ATLANTIC CITY — Kenny Hill never let anyone sit alone on the Caspian Avenue beach. And so “the Circle" was born.
So enduring a feature of Atlantic City summers, and so central to those long, chatty beach days on beloved Caspian Avenue, the Circle rated a mention in Hill’s obituary, which describes the longtime Bally’s bell captain as Mayor of the Beach, and also that of Raymond Larry, another longtime member of the Circle called, as they say, to a perfect beach.
In this life, though, Caspian Avenue — the first beach in Atlantic City, facing Brigantine across the inlet, where the Boardwalk either begins or ends, depending on your perspective — comes pretty close to perfect.
And the Circle — an ever-evolving, always expanding loose collection of beach-chaired multigenerational locals, former locals drawn back in the summer, old schoolmates, newbies, offspring, cousins, aunts, and, endearingly, Gloria from Galloway, a widow of a Holocaust survivor — endures.
Sometimes, it’s known as the Golden Circle. There are T-shirts. A celebration is planned for July 21, as if every summer weekend were not already one.
“Everybody respects the Circle," said Courtney Murray, 40, of Absecon, whose family roots in the Uptown neighborhood near the inlet date back generations. Murray can trace the history of the area from its Jewish roots in the 1950s and ’60s as the Inlet through its Uptown identity as mostly black middle class to its now evolving identity of relatively new townhouses and its share of Airbnbs.
“It’s a village,” said Traci Scott, who arrived on Caspian Avenue on this day after church, joining up in the Circle with Mona Evans, who had arrived first with the nieces she’s determined to turn into beach bums like her. “If they’ve got chicken, we’ve got bread. Then we all have sandwiches.”
“It just became come down as individuals and get together in a group,” said Evans, whose father used to plant her, her brother and her cousins on the beach while he fished off the nearby jetties. “People left, came back, but they still come back up here to the beach.”
Like other standing gatherings on various beaches — say, the group of South Philly natives who for years set up on a diagonal on the Dorset Avenue beach in Ventnor that may as well have been an extension of Passyunk Avenue — the Circle has become more than just a place to sit. It’s beach family.
“You know if you’re in Aruba, and there’s one beach all the locals go to?" Scott said. “This is it.”
It’s a locals beach for sure, and maybe as much a used-to-be-a-local’s beach, but also for many the heir to the historic Missouri Avenue Beach, also known as Chicken Bone Beach, where African Americans socialized in Atlantic City for decades.
More than a few regulars in the Circle can conjure up the heydays on Missouri Avenue, where, as Evans recalled, everyone just dropped beach blankets and sheets “wherever you saw people,” until it was almost like a big quilt out there on the beach. (“We didn’t do chairs,” Evans said.)
“That’s where the party was,” said Delores Mitchell, who has been coming to Atlantic City beaches since 1958 and is a longtime Circle stalwart. “Now the party is here.”
A day on Caspian Avenue can start early and last on into the night. While morning bicyclists are still finding their way down to the seawall promenade that runs along the beach up to the large tract of undeveloped land still owned by Jared Kushner, Caspian regulars are already setting up for the day.
A seawall at the rear of the beach offers a natural gathering spot for grills, with bolts to hang bags, a ledge for music setups, with gear handed over the wall from cars parked on Maine Avenue.
The beach is Atlantic City’s first guarded beach, geographically, the only place left on the inlet side (as opposed to the ocean front) that still has enough sand for a beach. You won’t find another guarded beach until you make the turn from the inlet to be back again along the ocean at New Hampshire Avenue. Caspian has public bathrooms and a beach station headquarters named for TeRoy A. Collins, a pioneering African American in the Atlantic City Beach Patrol.
On a recent Sunday, one group is setting up for the 51st birthday party of a Philadelphia man who works in a law firm but would prefer to be known only as Caspian Avenue’s unofficial DJ, or, maybe just Philly by the Wall.
He’s a student of the Circle, watching it inevitably take shape as the day wears on.
“It may start with one chair,” he said. “Before you know it, it’s the Circle.”
“It’s the best-kept secret,” he added. “I know about it because I come all the time. If you come, you’ll know. If you don’t, you don’t know.”
What is the appeal?
“It’s camaraderie,” he said. “People know you. Like neighbors on the block.”
“I’m grandmother’ed in,” Byron Woodson, 42, is explaining. He’s referring to his mom, the grandmother of his children, who brought him to Caspian as a child, and keeps his spot in the Circle for him.
“It’s like home,” he says of Caspian. "You get on the Atlantic City Expressway, or the Black Horse Pike if you don’t want to pay the toll, or you get off Exit 5 and you’re literally right here. And no beach tags.
“Yeah, so don’t tell anybody,” he said, then adding in some misdirection: “It’s the Kentucky Avenue beach.”
Gloria Weitzenhof, who recalls Kenny Hill escorting her down to the Circle when she showed up alone, says her beach family went so far as to call hospitals when she didn’t show up for a while.
And when someone passes on, it’s viewed as “a hole in the Circle,” and an empty chair is left for a while, maybe with a photo and a memento.
“They’re wonderful friends,” Weitzenhof said.
With a newly rebuilt Boardwalk stretching almost to Caspian Avenue, this little-known beach is a bit more on the general radar.
There’s still a gap from the original start of the Boardwalk, a stretch of which now juts out to a dead end out in the water across from the Caspian beach itself. But the new Boardwalk links to a promenade that will take you the rest of the way and even join up in a sandy U-turn to the fragment left out over the water.
Behind the beach, along Maine Avenue, luxury homes built as part of a larger redevelopment of the Northeast Inlet serve as a reminder of how neighborhoods change. Some on the beach recall their parents leaving older Atlantic City homes to make way for the new development.
In one newer home, a man flies a Trump flag and has been known to call the police if he thinks the party on Caspian is getting too noisy. Or he’ll blast his own music. It’s about the only fly in the ointment at Caspian.
Some have taken to calling Caspian Avenue the Inkwell, after a beach in Martha’s Vineyard frequented by African Americans. But regulars in the Circle say that was never how they referred to Caspian Avenue, their “First Beach.”
John “Yonk” Rosnick, who says he lives “175 steps from the beach,” is a newer transplant who has found his place in the Circle.
“It’s always the usual suspects,” Rosnick said. “Kenny was the first guy to meet down here. He’s the thread that held the Circle together. People ride down here and say, We didn’t know it existed. Well, we’re glad you didn’t know it existed."