Bruce flexes her gleaming white leg and nods down at the four inch stiletto heel strapped to her size eleven foot. This Lady Gaga fan from the Bronx was part of a sellout crowd of screaming, earnest teenagers who packed Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall in late June to toss teddy bears at their pop idol. In the same weekend in which Atlantic City announced its second casino closing in several weeks, the concert feels like a pep rally for this wheezy resort town. But true to the metaphor, a voice from deep in the back bleachers, a thick Jersey brogue, shatters the harmony.
“Sit the fuck down,” the voice said, directing its crapulent anger at Bruce and her friend, who had dared to stand up out of their seats at a rock concert. “Sit down! I can’t see shit!”
Appalled, everyone within earshot stands in protest. When the lights go up at the conclusion of Gaga’s 90 minute set, Bruce explains to me what might have happened had the voice continued to hector, her calves peering menacingly from behind black bars of fishnet.
“I thought I might have had to take off this heel and clock him,” she said, glitter dripping off her eyelashes. “Bash his head right the fuck in.”
The crowd at Revel's HQ Beach Club (Gothamist)
A Wi-Fi Zone on the boardwalk (Gothamist)
For a long time, Atlantic City didn’t need to care about its image.
From 1984 through 1998, while professional wrestlers jumped off its turnbuckles, Mike Tyson beat opponents senseless, and Donald Trump punned his surname all over town, Atlantic City made more money from gambling than all the casinos on the Las Vegas strip.
“There was a time where Las Vegas was really afraid AC was going to take over,” says Dr. David Schwartz, the director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Las Vegas.
The 2007 recession began biting into AC’s bottom line. In 2009, gaming revenue dropped more than 13%, and the next year Governor Chris Christie promised a five-year revitalization plan that included creating a tourism district to be maintained by the casinos and culminated in the construction of Revel, a $2.5 billion casino, the largest single structure in New Jersey. Revel was promised more than $261 million in tax breaks provided they turn a profit.
But gambling revenues kept falling, down by nearly 50% from their high in 2006, from $5.2 billion to $2.8 billion last year. At least four casinos will have shuttered by the end of this year, leaving around 8,000 people out of work. Revel is closing on Tuesday after failing to find a buyer at the Big Lots price of $250 million. Donald Trump is suing to take his name off the casino facades.
Atlantic City was built on slot machines. Since 1984 they have provided the main source of gambling revenue, and currently account for 72% of the casinos’ takes. But over the last decade, casinos across the East Coast have added 36,000 slot machines of their own. “In simple terms, almost every potential Atlantic City customer has a closer, more convenient place to gamble,” Governor Christie’s commission wrote in their report [PDF].
“California tribal casinos make $7 billion a year, and they’ve really hurt places like Reno, Tahoe, Laughlin,” Schwartz says. “But they haven’t hurt Las Vegas. People drive past a lot of casinos to gamble in Las Vegas.”
Schwartz has been a student of Atlantic City since the early 1990s, when he worked at several of the casinos on the boardwalk, including one gig which required him to put on a Mr. Peanut costume.
“Let’s say I live next to an In-N-Out burger. If I just want a burger, there’s no reason for me to drive further. Let’s say there’s a Smashburger two miles away. If I want their fried pickles, I’ll drive past the In-N-Out to get to Smashburger,” Schwartz explains.
“You need to give people a reason to say, ‘yeah, I want something other than the burger.’ In this case, I want something other than the gambling. Atlantic City needs these metaphorical fried pickles.”
Don Guardian (center) being sworn in with his husband Louis Fatato, left (Facebook)
The man in charge of finding Atlantic City’s fried pickles is wearing leather flip-flops, dark blue shorts, and a light blue short-sleeve button-down, the kind your uncle might wear to dinner at the beach. Don Guardian is AC’s new Republican mayor. He studied Russian history in college and has been with his husband, Louis Fatato, for 19 years. They wed in July. Guardian’s silver wedding band is tied around his finger like a nautical knot, two rings converging into one.
Mayor Guardian inherited a comically abysmal set of problems upon taking office earlier this year. A 2010 audit [PDF] by the state comptroller found that Atlantic City, a town with just under 40,000, had hired 11 aides to assist their City Council members at taxpayer-funded salaries as high as $60,000. One of the aides “stated that the only consistent duty she had was to monitor the Press of Atlantic City obituaries daily for individuals from her counselor's ward.”
