners or Nucky or someone.

Whatever the reason, lots of streets and road works were being built which in the depression was a good thing. But if the engineers had to make traffic direction signs without knowing from the planners where the streets were,  it was predictable that signs would point to streets that did not yet exist.

It is important for city staff to operate out of one city hall. If they know where the other departments are located and can talk to each other over coffee they hear about things like where the streets are going to be.  It makes for better decisions.

The  NPA caused the diaspora in the first place. Council, or the manager or whoever is in charge  today should  invite them back to the partially vacant city hall.

There are other contrasts and parallels.

Vancouver's current, likable mayor, Gregor Robertson, used to be in the business of selling  juice made of un-distilled herbs and berries. Nucky, supplied the post distillery product during prohibition. His sometime associate was Al Capone.

Nucky was a wildly popular boss endowed with all of the attributes of a great politician.  He was charming, likable, a good speaker and did favors for everyone. If he had to run for office I am sure he would have won no matter how many votes he got. He did some time  but it was only for tax evasion.

When it came to development, he did not need to consult with neighbours. Responsibility for consultation was divided between the elected commissioners who consulted and Nucky who made the decisions. If the decision was too unpopular Nucky could blame the commissioners and reverse it. Actually, the un-elected boss was probably more in touch with the Republican voters then any elected commissioner. This was a lot like the system under Napoleon where they had a bicameral legislature. One house could debate but not vote and the other could vote but not debate. Government must appear democratic above all else.

The classic Monopoly board is based on the street system of Atlantic City. The inventor lived near us in Marvin Gardens. Park Place was the most expensive property on the  board and was Atlantic City's equivalent to Vancouver's Shaughnessy area. Its density increased with many suites being added. Gradually it became a run down boarding house area.

Another thing about the streets in Atlantic City is that they had an astounding number of traffic lights per intersection.  On some dead ends, there would be three or four traffic lights.  That is because the traffic light dealers were amazingly proficient at selling the city more traffic lights than they had streets. 

Some said that this was another example of corruption. That is a pretty cynical view. I could see why this might have been accidental. It could happen for example if the planners who planned the streets did not tell the engineers who bought the lights how many streets there were. They had to predict the number of streets like the weather.

Here is another comparison. Vancouver has superb hospitals!

Atlantic City had a lousy hospital.   My father said in the 40's that if only the schools and hospitals could learn to be as corrupt as the Atlantic City engineers, planners and commissioners, maybe they could have installed a few extra doctors and teachers instead of traffic lights. 

Nucky Johnson  was a true civic booster. Vancouver's goal today is to be the Greenest City in the World. Nucky dreamed that his Boardwalk Empire would be known as The World's Playground." The slogan was deeply embedded in our psyche.  That is not the only place it was embedded. They  used to sell underwear on the Boardwalk with that slogan emblazoned across the front. 

The slogan on underwear is a nice idea for Vancouver. Our old nuclear free zone slogan would work but one based on Greenest  would require further thought.

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