Can We Fall in Love Again with Atlantic City?

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The Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, NJ
The Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, NJ

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The Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, NJ
The Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City, NJ

At the beginning of summer, when people head to carefree destinations, I went to …. Atlantic City. That’s where four of the 12 ocean-front casinos went bankrupt in 2014 leaving thousands of empty hotel rooms and acres of abandoned gaming space. The city itself has been on the brink of insolvency since at least 2010.

Economic-development officials turn to gambling as an economic quick-fix, even as Atlantic City has for decades been the poster child of gaming-industry failure. Atlantic City was poor and struggling when gambling came in 1976 to much fanfare. It’s still poor and its unemployment is growing as gaming-related jobs evaporate.

I was curious what gambling had wrought over 40 years. The saturday of Memorial Day weekend was glorious as I entered the lifeless city and parked in the nearly empty garage of the Taj Mahal casino, festooned with priapic gold-painted onion domes. The casino is still emblazoned with Donald Trump’s name (the fees for its use constituting his only involvement, since he ceded his ownership to various sucker investors through bankruptcies in 1991, 1992, and 2004.) The Taj filed for bankruptcy again in 2014. It still operates though press reports of its imminent closure appear regularly.

Inside, the ambience is of worn pomp. (Rows of monumental chandeliers disappear into the distance). A smattering of low rollers cranked the slot machines—not what you would expect on what should probably be among the busiest weekends of the year. Travel websites brim with complaints of dirty rooms, grimy windows, mold, and rude staff. Rust visibly seeps from exterior metal panels. Trump has petitioned to have his name removed.

Stepping outside the casino’s cigarette haze (smoking still permitted!) dispelled the spell of impending doom. The boardwalk was swarming and the beach was jammed with a panoply of races and cultures in outfits ranging from overabundant flesh stuffed into far too little fabric to women in head scarfs pulling up wind-fluttered ankle-length dresses as they danced giggling in the waves. […]

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