The thesis of Ovid Demaris' book about Atlantic City's emergence as a casino town is expressed in its closing paragraph: "Gambling is a parasitic enterprise that thrives on the weaknesses of people," he writes. "It leaves in its wake corruption, debasement, despair, and the subversion of moral authority."
"The Boardwalk Jungle" is not about the former -- the broken families or lost retirement checks that can be the legacy of gambling -- but the latter, the effect the casino industry has on the politicians who administer it and the city that hosts it. And to hear Demaris tell it, it's not a pretty picture.
More than two decades ago Demaris wrote a bestselling book about Las Vegas called "The Green Felt Jungle." With some of the same enthusiasm, but not the same rich history, he now tackles Atlantic City, the fabled resort that fell on hard times when the world began passing it by in the 1950s. "The Boardwalk Jungle" is peopled with politicians looking for the main chance, creeps who want to run the Mafia and casino owners who hang around with the wrong crowd.
But does organized crime run Atlantic City's gaming industry?
First, in the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I should say that I have not only gambled in Atlantic City since Resorts International opened the first casino there eight years ago, but I have also received complimentary rooms, food and beverages from several casinos in which I've played.
But even the most degenerate gambler or pampered visitor to Atlantic City can't help but conclude, as Demaris does, that the grand experiment of legalizing casino gambling there has failed. When New Jersey citizens voted to permit casinos in Atlantic City, politicians promised the state would profit from increased tax revenue and Atlantic City would blossom anew.
The state did begin pocketing tax monies (about $800 million so far) but, except for the 11 flashy casino-hotels, Atlantic City is still in decay. Politics has been in disarray, housing is substandard and more local businesses have closed than opened -- there's only one supermarket and no movie theater in the town.
Oh, 40,000 new jobs were created, but the havoc land speculators and the casinos visited upon the local real estate market means decent, affordable housing is nearly nonexistent in Atlantic City. And, sure, people are returning by the busloads, but they usually pour their money into casino coffers and go directly home. The average gambler stays six hours in Atlantic City, compared with three days in Las Vegas.
One of the most important parts of "The Boardwalk Jungle" is the examination of state politicians and bureaucrats charged with regulating the casinos. The politicians were the ones who said that if the casinos didn't work, they could be closed down, which Demaris correctly points out is akin to putting the genie back in the bottle.
And he argues that state authorities have been largely outgunned from the start, despite tough talk from Gov. Brendan Byrne, who thundered, "I've said it before and I will repeat it again to organized crime: Keep your filthy hands off Atlantic City! Keep the hell out of our state!"
The original five members of the state's Casino Control Commission included a housewife, an heir to a pharmaceutical empire and a small-town mayor who also owned a car dealership. The commission's makeup may have been politically advantageous, but fielding that team against the sharpies of the gaming industry is like sending a swordsman against a tank.
I can't share Demaris' outrage at the casinos' practice of hiring well-connected lawyers and lobbyists to secure their licenses and, later, favorable gaming rules. You don't have to look any further than Capitol Hill to conclude that you buy the best talent available to plead your case, whatever the forum. But I share his concern about New Jersey's naive approach to overseeing the casinos.
Some of the sins Demaris lays at the feet of the casinos -- increased prostitution, a burgeoning crime rate, the rise of clip joints and drug pushers -- could just as easily have occurred in Atlantic City had the Pentagon decided to build a major military facility there.
* The greater questions for Atlantic City and its citizens revolve around rebuilding the place, keeping the casinos honest and dealing with the social toll -- Demaris' "debasement and despair" -- that sometimes goes hand in hand with gambling.
That is clearly the burden of the politicians who were wrong in thinking the prospect of easy money would lead to easy solutions.