ATLANTIC CITY — The badlands. Baghdad by the Boardwalk. Zombie land.
The 10-block stretch of beachfront land in the city’s South Inlet — where a handful of homes and high-rises punctuate otherwise empty gravel lots — has gone by many names.
The most widely known nickname, Pauline’s Prairie, refers to efforts in the 1960s by the city Housing Authority and Urban Redevelopment Agency, headed by Pauline Hill, to redevelop the area by razing whole blocks of buildings. The lots were cleared, but the redevelopment never arrived.
Now, change is coming. A $29.4 million construction project will extend the city’s famous Boardwalk around the South Inlet toward historic Gardner’s Basin. The former Revel casino, now known as TEN, is supposed to open in the spring.
Of course, other plans have come and gone, and the barren lots remain.
But residents tell a different story of the South Inlet. To them, it is a racially diverse neighborhood and a beach oasis few people know about. They’re not discouraged by the empty lots. They know there’s more to come in their part of the city. And until that happens, they’ve got some of the best views on the East Coast to themselves.
On cold days when the sea breeze is whipping, Bill Terrigino takes in the beach from the upper floor of his three-story Metropolitan Avenue home, watching waves that are often peppered with surfers. A model ship, a centerpiece of shells and nautical artwork continue the seaside theme.
On a recent fall day, Terrigino’s sunny living room turned dark at noon. But it wasn’t clouds casting a shadow across the neighborhood. The giant TEN casino hotel complex, the second tallest building in the state, dominates the neighborhood and city skyline, its glass facade reflecting the sky and ocean.
TEN is owned by Glenn Straub, who is trying to obtain the final permits to reopen early next year. In November, he hired several executives to run the casino and sued the Casino Control Commission, claiming the state regulator is moving too slowly on approvals.
Terrigino, 72, had a front-row seat as homes around him were bulldozed and the casino tower rose into the sky. Still, he said he wouldn’t change a thing about where he lives.
“The South Inlet basically was my parents’ honeymoon spot,” Terrigino said.
His South Philadelphia family spent two weeks every summer in the city. As he raised his three sons, Dante, Rocco and Raphael, he made sure to provide them a home filled with the same kind of fun.
“It was a magical time for them,” Terrigino said. “They had the Atlantic City Boardwalk and beach day and night. The South Inlet was the best-kept secret in Atlantic City. This has become the people’s beach,” he said.
And Terrigino thinks visitors should see a well-maintained city. He maintains an area he calls “Limbo Park,” a patch of nearby land he says neither the city, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority nor TEN has taken care of.
“I get my weed eater and go pick up the trash. Come spring I’ll probably throw some flowers in,” he said. “It’s all for the guests.”
When TEN does open, Terrigino has just one request. Remembering that the music of Revel’s nightclub HQ shook his house into the morning, he’s hoping Straub switches up the beat.
“I’ve been rooting for him since day one,” he said of Straub. “Every bridge he crossed, the trolls of New Jersey were under. He’s up to his neck in trolls. But he’s determined.”
That word, “determined,” could describe the rest of the residents of the South Inlet.
Wilma Sutphin has glaucoma and foot trouble as a result of diabetes and can’t enjoy her surroundings quite as much as she used to. But her younger years of watching casino jobs come and go, including hers, have prepared her for waves of changes.
Sutphin came to Atlantic City from Virginia in the early 1980s for her sister’s wedding and never left. She has spent more than 18 years in the South Inlet high-rise now called The Ocean at 101 Boardwalk.
“I love the building, and the people are nice. You have a little family here,” she said. “I’m content.”
The high-rise has undergone a massive transformation in the past two years. More than 1,000 apartments boast ocean or city views, and about two-thirds of the building have been renovated since 2014 under new owners The Esquire Group.
Sutphin’s love of Atlantic City grew as she worked at Bally’s, James’ Saltwater Taffy, Resorts and as a nurse at Shore Medical Center.
She lit up when she talked about Revel.
“It appeared to do more for the city than anybody,” she said. “They kept up the activities and had fireworks. At the holidays, it was Revel.”
Sutphin said she’s as excited as anyone at the prospect of the casino reopening.
“I never got a chance to go over and see it,” she said. “If it reopens, I’m going.”
Frances Gunn thought she’d work at Trump Plaza until she retired. But after 25 years, she could see the writing on the wall. She left the year before the casino closed. Now Gunn, 57, is employed by AtlantiCare.
Like Sutphin, the Florida native first came to Atlantic City to visit her sister and never left. That was in 1982.
The South Inlet earned a reputation for turmoil through a wave of crime in the 1970s. But Gunn said that since the ’80s, that reputation is a myth.
For her, one big draw of the Inlet is neighboring Gardner’s Basin in the summer, with its pop-up shops, food trucks and bay views.
“Most people that live down in the Inlet love the Inlet. I go down there and sit and watch the boats. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on down here,” she said. “I walk out the door onto the beach. You can’t beat that.”
Gunn and other South Inlet residents are resilient. Through the city’s fluctuating economy and the bulldozing of homes around them, they’ve learned to adapt.
“There’s always a job. It’s just that you might have to start from the bottom again. That’s OK,” Gunn said. “You’ll get there.”
Gunn said she hasn’t minded the clanking and pounding as work continues to repair the Boardwalk, because the newly poured concrete ramp brings the promise of easier travel.
City Planning and Development Director Elizabeth Terenik said infrastructure improvements are the first step for the South Inlet. Then the city’s focus can turn to investors and development plans.
“It really adds to the value of properties. There’s so much that we need to do. That includes attracting investors,” Terenik said.
“But right now there are things beyond the city’s control. It’s been difficult for people to get loans to do projects,” she said. “We’re attacking the blight in any way we can. We think if we do that all right, the investment will come.”
In January, the CRDA approved a $15 million loan to help finance The Beach at South Inlet, a planned 250-unit apartment complex to be built by Boraie Development.
Terrance Cook, 23, moved into The Ocean about a year ago with his mother, Belinda, 45, and they have more reason than most to hope for more development in the South Inlet: It’s also where they work.
The Cooks are part of the security team at The Ocean.
Between jokes with residents and Michael Jackson impressions, the always-smiling attendant surveys security cameras and monitors the halls of the building.
“There’s peace down here,” he said, sliding back in a desk chair behind the security desk, “There’s not a lot of crime, and mostly everyone here is having a good time. You don’t have a lot of nonsense in here. It’s just plain quiet, and I like it that way.”
Cook visited Revel after its opening and was thrilled with its offerings, but before he could fully explore the resort, the casino closed.
Still, he urges young people to consider living in the South Inlet.
“I’ve made a lot of friends. Jitneys are just up the street. The Boardwalk is right there,” he said. “There’s a lot to do, there really is. I say it’s heaven.”
Contact: 609-272-7209 HSchweder@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressSchweder