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Voices of Atlantic City's past live in library's oral history collection

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“I think the city that we see around us will no longer exist, only in our memories and our imaginations really, because of the fact that we’re in a different ballgame entirely.”

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“The town’s got a great future, and it will really grow as soon as the people stop knocking the town. Everybody says we’re not ready for what we’ve got already, but it takes time to grow.”

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“So I don’t hesitate to say that the future of Atlantic City is so good that these people that talk about ‘They can’t do this’ and ‘They won’t be able to do that’ are talking through their hats.”

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“Well, if this city can ever learn to pull together — everyone, I’m talking about, from the commissioners in City Hall, the mayor, the people who live in the city, those of us who have businesses here, but happen to live outside the city — if everyone can really get together, and pull together, we could make this town what it once was.”

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Those reactions to Atlantic City on the brink of big changes might be right at home on current news websites or blogs.

But the quotes above, from Joseph Hackney, Chris Columbo, Frank Havens and Frances Ginnetti, are from 1978.

They can be heard amid the crackles of cassette tapes and read on typewritten pages from 38 years ago, in a collection at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.

In a small room with a window facing Tennessee Avenue, the little-known collection exists amid stacked boxes, memorabilia, crowded shelves and a single computer.

Here, hand-typed pages, reels of audio tape and gigs of memory hold the voices of Atlantic City’s past.

Voices from school teachers, sub shop owners, Club Harlem musicians, longtime residents and immigrants who found refuge in jobs in a burgeoning casino scene.

The library’s first project — titled “Living History” — was conducted in the late 1970s. It would be another 30 years before the library embarked on another audio project, 2008’s “30 Years, 30 Voices.”

The library archive also houses oral history collections assembled by independent researchers, recorded in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Now, efforts are underway to revitalize the archive by collecting more memories of current Atlantic City residents from all walks of life.

In December, archivist Heather Perez began interviewing members of the local Hispanic community — her goal is to speak with a person from each Latin country. That collection of 13 interviews so far, along with a community-curated exhibit, won a Multicultural Program award from the New Jersey State Library. More recently, 10 interviews with Muslim residents were recorded.

“It’s the story of Atlantic City in the stories of the people of Atlantic City,” Perez said. “We have the largest collection of Atlantic City, I think, anywhere.”

The original Living History project was meant to capture what it felt like as casino gambling came to the city. Two former library employees, reference librarian Dian Spitler and project supervisor Cynthia Ringe, organized the project. Interviews were taped on cassette recorders and transcribed with typewriters.

Spitler and Ringe conducted 68 interviews between 1977 and 1978. They wanted to interview everyday people, the “little people” of the city, as Spitler described the plan in a WFPG-AM radio interview at the time. That interview is also part of “Living History.”

“It’s to capture the color and the atmosphere and the flavor of the times. ... It’s the difference between using secondary sources to write a scholarly history and using your original materials to communicate with tape with people the way it felt to be alive at a time when the city was the Queen of Resorts,” Spitler said.

Drummer Chris Columbo remembered how Sammy Davis Jr. used to sell out every seat in Kentucky Avenue’s Club Harlem and described how his mother lived and died “as a slave in a hotel here as a waitress making no money.” He showed Ringe photos of himself with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck.

Frances Ginnetti, who owned John’s Motel I and II with her husband, recalled how men wore tuxedos and women wore gowns on the Boardwalk.

“You never saw anyone walking along the Boardwalk in a bathing suit,” she said.

Hand-typed transcripts of those interviews sit in gray archive boxes, perched on a shelf in the Alfred M. Heston Research Room of the library. Cassette tapes lay stacked in another box. More recent interviews are digitized — audio on mp3 files, transcripts as Microsoft Word documents.

Perez pulls the files whenever someone asks for them — many times it’s academics or people writing books. Sometimes there’s a more sentimental reason. The son and grandson of former Atlantic City photographer Frank Havens came by in early May just to listen to the family patriarch’s voice.

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Father and son sat in the Heston room of the Atlantic City Free Public Library a couple mont…

Perez’s own history fascinated her when she was growing up. She would accompany her father to his job as a construction manager. To stay occupied while he worked, she’d thumb through a big binder of her family’s history.

When she was hired at the Atlantic City library about 10 years ago, Perez had a lofty goal: interview everyone in Atlantic City.

She’s getting there. She plans to arrange more interviews, from people in the Jewish community to business owners and Asian residents — Spitler’s “little people.”

“In the first project, there is not a lot of diversity of ethnicities, and Atlantic City is a diverse city,” she said. “You get a different perspective, a richer picture with interviews. I think the more interviews you gather, the better the picture.”

James Karmel, a professor of history at Harford Community College in Maryland, created one of the oral histories housed at the library, interviewing 46 locals on the impact of casinos. He also helped with the “30 Years, 30 Voices” project.

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Right, James Karmel, who interviewed in 2008 Frank Dougherty, proprietor of Dock's Oyster House and the Knife & Fork Inn, for the Atlantic City Free Public Library's "30 Years, 30 Voices" project. Thirty years prior, former owner of the Knife & Fork James Latz was interviewed for a similar project through the library.

Karmel first came to Atlantic City on vacation around 2000. He noticed how many casino workers were of multiple ethnicities. He wanted to get to the behind-the-scenes story of Atlantic City casinos, and he spent nine years traveling from Maryland to do research. Some of the interviews he conducted provided content for his book, “Gambling on the American Dream: Atlantic City and the Casino Era.”

“It’s not just a numbers game when you talk about casinos,” Karmel said. “There’s a lot more to it. There are the lives and residents who were impacted by it.”

Orfelina Momperousse, born in the Dominican Republic, told Karmel about how the casinos provided her and her family with a living. Tanya Wyatt, a longtime resident of the city, said the casino industry was “exploitative,” Karmel remembered.

Perez and Karmel agreed that a single interview only gives part of the story of Atlantic City.

“I operate from the basic premise that everyone’s life has value,” Karmel said. “For Atlantic City, all these oral histories I’ve done, how does it fit into the bigger narrative?”

To inquire about the Heston Collections and its oral history records, call 609-345-2269 or email reflib@acfpl.org.

Contact: 609-272-7256

Twitter @ACPress_Tracey

Features reporter, Flavor magazine editor

I'm a self-named New York nomad: I was born in Albany, went to college in Syracuse, and reported in Utica and Binghamton. I'm constantly trying to shed my shoobie status by getting to know my new community and the people that make it thrive.

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