Atlantic City, NJ
Despite its troubles, I love Atlantic City. I’m not a big gambler, but I enjoy casinos. I like the colors, the lights, the noise, blackjack, the people watching. I don’t know why, but I do.
I was up in AC for my brother’s bachelor party this weekend. 21 people came, a sign of just how awesome and well-liked he is.
Washington DC is about 180 miles from AC but the drive took five hours because of traffic around Baltimore and Wilmington. As I approached the city after nightfall, I could see the neon lights of the casinos on the horizon. I made my way to our hotel, The Borgata, to meet up with my brother and his friends. We spent the night at Borgata, gambling and enjoying the scene. It was so hard to find a seat at the blackjack tables, and when one became available, the minimum bet was $25.
The next morning I went exploring, starting out with breakfast on the waterfront deck of Gilchrist’s, an Atlantic City institution for 70 years. Afterwards, I drove to the boardwalk area to check out the beach and the casinos, some of which were closed and boarded up, like Showboat, Trump Plaza, and Revel. These huge structures are not yet ruins but they are well on their way to deteriorating in front of our eyes.
The most spectacular symbol of decline was Revel, the now-closed casino hotel on the northeast end of the boardwalk. I visited Revel with Emily in 2013, when it seemed to be doing well, we had a great time. This weekend, it was fenced off and plastered with “Keep Out” signs. A helpful guide who I spoke with on boardwalk outside of Revel said that a developer (Brookfield Asset Management) dropped its plans to buy the casino for around $100 million last week. For now, there is no future for the Revel.
The rest of the Atlantic City seemed just as dead as it was when I visited in 2013. Vacant lots dot the landscape and single houses stand alone in huge grassy street blocks. It was Detroit on the beach. There were some signs of hope, I guess. The boardwalk was fairly crowded on Saturday afternoon. I hope one day those hulking, vacant casinos will be knocked down. They probably will never bounce back, and I don’t now if that’s such a bad thing.
For lunch on Saturday we grabbed subs at another AC institution, White House Subs. It had orange colored booths and tile floors and old waitresses with annoyed expressions. The walls were covered with signed photos of various personalities, some recognizable and some not.
After lunch we stopped for a dessert in Formica Brothers Cafe on Arctic Avenue. A woman sitting next to us in the empty cafe struck up a conversation. It turned out she was a reporter for the the Atlantic City Press, the fourth largest daily paper in New Jersey. She’d been with the paper for almost 10 years, having moved up to Atlantic City from another region of the East Coast to begin her career as a journalist. She was pretty negative on the city’s prospects. The crime and the corruption of the city government had taken their toll on her psyche. I could tell she was an optimist, but even she was worn down. She told us that she is contacted all the time by families of crime victims, looking for solace and answers. She’s not only a writer but a psychologist.
It wasn’t lost on us that that were just a few of the thousands of people who come into the city each weekend, blow some money, and head back on the roads that Sunday morning. We were no different. This woman was in it, part of it, and affected by it personally.
That night, my older brother somehow managed to get a reservation for our huge group at The Irish Pub at St. James Place in AC. We sat outside on back patio on a long table and created a headache for those poor waitresses. (we tipped well). We spent the rest of the night checking out the scene on the boardwalk and at Ballys before heading back to the Borgata.
On the way back to DC on Sunday, I took Route 40, a four lane road that meanders across the farmlands and small towns of southern NJ. If I didn’t know I was in NJ, I would have thought I was in Missouri or something. Beautiful farmland, fruit stands, small towns, tractor supply stores, cows, diners. I picked up tons of vegetables and fruit at farmstands along the way and the time went by quickly.
What’s happening in AC?
Atlantic City (AC) is is a city of contrasts. There are the big casino hotels–Caears, Harrahs, and the Borgata–bastions of vice with $500 rooms on summer weekends and crowded game floors teeming with bachelorette parties. But walk a few blocks inland from the boardwalk and you’ll notice the seedier sections of the city, the abandoned buildings and weed-filed lots. The formerly grand Victorian downtown grid of Monopoly fame is now occupied by wig shops, cash for gold stores, and massage parlors.
AC is essentially a Rust-Belt town without the abandoned factories. Unlike Buffalo or Detroit, AC’s decline was caused by a shift in American’s taste for vacation spots. In the early 20th century, the boardwalk and hotel attracted throngs of people by train from the population centers of Philadelphia and New York City. But when cars became widespread, Americans found that they could just as easily drive anywhere else for their vacation.
The casinos, first built in the late 1970s, were supposed to be the tourniquet that would stop the bleeding. In the 1980s, the developers erected a long line of these enormous gambling dens along the rest of city’s beach front, but the economic prosperity that many expected never really came. It got worse when Maryland and Pennsylvania and other nearby states legalized gambling. The cracks began to widen. The 2008-9 financial crisis ripped open the wound even more. To many observers, AC’s nail in the coffin was the recent closure of the $2 billion Revel, which opened in 2012. Three other casinos closed that year, including Trump Plaza.
The signs of AC’s former grandeur were still visible on my visit–the Victorian houses and the old convention hall, which I had never heard of. One can hope that AC will find its way and become great again.