The get-rich-quick town is going broke. Again.
On a recent breezy Saturday night, row after row of slot machines at the Trump Plaza sat eerily unused, their symmetrical, semi-synchronized blinking creating a sort of hall-of-mirrors effect. In a few days, almost immediately after Miss America contestants pack up their sashes and crowns, the casino will close. The Revel, a $2.4 billion gleaming white elephant completed only after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) offered $261 million in tax credits, shuttered just two weeks earlier. Its 57 glittering, vacant stories cast a long shadow over the empty lots and broken-down brick homes just across South Metropolitan Avenue.
All together, five of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos are expected to close this year. The onslaught of job losses, totaling at least 8,000, briefly turned one of the city’s celebrated convention centers into a makeshift unemployment office. With its biggest employers and taxpayers folding, and nearly a third of the city already below the poverty line, the city’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk bond status.
In short, the World’s Playground is in crisis.
Yet, somehow — despite being the subject of one of Bruce Springsteen’s dourest songs, no small feat given that the Boss’s oeuvre includes an entire album about 9/11 — Atlantic City remains a font of optimism. Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact; but maybe everything that dies someday comes back: That essentially was the mantra of this town long before Springsteen crooned those lyrics in 1982. For more than a century, Atlantic City has died and reinvented itself again and again, experiencing a boom-blight-boom cycle like perhaps no other place in America.
In a way, Atlantic City is both a parable for, and parody of, the American spirit of ingenuity. Each time the city’s economy threatens to finally fall into the ocean for good, it hatches some new, crazy, long-shot, bet-it-all-on-black scheme for self-rejuvenation.
During Prohibition, the bet was moonshine, since the city’s political machine was one of the few in the country willing to ignore the 18th Amendment. Around the same time, the city birthed the Miss America pageant, a stunt initially created to extend the tourist season. The city then invested in its big, noisy convention business. For years, Atlantic City hosted the conferences of every major professional group — doctors, teachers, salesmen and even mafiosos — until, of course, other cities got into that lucrative game, too.
Then, in the desperation of the mid-1970s, Atlantic City convinced the state to legalize gambling, here and here only.
In an interview, Jos. F. Bradway Jr., who was mayor at the time, described other brash revitalization strategies the city considered. Offshore oil drilling, for example. Or luring the Concorde to Atlantic City, since New Yorkers were reportedly unhappy with the jet’s noise.
“We thought about trying to attract insurance companies, or some other major industries here,” Bradway said. “But we didn’t have the educational base or employment base to do it.” Even today, more than a quarter of the city’s population lacks a high school diploma.
A pattern emerges: Rather than investing in longer-term growth strategies such as education, infrastructure or industrial diversification, Atlantic City has taken the roulette route, often involving some trade considered too distasteful for other jurisdictions to subsidize, let alone legalize. (The strategy lives on: Last year Atlantic City reportedly boasted “the country’s first strip-club-in-a-casino,” when Vegas casinos were offering only “topless stage shows.”) When faced with financial bankruptcy, it doubles down on the profitability of moral bankruptcy.
This works for a little while, until other cash-strapped jurisdictions start loosening their scruples, too.
Atlantic City lost its near-monopoly over drunken debauchery almost immediately after the country repealed Prohibition, and more gradually lost its grip on conventions, beauty pageants and gambling. In recent years, officials have tried to revive the gimmicky strategies of the past — by offering the Miss America pageant millions in subsidies to return to its home town (it had moved to Las Vegas), for example, or building a second gargantuan convention center — but so far such efforts have disappointed.
Yet other U.S. cities are increasingly adopting Atlantic City’s fast-buck approach to fiscal salvation. Regressive state-run lotteries have proliferated in the past decade, since politicians seem to consider them free money. States are fighting to open more casinos and to expand into other forms of gambling. New Jersey itself is considering casinos in the northern part of the state — perhaps at the swampy, stranded Meadowlands, which, like A.C., is also a giant taxpayer money pit that’s nigh impossible for New York’s high-rollers to get to.
Don’t be surprised if more states start trying to cannibalize Colorado’s and Washington state’s cannabis revenue, too. I haven’t yet heard pot legalization as a revitalization strategy for Atlantic City, but just wait. Sooner or later, it might be in the cards.