Monopoly and Atlantic City, 75 Tough Years Later

This year, Monopoly celebrates its 75th anniversary. According to Hasbro, it is the world's most popular board game, with more than 200 million sets sold since 1935.

Monopoly, which hasn't changed significantly in the last 75 years, is set in an abstract version of Atlantic City. Its details are quaint by today's standards: $2 rents, $60 properties, $200 railroads.

Once an upscale retreat, Atlantic City began to decline after World War II, when cheap air travel and convenient interstate highways made it easier for travelers to visit more exotic resorts. A 1976 decision to legalize casino gambling gave Atlantic City a second life as a vacation spot, but much of the town has become urban prairie, pocked by desolate vacant lots.

While the city has changed, the game has not. The Monopoly board is like a time capsule of 1930's Atlantic City, reflecting the values and neighborhoods of the time. But if the game were designed today, would it look the same?Rearranging a Gaming Classic

Monopoly's two cheapest properties, Mediterranean and Baltic, are a few blocks from the pricey shoreline, and its most expensive property, Boardwalk, is named for the seven-mile beachside byway that extends to the towns of Margate and Ventnor, whose streets are represented by the game's chic yellow properties.

Among Atlantic City's Monopoly neighborhoods, Mediterranean Avenue still represents the bottom of the barrel -- and its price has actually dropped since the game came out. Players pay $2 to land on Mediterranean, but in real life, anyone with a bedroll and a baseball bat can spend a fitful night on one of its many vacant lots. A condo on Mediterranean can be had for a paltry $34,800, according to Trulia.

Baltic, on the other hand, borders the impressive Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, which hosted the Miss America Pageant for many years. The Sheraton charges $170 to $259 a night, making it one of the more expensive locations in the city. Prices for houses on Baltic vary wildly, from $39,000 to $250,000.

Yellow Properties Turn Green

Vermont Avenue is another surprise. The most expensive residential property within the Monopoly streets is a $1.2 million triplex that propels Vermont, one of the bargain-priced light-blue properties, into the top echelon of Atlantic City real estate. Neighborhood Scout has determined that Atlantic City's Pacific/Rhode Island Avenue district, which includes all three light-blue properties, is among the city's most valuable areas, a fact confirmed by realtor Jose Sinclair, who notes that the city has chosen the neighborhood for a major rehabilitation.

The yellow properties -- Atlantic Avenue, Marvin Gardens, and Ventnor Avenue -- are among the game's biggest surprises. Marven Gardens (as it's actually spelled), a neighborhood outside Atlantic City, is woefully undervalued in the game. With a median house price of over $437,000, the real-life yellow properties are more than twice as expensive as most of the Monopoly neighborhoods.

Some of Monopoly's streets no longer exist: Illinois Avenue is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and St. Charles Place was torn up to build the Showboat casino, which fronts on States Avenue. (The Showboat charges some of the city's highest room rates: up to $469 a night.) And while few properties are available for development on Park Place, it's still possible to spend the night at the intersection of Park and Boardwalk, where rooms at Bally's Casino top out at a bracing $319 per night.

Trains, Buses, and Automobiles

Monopoly also reflects a bygone era of public transportation. When the game was created, its four railroads -- B&O, Short Line, Pennsylvania, and Reading -- represented the most common form of intercity travel. ("Short Line" was a corruption of the actual Shore Line, and the B&O didn't actually run to Atlantic City.) At the time, air travel was prohibitively expensive, and the highway network was sparse. But, in the ensuing decades, rail travel has been eclipsed: in 1987, the B&O became the last of the train lines to go out of business.

Not that public transportation has left Atlantic City. Travelers have plenty of bus and train options, including New Jersey Transit's Atlantic City Line, which runs on what used to be the Pennsylvania and Reading railroad tracks. ACES, the Atlantic City Express Service, is operated by Amtrak, but funded by local casinos; it runs between Atlantic City and New York City's Penn Station. For bus riders, the Atlantic City Jitney minibus line offers service within the city, and the Greyhound Lucky Streak Express carries vacationers to and from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

While Monopoly demonstrates the excitement of unrestrained commerce, the city that inspired it shows the dangers of being on the wrong end of capitalism. As Atlantic City struggles to stay afloat, it's anyone's guess whether real-life Monopoly is also a zero-sum game.
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