ATLANTIC CITY — Rows of bookstores, delis and quaint cafes once lined the brick-paved street between Virginia and Pennsylvania avenues known as Gordon’s Alley.
It was one of New Jersey’s first urban pedestrian malls, and the brainchild of Murray Raphel, a New York native who moved to the Jersey Shore in the 1950s with a vision for urban retail that would rival the explosion of department stores in the suburbs of Atlantic City.
The businessman and former politician died Sunday at 91 in his Ventnor home.
“He was a thinker and a doer,” said Murray Raphel’s son Neil Raphel, “and a steward of the business community.”
Raphel landed in Atlantic City by accident in 1950.
His brother-in-law Milton Gordon co-owned a children’s clothing store with his wife, Shirley, called Gordon’s Baby Shop at Atlantic and Presbyterian avenues. It was struggling, so the couple called Raphel for help.
The young Syracuse University graduate quickly learned he had a knack for marketing.
In the early 1970s, Raphel began buying row homes along Atlantic and Presbyterian avenues for about $7,000 a piece, his son said. He sold them to local entrepreneurs to develop Gordon’s Alley, a 35-shop outdoor mall in the heart of the city named after his sister’s store.
The idea for Gordon’s Alley was planted in his head after the state Legislature passed the Pedestrian Mall Act in 1972, allowing cities to convert streets into outdoor shopping centers, said Martin Blumberg, an architect who worked with Murray to design Gordon’s Alley.
Gordon’s Alley launched the following year, at a time when people were leaving Atlantic City for the mainland. Over the decades, it competed with the opening of the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing and new anchor stores at the former Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township — but it survived.
“They really expanded in Atlantic City when everyone else was leaving town,” Neil Raphel said. His father’s business strategy, he said, was simple: Work hard to keep existing customers, using loyalty cards, direct-mail campaigns and events.
Raphel entered politics that same year.
He was elected to the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1972 and named vice chairman of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority until 1990, where he acted as a voice for small businesses on Atlantic Avenue and owners struggling in the shadow of new casinos.
Reminiscing on his time as freeholder, Murray Raphel wrote in a Press of Atlantic City op-ed in 1990 about the many county-funded studies conducted on the Atlantic Avenue business district. The reports, he believed, ignored business owners and their on-the-ground knowledge.
“When you’re left out of a report, you feel no one knows you exist,” he wrote. “The Atlantic City merchants didn’t think they were paranoid. They thought they were invisible.”
“We could use Murray today to revitalize the city,” Blumberg said.
In 1990, the Raphel and Gordon families sold the building that housed the Gordon’s Alley shops to Group 5 Associates, a development group that included architect Thomas Sykes.
After the sale, Gordon’s Alley shifted from retail to office space, said Sykes, who has had his headquarters at the mall since 1986.
“He was close to the ground roots of the city,” Sykes said of Raphel’s political and business work. “He kept in touch with everyone. ... Issues became opportunities.”
Raphel spent the following years touring the world, writing books and giving speeches about marketing, advertising and promotions.
Raphel remained connected to Atlantic City, through his ties to the Historical Waterfront Foundation. Raphel and James Cooper started the charity 40 years ago. The organization managed Gardner’s Basin until 2017.
“If it were not for those gentlemen, it could’ve been a parking lot,” said Chris Seher, the foundation’s board president.
Raphel is survived by his wife, Ruth Raphel, son Neil, daughter Paula Crowley, daughter-in-law Janis Raye and son-in-law Jack Crowley, sister-in-law Shirley Gordon and brother-in-law David Dichter. Services will be private.