Part of the city's initial appeal to developers and vacationers was location. The beach community is just 60 miles from Philadelphia, 125 miles from New York and 175 miles from Washington, D.C. Levi said the Quakers and Pennsylvania Railroad started the town and it grew from there.
"It started to morph into a more multi-tiered resort. It was always a family resort. At the same time, it was sin city, Vegas before Vegas. It always had that duality," she said. "There was always that little naughtier side of Atlantic City, like any resort by the water -- Miami, Havana."
A handful of the original buildings remain. There's the grand architecture of the Claridge Casino Hotel between Park Place and Indiana Avenue. (Sound like Monopoly spots? Where do you think the game found its names?) Further down the boardwalk is Resorts Hotel and Casino, once called the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel. The building can trace its roots back to 1868.
During Prohibition, the city's naughty side really came out, and it attracted large groups.
"Atlantic City was so popular with conventioneers because they winked, winked at prohibition," Levi said. "You could party away without having to worry."
One of Levi's favorite Prohibition-era spots is the Irish Pub. The former speakeasy is a mainstay just off the boardwalk and was used by union leader Samuel Gompers for conventions.
There are still original Prohibition-era signs at the pub and hotel, politicians still make it a campaign spot and the prices, Levi notes, are still "pretty good Prohibition prices." (Several restaurants offer "Prohibition Prix Fixe" menus for $19.20 through Sept. 30 in honor of Boardwalk Empire.)
As the decades passed, conventions abandoned Atlantic City, and the town didn't stay up to date with America's desires. Air travel, indoor pools and air conditioning turned other cities into alternative vacation destinations. When Atlantic City hosted the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the world's press saw the disarray of city's hotels, Levi said, and spread the word.
"The '70s were really bad," she said.
In 1978 gambling was introduced, and the city found new life.
In the last decade, Atlantic City has had to compete with new gambling locations across the country that cater to people interested only in the casinos.
To fight back, Atlantic City has pursued a new revitalization effort. The city has allowed bars on its beach, added new hotel rooms, opened an outlet center, an upscale mall with Gucci and Tiffany's and started turning pools into daytime nightclubs.
Last year three casinos teamed up to subsidize the ACES train, an express train from New York City that has fancy leather seats, hot meals and the aforementioned bartender. It was a direct effort to counter tour buses that deliver gray-haired retirees into the city. The message was clear: this isn't your grandmother's Atlantic City.
Perhaps no hotel-casino embraces -- and helped usher in -- the new era more than the Borgata. The upscale hotel opened in July 2003 in the isolated Marina District, and the resort became the city's prime destination, drawing in a younger, more affluent crowd that spends as much time in the clubs and restaurants as the casino. To give you a sense of the atmosphere, the resort's Water Club hotel this summer unveiled Sunday night pool parties.