ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – On a lead-gray day last week, Lesley Kittler of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, drove to this city by the sea to play a little poker, maybe try her luck on the slot machines, too.
But soon enough, she found herself staring into the hollowed casino legacy of Donald Trump.
As a cut-to-bone wind swept off the choppy Atlantic and across a mostly deserted boardwalk, Kittler took in the ragged remains of the former Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. The casino’s tower was blown up on Wednesday – an event Atlantic City saw as a tourist attraction and moneymaker, with spectators buying viewing spots at a nearby airport for $10 a car.
“It’s exciting,” said Kittler, 41, a former Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman. “But it’s like a piece of history, a piece of life, is going down the tubes.”
Once a glittering centerpiece of the Atlantic City boardwalk with Trump’s name pulsating in lights as motorists drove into town, the faded casino hotel tower looked like a half-eaten corn cob – the tower’s windows long gone and its furniture sold off or tossed into the trash.
As Kittler stood on the boardwalk, the only sign of life in the tower was a team of demolition experts making last-minute checks on the series of dynamite charges that turned the building into dust.
That the explosion took place on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten period of reflection and repentance, when Christians are reminded that their own bodies will someday return to “dust,” was just one of the ironies.
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The other is that Atlantic City sees a chance in the destruction of Trump’s last casino there to redefine its image – yet again.
“We have to turn the page,” Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small told the USA TODAY Network and NorthJersey.com. “We have to get our mojo back.”
But just what is Atlantic City’s mojo, anyway?
Trying to fashion – and re-fashion – some sort of image of itself has been as much a part of Atlantic City’s heritage as saltwater taffy, the Miss America Pageant and a “Diving Horse” plunging into the surf from the Steel Pier.
Once a family resort for the populous midsection of the East Coast in the first half of the 20th century, the city slumped by the 1960s as commercial airlines propelled America’s burgeoning middle class to other vacation spots.
Then came a rebirth. When casinos opened in the late 1970s, Atlantic City boomed, locked in a monopoly on East Coast gambling. Hundreds of buses from northern New Jersey, New York City and Washington, D.C., rolled in each day, filled with slot players and card sharks, many of them senior citizens.
Trump quickly entered the scene, eventually opening four casinos. But by the early years of the 21st century, with Trump hemmed in by debt and bankruptcy and dozens of other states allowing casinos to open, Atlantic City’s fortunes slipped again. Casino revenue plummeted from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.9 billion by 2013.
Five casinos closed. And after gambling revenue jumped to $3.3 billion in 2019 – partly with online betting – the coronavirus pandemic slammed into Atlantic City’s fortunes again.
The city’s remaining nine casinos were forced to shut down in March. They reopened in July, but the damage had been done.
With so many blackjack dealers, cooks, bartenders and other casino workers without jobs, the area’s unemployment rate jumped to 24%. By the end of 2020, Atlantic City’s casino revenue had sunk by nearly 17%, according to industry figures.
Can Atlantic City recover?
This roller-coaster relationship with casinos now shows itself on Atlantic City streets in depressing ways.
While the casinos themselves still appear as glittering magnets for would-be gamblers, the nearby neighborhoods are home to stores that advertise “cash for gold.” Homeless men congregate on street corners in search of handouts from gamblers flush with winnings.
Nearly 40% of Atlantic City’s 39,000 residents live in poverty. The city’s median income of $29,000 is less than half of that of surrounding Atlantic County.
This is hardly a new reality in Atlantic City. Even when casinos were bursting with profits, its neighborhoods floundered.
Today, the city’s north end, once home to run-down, century-old homes, is still a work in progress. Many of the old homes have been torn down and replaced by glittering apartments. But far too many blocks seem like ghost towns, with old houses surrounded by vacant lots.
Can such a landscape be fixed?
If so, how?
Steven Perskie, who lives just a few miles south of Atlantic City in Margate, has heard these questions before. As a state assemblyman and senator in the 1970s, Perskie helped to draft landmark legislation to legalize casino gambling in Atlantic City. After serving as a state Superior Court judge and chief of staff for Gov. Jim Florio, Perskie chaired the state Casino Control Commission. He later worked for a private firm that operates riverboat casinos. In 2018, he was inducted into the Gaming Hall of Fame.
Now Perskie advises Mayor Small.
“The rumors of Atlantic City’s death are greatly exaggerated,” Perskie said in an interview.
What gives him hope now is that what he defines as Atlantic City’s main constituents – residents, city officials, state government, casinos and the city’s non-casino businesses – are “all on the same page.”
Perskie envisions the city soon bringing in new investors as it also transforms its two main business thoroughfares, Atlantic and Pacific avenues. He also says the takeover of Atlantic City’s operations by state officials, a confrontational move by then-Gov. Chris Christie five years ago, has evolved into more of a trusting and working relationship.
But the key to turning the city around, many observers say, is bringing in new financial investors with non-casino entertainment such as amusement parks and theaters.
“What we did in early 1970s worked for a time until the world changed,” Perskie said. “Then it worked again in the late 2000s. Then it changed. Now Atlantic City has to adapt.”
Flirting with greatness
James Hughes, former dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of “The Atlantic City Gamble,” points to upgraded housing as the key to the city’s revival. Another factor, Hughes said, is finding a way to bring in a new generation of gamblers as the baby-boom generation ages.
That’s hardly easy, he cautioned.
“Atlantic City has a lot of competition,” Hughes said. “Can it distinguish itself? I don’t know how it would distinguish itself.”
In the coming decade, Hughes predicted, Atlantic City may face yet another economic struggle rather than basking in a cash-flush revival.
“It’s probably going to be struggling like it is today,” Hughes said.
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Michael Pollock, a former journalist and author of “Hostage to Fortune: Atlantic City and Casino Gambling,” which examined the impact of gambling, said he does not feel the city must redefine itself. It just needs to “rekindle its forward progress.”
Pollock, who is now managing director of a casino consulting firm, said Atlantic City can still regain its place as the East Coast mecca for gamblers. “Atlantic City has always had this flirtation with greatness,” Pollock said. “It’s never been able to achieve that.”
Joe Schwabe once felt that sense of greatness with Trump – in particular the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino that was blown up last week.
Schwabe, a former postal worker in Philadelphia, moved to Atlantic City 12 years ago and now works as a boardwalk guide for the tourists who may need directions. His official title: “ambassador” for the state Casino Investment Redevelopment Authority.
He gambled here and there at the Plaza – mostly playing the slots, and then with only $20. But he came to admire Trump for his showmanship, especially in bringing top-flight boxing matches to Atlantic City.
Now Schwabe sees the Plaza as a reminder of a failed gamble by Trump.
“It’s so sad,” Schwabe said, standing outside the casino’s main door as Levon Helm of The Band chortled the “meet me tonight” line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” over and over from a loudspeaker.
A few blocks away at City Hall, Mayor Small has no regrets about approving the demolition permits that brought down the Plaza. From the Plaza’s dust, Small sees a sunny future for his city.
“We’re the ultimate comeback story,” he said. “We’re always reinventing ourselves.”