ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — There are about as many ideas about how to save Atlantic City as there are residents of Atlantic City (39,551). I don’t say that hyperbolically. When I was there this past weekend every single person I talked to knew exactly what was wrong with it and how to fix it: it’s either Trump’s fault, or the lack of Trump, or because too many casinos opened, or because the casinos aren’t fancy enough—many don’t offer luxury massages and club experiences like in Las Vegas. Or it’s because the city’s inherently gritty casinos tried to be fancy and that was a bad idea. If Atlantic City just goes back to its roots, some people said, perhaps it could be the seedy, smoke-filled pleasure capital of the northeast once again.
All of that is to say that the city personified is a gambling addict, rationalizing its decline at every step down to the bottom and figuring that if gambling is the problem it must also be the solution.
People forget—thanks to its endless concrete and strip malls—that much of New Jersey sits on top of beautiful land, and that Atlantic City is no exception. Beyond the half-working neon signs and drug dealers dealing drugs in plain sight is a nice beach, brown and green wetlands that fade into dark blue ocean, and a rare kind of forest that supports carnivorous plant life.
Until 1976 there were no casinos in Atlantic City. Back then it was a premier resort destination for families who came mainly for the beach. Tourists, too, had long ago started leaving the city as plane tickets became more affordable. Casinos were never a sign of a healthy economy in the city, they just happened to be the city’s original hail mary.
It’s easy to forget all that while you’re here, gambling at a penny slot machine next to a group of girlfriends from Morristown who’ve journeyed to the Trump Plaza to say goodbye on its last day in operation.
“We felt at home,” Barbara Riggs told me as she played nickel slots at 11 a.m. on Monday. “We used to come here and stay a week. It was our first stop, our only stop.”
Riggs and her friends were some of what couldn’t be more than a couple dozen who had come to say goodbye to the casino, which has been open since 1984.
“We all cried when we found out,” Riggs said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re playing until the end.”
The Plaza, a tan box with interiors that only a grandmother could love, is the fourth casino to close in Atlantic City this year. The closures include the $2.4 billion Revel, which was supposed to single-handedly revive Atlantic City by attracting richer clientele when it opened two years ago, but shut down earlier this month. Another city mainstay, the Mardi Gras-themed Showboat shut down in August. And The Atlantic Club, which didn’t really have any distinguishing features, closed in January. Trump Plaza’s slightly swankier sister property down the boardwalk, the Trump Taj Mahal, will most likely shutter in November.
Casino revenue in the city was $2.9 billion last year, the lowest it’s been since 1989, not factoring in inflation. That’s led to 8,000 layoffs this year—25 percent of the casino workforce. Atlantic City’s unemployment rate now stands at 13 percent, twice the state’s average.
Casinos, evidently, could see the writing on the wall.
Trump Plaza never bothered with upgrades over the years. Letters on its neon signs don’t light up. The carpet, in all its dizzying patterns, is uniformly frayed and dirty. The slot machines are caked in cigarette ash.
One Atlantic City resident standing outside the Trump told me you can tell a casino is about to close when they stop buffing the floors.
Monday evening, about 12 hours before it was slated to shut its doors for good, the Trump Plaza stood nearly empty and more quiet than any casino I’ve ever been to. Without players filling the seats at row upon row of slot machines there was no chorus of beeps, no jackpot cha-chings, no banter between drunken friends. When there was a lull in one of the Top 40 songs playing from the overhead speakers I could hear my seat squeak and security guards talking 20 feet away—signs of normal life that ruin the all-encompassing buzz most casinos hire experts for and spend millions of dollars trying to cultivate.
Workdays in the middle of September are definitely not peak times for any casino, but the Harrah’s across town was packed. The hotel check-in line snaked through several turns of rope, the casino floor pulsed with movement, and the celebrity restaurant offshoots and bars were full, despite the $11 cost of well drinks.
Harrah’s, along with the Borgata and Golden Nugget are part of a newer section of Atlantic City separated from everything else, including other businesses, the boardwalk, and all the residents of Atlantic City by two miles of highway. They’re bigger and glitzier than the boardwalk casinos. And because they weren’t plunked down in the middle of an impoverished city, Harrah’s and the like uphold the illusion of fun almost as well as casinos in Las Vegas.
These newer casinos, like their Las Vegas counterparts, seem like a welcome mirage with all their glitzy lights popping up in the middle of nothingness. They make it easy to get lost in the fantasy.
But back on the boardwalk, the fantasy is too jarring to be believable. Its seams are showing. At every opportunity the other Atlantic City presents itself. Right outside the front of the Trump Plaza people beg for money. Less than two blocks away, when I start to interview Donald Harrison, a 52-year-old long-time resident who washes cars on the corner for a living, he tells me we’re surrounded by drug dealers, so I shouldn’t take photos.
