Tuesday, September 9, 2014

the party's over

Atlantic City's history is not unlike the roller coasters that once rose up along its sandy shore. Once renowned as "The World's Playground," the seaside town experienced a construction boom in the early 20th century, with the small rooming houses being replaced by more regal accommodations and anxious visitors eager to take in shows, amusements and the other curiosities of the world-famous Boardwalk. Men were required to wear suit jackets when taking an evening stroll. The majestic hotels offered beach-goers special, hidden access, as decorum prohibited bathing suits on the Boardwalk.

After World War II, the area slumped into poverty. Hotels were vacant, as cheap airfare made places like Miami Beach more appealing. Crime rose and political corruption increased and came to an ugly head when the press showed the city in a negative (albeit truthful) light during the 1964 Democratic Convention.

In 1976, in an effort to reinvent itself, New Jersey passed a referendum allowing casino gambling in Atlantic City. In May 1978, the former Chalfont-Haddon Hall Hotel emerged as Resorts International, the first legal casino on the East coast. It was the "shot in the arm" that Atlantic City's economy needed. Queue lines were steady as patrons waited for hours to gamble. Trying to maintain an aura of class and sophistication, the casinos enforced a dress code. No shorts, no t-shirts, no sneakers, and especially no bathing suits. Men were required to wear a jacket. Atlantic City was once again on the rise.

A little over a year later, Resorts International faced its first bit of competition. In June 1979, Las Vegas heavyweight Caesars opened a casino on the Boardwalk. In addition to cutting into Resorts' monopoly, Caesars offered a relaxed dress code. Jackets were only required after 6 PM. At the risk of losing potential customers (and revenue), Resorts adopted the policy as well. Then, as more casinos opened, regulations regarding attire took a back seat. Dress on the casino floor became "come as you are." At one point, Atlantic City boasted over a dozen casinos. My wife and I played (sometimes winning, sometimes losing) in almost all of them. And we wore whatever we wanted.

The casinos were supposed to reinvigorate the area. They were supposed to create jobs and benefit the surrounding community. They were supposed to. Most casinos were offered tax breaks and special incentives as reward for building in Atlantic City. In reality, the casinos lined their own pockets and regarded the residents with a tall middle finger. Sometimes they even gave that same finger to their own customers. The prevailing attitude was: "We are the only game in town. You wanna gamble somewhere else? The next closest place is Las Vegas and that's 2500 miles away!" Prices were high, service was adequate at best, but attitude was plentiful.

My family visited Las Vegas for the first time in 2003. I was expecting Atlantic City in the desert. Boy, was I wrong! It was more like Disneyland for adults. Each massive hotel was embellished with over-the-top, impeccable theming. There was the Luxor with its frighteningly realistic Egyptian motif. The medieval charm of Excalibur, looking like it popped out of a fairy tale. The incredible authentic detail of New York New York. We were totally captivated and didn't know where to look first. In addition to casinos, there were ridiculously inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffets, nightly outdoor light shows, endless unique shopping areas and extreme thrill rides. While waiting in line at a restaurant, a couple asked where we were from. "Philadelphia," we replied. Puzzled, they asked why would we come to Vegas if we live so close to Atlantic City? My wife and I exchanged knowing glances and answered, "That's a question coming from someone who has never been to Atlantic City." There was no comparison. Atlantic City is no Las Vegas. Not by a long shot. Although it thinks it is.

Closed.  Closed. Closed. Closed. Closed. 
Soon, the states surrounding New Jersey — Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland — all passed casino gambling laws and wasted no time in jumping into the gambling pool. Suddenly, Atlantic City had some serious competition. Although the Atlantic City casinos were obviously feeling the drop in attendance and revenue, they did virtually nothing to help their cause. They still kept their elitist attitude, despite there being less people to wield it upon. 

At nine months into 2014, four Atlantic City casinos have permanently shut their doors, including the 2.4 billion dollar Revel that lasted a mere 29 months. Just this afternoon, it was announced that a fifth would close in November. Yet, Atlantic City turns a blind eye to its own situation and that blind eye refuses to acknowledge the handwriting on the wall.

Atlantic City is like that one pretty girl in sixth grade. All the boys follow her around, giving her their full attention and she is well aware of all of the attention she's getting. But a few years into high school, there are other pretty girls wearing cool clothes and current hair styles. The pretty sixth-grader has now faded into the background. She's still wearing those silly jumpers and that wide white headband to keep her hair in place. She's not as popular as she used to be, but she still has the snobby attitude.

She's all alone on Prom Night and no one feels sorry for her.


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