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Casinos Are Not the Future: Rebuilding Atlantic City Will Take More Than Gambling

Another flashy resort? Atlantic City should mimic other revitalized Jersey shore towns and just be itself.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Chris Connelly via Flickr

 
 
 
 

This story was originally published at Salon.

Atlantic City and Asbury Park are like two brothers with nothing in common. Both are cut from the same cloth, old Jersey weekender spots with famous seaside boardwalks. But while Atlantic City — or A.C., as he prefers to be called these days — is forever dreaming up new get-rich-quick schemes, Asbury Park has capitalized on the shabby, eccentric charm of his resort-town roots.

A few decades ago, both cities were blighted, tired and crime-ridden. But recently, Asbury Park has become a quirky, lovable place, and Atlantic City is still cycling through flashy one-off “solutions.” Its latest is Revel Resorts, the $2.4 billion megaresort that officially opened last weekend and which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has called a “catalyst” for revitalization.

“It’s a beautiful property,” says Mortimer Spreng, a background actor in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a resident of the city since 1980. “But I think with the city fathers we have, there’s no clear direction for Atlantic City right now.”

Everyone seems to have a theory about what A.C. needs to do to revitalize. Non-casino hotels. Less crime. A better boardwalk. But what you rarely hear is that Atlantic City needs Atlantic City itself. For over 30 years, it’s tried to pretend that it’s not a city at all — recasting itself as just a sliver of hotels and outlet shops barricaded tightly along the water’s edge. That the blocks beyond the boardwalk are useless is treated as a foregone conclusion. They’re too sad, decaying and destitute to ever be anything but a liability, the thinking goes.

You could have said the same of Asbury Park not too long ago — 10 years ago there were only three businesses left on the boardwalk. Today there are 38, and sales of beach passes are soaring year after year. But Asbury Park has moved well beyond its waterfront, including its blighted downtown in its recent redevelopment blitz. “We’re looking to revitalize the whole city, not just the beachfront,” says Tom Gilmour, the city’s director of commerce.

What Asbury Park realized was that being a faded beach town that’s associated with another era — whether that be the swing-band ’30s or the Springsteen ’70s — can actually be an asset. The emotional connection people have with it, says Gilmour, “is absolutely important, and [takes] expertise to make that happen, balancing the old with creating new venues that will attract a new generation … Our best asset we have here is our music. The small clubs are very active now. And we’ve still got the Stone Pony and the Wonder Bar,” the city’s two legendary rock venues, which host performances nightly. “Music is the soul of the city. That’s our economic strategy.”

Atlantic City has at least that much soul. HBO has made the city’s  Nucky Johnson era famous, but what came after that was even wilder — not just the opulent beachfront hotels (torn down in the ’70s) but also nightclubs and swank bars throughout the city: Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club, where you could find Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra crammed into one banquette; Grace’s Little Belmont, where Sammy Davis Jr.’s mother poured drinks behind the horseshoe-shaped bar; and Paradise Club, where a breakfast show entertained patrons who’d made it to sunrise. If Asbury Park was wholesome, Atlantic City was dirty, neon-lit fun.

“It was a cool place to go,” says Jonathan Van Meter, author of “The Last Good Time,” the definitive chronicle of Atlantic City during the Rat Pack era. “And I think that was partly because it was seedy and lawless.” But like many cities, that lawlessness spiraled out of control in the ’60s and ’70s, and only the cash injection from legalized gambling in 1976 staved off total collapse. It also, however, sucked all the city’s nightlife onto the strip, where the casinos were. For a little while, says Van Meter, some of the clubs in the city proper hung on. “When I lived there [in the '80s], on New York Avenue there was a string of 10 gay nightclubs,” he says. “And Club Harlem was still there.” Today, virtually all of these places have been bulldozed or burned down.

 
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