The Casinos of Atlantic City

The three lives of the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel
Image by Ian Sutton/Creative Commons via flickr

Today, after 34 years, The Atlantic Club, the former Golden Nugget/Bally’s Grand/Hilton, closes its doors. In 1980, the then Golden Nugget became Atlantic City’s sixth casino to open after the 1976 legalization of gambling. Within three years of opening its doors, it became the highest earning casino and represented the height of glamour and possibility, with Steve Wynn at the helm and Sinatra at his hand.

After that vote to legalize gambling, Atlantic City was going to have a revival. It was going to return to its glory days and once again become the “America’s Playground” of the Roaring Twenties when tourism to the city was at its peak, where you could see the famed High Diving Horse at the Steel Pier and enjoy good old fashioned family fun at the beach by day, and sinful pleasure by night. This was the era—currently popularized by HBO’s adaptation of Boardwalk Empire–in which prohibition laws were widely ignored and people flocked to the city from up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Image by Richard Woods/Creative Commons via photobucket

I’m too young to remember the revival of the eighties in AC, but I know that it brought people like my parents who were drawn to the hope and dream of a city becoming something bigger, nostalgically influenced by their childhood memories of family fun at The Shore–the only vacation they had ever been able to afford. I also know that the Golden Age 2.0 never quite materialized in the way residents and government had hoped. Though for a brief moment in the late 1980s it was the number one tourist destination in the country, the chronically high crime and urban problems only increased. The city went into further decline in the 1990s as Wynn abandoned Atlantic City, calling it “the slum by the sea,” and funneled more than $600 Million into the Mirage in Vegas. The Vegas revitalization succeeded, with Wynn vowing “never to return to [New Jersey],” because of heavy regulations and conflict with state officials (as well as a dirty PR battle between Wynn and Donald Trump, with allegations of mob involvement, marital strife, and heavy cocaine use among other things). The introduction and ease of affordable plane travel drew more people in his direction. No matter what Atlantic City tried, it couldn’t keep up. Since 2007, half of Atlantic City’s casinos have filed for bankruptcy.

Today, almost 2,000 people are losing their jobs after a five year struggle by The Atlantic Club to stay afloat. Since 2009 the various owners and holding companies of the casino have defaulted on debt, filed for bankruptcy, and finally the Atlantic Club was sold at auction in December 2013 in an attempt to pay off its creditors. The casino cost $140 Million dollars to build and today was sold for roughly 1/5th of that value for the sole purpose of closing its doors.

This story is not simply one of another casino closing, but rather a collective gasp for air from an entire city: Its businesses, its people, and the surrounding areas that exist because of the industry. The casino was sold for parts, a clunker snatched up by a junkyard to make room for newer models on the street.

This story is not simply one of another casino closing, but rather a collective gasp for air from an entire city: Its businesses, its people, and the surrounding areas that exist because of the industry. The casino was sold for parts, a clunker snatched up by a junkyard to make room for newer models on the street. Caesar’s won the bid over other, higher bidders deemed by the local and state officials as “unqualified buyers,” only to ensure that that the casino would be closed. This was a sacrifice, so that the other flailing casinos can cannibalize the scraps and possibly survive. Stated bluntly by New Jersey Casino Control Commission chairman, Matthew B. Levinson, “No one likes to see a business close, but we are optimistic that market consolidation will result in a stronger and healthier hotel and casino industry in Atlantic City.” This is capitalism at its finest, folks.

Maybe it will work. Maybe Atlantic City will stay afloat or, better, return to its glory days as it has been trying to do for decades now. Growing up in South Jersey with a casino-employed parent supporting my education, my life, and my eventual departure from the state instilled in me a sense of empathy and compassion for the former Boardwalk Empire. Watching this city that I couldn’t help but care for fall time and time again like a drug-addicted friend, constantly searching for the next fix, promising to be better in the future…I can’t say that I’m hopeful.

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream. This town rips the bones from your back.” I took The Boss’ advice, and got out while still young. My heart goes out to my people, to those crushed dreams, and to those who now must start their lives over, again. One day I hope you get to that place you really want to go, and that you too will walk in the sun.

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