Atlantic City’s Last Roll

It was in 1982—just six years after the legalization of gaming in New Jersey, when Atlantic City was a broken-down, burnt-out community betting its future on Americans’ insatiable appetite for gambling–that Bruce Springsteen released the song “Atlantic City”: “Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

The Boss was prescient. Atlantic City did come back, thriving for nearly 30 years by sucking on the narcotic teat of casino gambling. But, today, in the midst of the worst recession in 70 years, with surrounding states legalizing gaming and cannibalizing Atlantic City’s economic base, the Queen of Resorts again finds herself in a fix.

And this one might be all or nothing.

Last Thursday, local attorney Damon Tyner, son of the first president of the City Council and brother of a local cop, pulled his sedan into an empty expanse of grass just off the boardwalk’s main drag. Before him lay Bader Field, Atlantic City’s original airport and, indeed, the source of the very word “air-port.” In 2008, development rights at Bader Field were put up for bid, initially valued at $1 billion. Then the recession hit. No bids came. No development materialized. Next to the empty lot sits Flyers Skate Zone, an indoor skating rink, and next to that is the defunct Bernie Robbins Stadium, a onetime minor league baseball field that closed last year.

“Now it’s fallen into disrepair,” Mr. Tyner said, sitting in his car. “It’s just really sad.”

In the distance sat the nearly complete Revel, a $2 billion skyscraper on the boardwalk that was designed to host 20 restaurants, a 1,900-room hotel, three theaters and more.

Then that developer ran out of money. An impossibly tall crane now slumbers at the skyscraper’s side. Mr. Tyner said he hasn’t seen the crane move in four months.

James Leonard, a local attorney and the publisher of a local magazine called The Boardwalk Journal, sat in the back seat of Mr. Tyner’s car. He called Atlantic City a “prophecy unfulfilled,” an apt description for a place with so much promise, a repository for so many dreams.

The following afternoon, a Friday, the scene outside of Caesars and Bally’s was relatively vibrant, though surely a mere hint of the life the city could throb with, if city and state leaders act now. On the beach, early-afternoon drinkers thronged Sammy Hagar’s thatch-roofed bar. Waves lapped against the Pier Shops at Caesars–a brand-new mall, replete with high-end stores and now in foreclosure. Outside, children played, seagulls swooped and small crowds–but crowds, nonetheless–ambled along the boardwalk, eating Rita’s ice custards, holding hands, bickering. There were even teenagers pushing a few women down the boardwalk in wicker rolling chairs.

Since 2007, gaming revenue in Atlantic City has fallen more than 25 percent; the city has lost 12,000 jobs; Resorts Casino was bought in foreclosure for a mere $35 million (in 2001, it cost $140 million); and the $2 billion Revel project has run out of money. Third quarter of this year, even the revenue at the city’s new flagship casino, the Borgata, was down compared to the year before. Caesars’ revenue actually dropped 43 percent.

Desperate, the city is considering a full-body makeover–looking to Atlantic City’s pre-gaming past, to a time when it was known more for its boardwalk and family atmosphere than its glassy-eyed, bused-in senior citizens giving their Social Security checks in nickels to one-armed bandits, not to mention Carl Icahn and Donald Trump. The crisis has forged an unusual alliance of business and civic leaders, state and local officials, Republicans and Democrats, all of whom agree on one thing: Atlantic City needs to reinvent itself once again, and it needs to do so now.

“I think it’s a Kennedy quote–when you’re in a foxhole, everybody’s the same color and creed–and guess what, fellas, everybody’s in the foxhole now,” said former state senator and longtime civic leader William Gormley on Friday morning. He chuckled devilishly. “It’s foxhole time!”

In the premiere, slated for Sunday, of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO drama set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, the town’s de facto boss, Enoch Johnson, marks the arrival of Prohibition with a decadent, New Year’s Eve-style party. When the clock hits midnight, Champagne flows. Black balloons cascade from the ceiling. Women in sumptuous, glittery dresses carouse with men in tuxedos.

This was Atlantic City’s first major reinvention, into the nation’s original Sin City.

Incorporated in 1854, Atlantic City began life as a spa town, the kind of place doctors would send patients for the lugubrious salt air. It developed into a popular resort, known for its beaches and its boardwalk (originally designed to diminish the amount of sand patrons trailed into the hotel lobby).

“[I]t was the first city in the country built from scratch and devoted entirely to the production and public consumption of entertainment,” writes historian Bryant Simon in Boardwalk Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.

Essential to the experience was segregation. Visitors would pay handsomely to have an underpaid African-American local push them down the boardwalk in a wicker rolling chair like some sort of mid-century royal. To have a black servant, even for an hour, gave them the fantasy that they’d arrived.

“On the rolling chair, he was transformed into a king, a big man, a real American,” Mr. Simon writes. “Atlantic City’s ability to stage this public performance of racial dominance, conspicuous consumption, class leveling, and social climbing turned the resort into one of the single most popular tourist destinations in American between 1915 and 1965.”

Then desegregation arrived, and with it, white flight, the arrival of competing resorts like Disneyland and Disney World, and the increasing affordability of air travel. By the time 1970 rolled around, Atlantic City was in trouble. Middle-class white families were fleeing the city for the suburbs, leaving abandoned, unsellable homes in their wake. Tourists no longer flocked to the seashore. Stores on the boardwalk closed. In 1976, Brendan Byrne, then the governor of New Jersey, legalized gambling. In 1978, Atlantic City’s first casino, called Resorts, opened on the boardwalk. This was Atlantic City’s second reinvention.

The arrival of gambling resurrected the city’s economic base, providing thousands of jobs; it also pumped millions of tax dollars (now $1 billion a year) into state coffers.

Yet legalized gaming had its downsides. Main Street businesses were sucked into the new citadels rising on the boardwalk: immense, self-contained gaming universes, their facilities designed without windows or clocks so as to upend the diurnal cycle; and with restaurants, bars and hotels, so that visitors could eat, drink, gamble and sleep     without ever having to leave the safety of the casino walls.

“With the coming of the slot machines and green felt tables, local leaders essentially turned the city over to casino executives, letting them serve as urban planners,” Mr. Simon writes.

From the standpoint of Atlantic City residents, this was not the wisest of decisions. Its downtown was decimated. “When we voted for casino gaming, we had a thriving central business district,” recalled Mayor Lorenzo Langford, a lifelong Atlantic City resident. But the casino legislation was written in such a way as to destroy just that. In order to get a casino license, developers had to attach a hotel and create “public space” like dining and retail.

“So right away, unlike Las Vegas, where you might pull in off the street and go into a saloon and there’s a slot machine right in the saloon, forget about it–if you ain’t got a hotel attached to your casino with at least 500 rooms, you get no license,” the mayor said. “And so what happened was, all of the finer shops that were on the avenue decided to leave for greener pastures. They became located inside of the casinos.

“They were replaced with your dollar stores and your John’s barbers,” the mayor continued. “No offense to John’s barbers, but that landscape now became dedicated to only one segment of the population, and that was the low-income population, and that’s why you had this transformation of what once was a very vibrant, thriving central business district with something for everybody being reduced to just a bunch of bargain stores.”

“Atlantic, between Mississippi and Tennessee avenues, used to be the main shopping hub,” recalled Mr. Tyner, the local lawyer. On Thursday afternoon, the avenue’s assets included “live nude girls” as well as a failed restaurant named Pat’s Steaks, now an open-air drug market.

Atlantic City’s Last Roll