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Atlantic City is a town of contradictions and illusions. There is the get-rich-quick allure of the casinos, whose shimmering veneers obscure a slowly decaying undercoat of cigarette smoke and lost pay checks. And the iconic boardwalk stretches for miles, bordered by fast food restaurants, amusement park attractions, and tchotchke shops on one side, the sparkling ocean on the other.

HBO's hit series Boardwalk Empire, entering its second season this September, has reincarnated a nostalgic vision of Atlantic City, replete with gangsters, molls, speakeasies and poker joints. But the truth is that very little of the old-school den of vice and pleasure remains. Atlantic Avenue, the city's main drag, has been reduced from a thriving artery that pumps cars toward glitz and glamour to a haven for pawn shops, check cashers, and outlet stores. Donald Trump and his ilk have razed classic hotels, casinos and bars and over the past few years, tourism has declined.

 “You used to see traffic stretching all the way down Atlantic Avenue,” said a bartender at the vintage dive Culmone's (2437 Atlantic Ave, 609-348-5170), while serving a smattering of mid-day customers nursing their drinks. “You don't see that anymore.” The bar, which opened in the late 1950s, has seen better days, but it is a friendly spot away from the hubbub of the boardwalk.

At the city's north end, climb the 228 steps of the Absecon Lighthouse, the tallest in New Jersey and more than 150 years old, for a stunning view of this mini metropolis. Sandy flats lie to the east, west and south, with empty lots jutting up against halted new construction, gambling mainstays and the crumbling inner city. To the north lies Brigantine Beach, just across a narrow waterway full of boats. Farther to the south lies the more affluent community of Margate, once known as South Atlantic City, and home to some of the historical remnants of the city's storied past. Here visitors can find a taste of the Atlantic City that once was.

Lucy the Elephant towers over the beach in Margate, six stories tall and gleaming in the sunshine. The giant pachyderm was constructed in 1881 by James V Lafferty. Among other things, Lucy served as a pre-Prohibition tavern, before being established as a National Historic Landmark in the 1970s. Currently there are two restaurants in Lucy's shadow, Bella Luna and Lucy's Beach Grille, and festivals and fairs are occasionally held underneath her wooden belly. Today,  Lucy is open to the public and visitors are allowed to climb to the top where they enjoy a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

Marven Gardens, located on the border of Margate and Ventnor City, is an interesting and affluent neighbourhood of historic houses with architecture dating back to the 1920s and '30s. It is bordered by four avenues: Brunswick, Fredericksburg, Ventnor and Winchester. The Marvin Gardens property of the Monopoly board game was named after the area but misspelled, which Parker Brothers officially apologized for in 1995. Marven Gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Head north into Atlantic City proper and the experience is quite different from the almost bucolic feel of Margate and Marven Gardens. The boardwalk is the obvious draw, a tourist attraction stretching about four miles along the coast with a diverse mass of humanity -- rich and poor, young and old, black and white, families and miscreants -- tromping up and down the wooden slats. On my recent visit a one-armed man shouted nonsense at the top of his lungs and lurched past tourists who were looking for a bite to eat. Over on the side of the boardwalk, a street preacher foretold the end of days while teenage girls in bikinis and boys on bikes flirted and laughed. A Hare Krishna festival's enthusiastic practitioners pushed a float by an outdoor discotheque with house music pumping. Dichotomies and illusions abound.

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