“There’s a lot of layoffs, a lot of drugs, and a lot of businesses closing,” he said. “It’s like a financial tsunami.”
Harrison used to work at an auto body shop but was laid off a year-and-a-half ago. His wife is unemployed too. Now he sits on a milk crate on Atlantic Avenue everyday and waits for cars to pull up.
“But they don’t want to pay,” he said. “They want to give you $5 to detail a car. I’m not doing that...But I got a wife at home. I gotta make money. And I rather do it this way than sell drugs.”
Harrison said the city’s current state wasn’t inevitable. When times were good, he said, the local and state governments could’ve used revenues from casinos to invest back into the city.
A law passed in 1977 required casinos to invest two percent of what they made back into the city in the form of public housing and social services. A few years later, after it became clear no casino would meet that requirement, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority was created, and the amount required from casinos each year was lowered to 1.25 percent. Then in 1993, the law was changed to allow the CRDA to reinvest its money not only in public goods, but back into casinos. Now the agency mostly helps revitalize the tourist district and gives multi-million dollar incentives to entertainment and gambling companies to establish roots in the city.
“They promised so much and gave so little to the community,” said Kevin Jackson, another underemployed resident near the Trump Plaza. “They never invested in anything—the youth, toward housing, anything.”
Unfortunately, that ouroboric strategy isn’t unique to Atlantic City. Casinos and other mega-projects have become the go-to saviors of down-and-out economies across the U.S., as politicians find it more politically tenable to give money to private companies than to invest in public infrastructure.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie approved a $390 million tax break for the Xanadu project in the Meadowlands (eventually renamed the American Dream), which was supposed to include an indoor ski jump and a mall rivaling the Mall of America in size. Construction has been stalled for years.
In Texas, the city of Arlington convinced the Dallas Cowboys to move from Dallas by paying for a chunk of a new stadium. The costs forced new taxes on Arlington residents. In Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, governments spent hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure GM didn’t close down its factories. It did. Then it got a bailout. A New York Times investigation found that states and cities were giving away $80 billion a year to corporations in order to lure them away from other locales.
States are also bringing casinos to cash-strapped regions. Thirty nine states now allow gambling. There are now several casinos closer than Atlantic City to big population centers in New York and Pennsylvania.
This poses another problem for Atlantic City: as it tries to revive its gambling industry its having a harder time convincing people they make the schlep. Why go there when New Yorkers and Philadelphians can go to a newer casino closer to home that’s not surrounded by the detritus of a dying company town?
A third of the population of Atlantic City still lives in poverty. And it’s second in the state behind Camden for violent crime. But the city has become so reliant on casinos that questioning whether to support them is a nonstarter. It seems the question for politicians and for many residents has been whittled down from how to fix the city to how to fix the casinos in order to fix the city.
Earlier this month, in the midst of the current casino closure crisis, Gov. Christie travelled to Atlantic City to press for reforms, which were meant to aid in the city’s slow decline. The reforms: more tax breaks and a push to legalize sports betting.
A few hours before its scheduled 6 a.m. Tuesday closing time, the Trump Plaza was even emptier than the night before.
“It’s dead,” said Jessie, a 22-year-old parking attendant at the casino. “You don’t feel the warmth it used to have.”
Upstairs on the floor, employees gathered in the center near the gaming tables, hugged each other and chatted. A cocktail waitress used a napkin to wipe away tears as she carried a drink tray around to the slot machines, but only a few players remained at the slots. None that I saw ordered drinks.
Two men gambled at the one open blackjack table until the last minute. The house won both last hands with two straight blackjacks.
Everyone else there was press, mostly local, chasing after each employee with bulky cameras and microphones as they waved goodbye and stepped out onto the boardwalk for the last time.
For some reason—I guess partially because I didn’t want to be part of the press mob, and maybe because I thought it’d make for a good kicker if I won huge during the last five minutes of a casino’s existence—I decided to gamble.
I found a Dolly Parton-themed slot machine in an empty corner of the casino and stuck in $5. The machine immediately began belting “Jolene” at an obscene level. I hit the volume button but Parton’s Country psalm only increased in magnitude.
Slot machines nowadays are more complex than their predecessors. Their manufactures have figured out that people don’t actually care if they win money, but instead that they feel like they’re “in the zone.” So even if you bet $2 and win back $1, the machine makes the same winning sound.
Itching to leave this sad scene, I tried to waste my $5 as fast as possible. I played the maximum number of lines at once, and my winnings jumped up to $6.20. After two more rounds I was down to $3, then back up, and then down a few rounds in a row until I had a measly 5 cents left.
I clicked the ‘Cash Out’ button, and the machine slowly spat out my useless redemption ticket. Then the machine made a ‘ding, ding, ding’ sound as if I had won the jackpot.
[All images via author]