All of the City Council members received City cars for their personal use with no oversight. Municipal employees had “unlimited” paid sick and leave time. Police officers took an awful lot of sick leave themselves, and cashed out hundreds of thousands of dollars of accrued time that could not be accurately verified. A $200,000 biometric time clock system was supposed to remedy all this in 2008, but as of last year, it had yet to be fully implemented [PDF].
Some of the aides have been fired, but not all of them. City Council members still have their cars while AC is running a projected budget deficit of $40 million, as the casinos have used their legal heft to draw down their taxes owed to the city. The town’s median income is $28,000, and has the second-highest per capita violent crime rate in New Jersey.
Guardian’s voice is warm and melodic, Randy Newman reborn as a business man. For now he is throwing the kitchen sink at his city’s problems, raising property taxes by 29% on residents, offering free land to those willing to build a home and stay for 10 years, and reaching out to the city’s impoverished citizens. A new job center will soon be built downtown to help them find employment.
“We’re not trying to get rid of our poorer residents, they’re part of what makes AC cool too,” Guardian says “They’re an important part of our city’s fabric.”
The mayor runs down some things one might be interested in doing in Atlantic City aside from losing money in a slot machine.
“We have a ballet company, we have a symphony, and this weekend we’ll have a world-class triathlon.” It’s the buckshot strategy, the same tack taken by the restaurant we’re sitting in, Nero’s Chophouse & Sushi Bar in the Tropicana. Plates of prosciutto and cheese sit next to spicy tuna rolls and crab cakes. The velvet drapes can’t decide whether they’re in a coliseum’s anteroom or a Victorian funeral parlor.
The casinos are paying for all this, our hotel rooms, our meals, our alcohol, our plates of salsa and chips at Margaritaville, our Lady Gaga tickets. New Jersey offers them a choice: pay 2.5% more on top of the 8% in state taxes they already owe, or chip in 1.25% to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, who is supposed to contribute to the “urban revitalization of Atlantic City.” To date, none have chosen to pay the taxes.
Mostly their aim is to try and attract more tourists to spend money in town; $30 million goes to the Atlantic City Alliance, who in turn tries to entice me to entice you to spend some time and money in Atlantic City.
To this end, the assembled journalists are shown one of Atlantic City’s most abundant resources: clubs.
Revel’s HQ Beach Club has several immutable rules. Among the most sacred: No prescription medication, and no chewing gum.
“I don’t understand, it’s just gum,” I meekly tell the bouncer, as he tosses my sealed package of Bubblemint Orbit into a trash can. This man is one of more than a dozen who swarm the entrance, searching bags, patting down cargo short pockets, mumbling into headsets the same way Old Navy employees triage cheap khakis. None of them find my comment worthy of a reply. I watch as one shoeless patron is escorted past me and off the premises, boats crossing paths over the River Styx.
“What did I do? What did I do? What did I do? What did I do?” he asks in a nervous yelp, each recitation making what he actually did less and less relevant.
Revel's HQ Beach Club is like being on the set of MTV’s The Grind, only everyone is eating chicken fingers. A magnum bottle of Belvedere and a bevy of mixers costs $900. When you order it, a man in a wetsuit carrying a six-foot flag that says “HQ BEACH CLUB” on it aggressively waves it in front of your table so that the pilots flying the Bud Light ads over the beach can see that you’re important.
Helpfully, we are placed in the VIP section directly behind the DJ booth. My head is still swollen from the previous night’s bottle service, so I sip a tastefully small container of Fiji until my bladder fills up. Someone informs me that I can ask one of the walkie-talkie men to escort me to the bathroom, where the line is at least 30 people deep.
“Can I, uh, can you come pee with me?” I ask.
“Sure!” he replies. It’s clearly not the first time a grown man has asked him to assist in urination. As we approach the bouncer in front of the bathroom, my escort points at me.
“He needs to pee.”
I skip the line, pee, and return to my throne behind the DJ booth.
Back at the hotel, I walk into the commissary to buy some gum. The clerk inside the Borgata’s store is standing in front of a rack of cigarettes and sunglasses. I pick up a newspaper and ask him for a pack of gum.
“Sorry sir, we don’t sell gum here.”
I ask why anyone would trust us with alcohol and large sums of money on games of chance but not chewing gum.
“People tend to stick it places. But here,” he says, pulling a wad of cinnamon Trident out of his pocket. “You can have some of mine. Just don’t tell anyone I gave it to you.”
On a ride to the boardwalk, my Jitney driver, Tom, explains how things used to be.
“We’d get 1,500, 2,500 buses come down on a weekend. Now we’re lucky to get 300. Driving this was a part-time job with full-time money, now it’s a part-time job for part-time money.”
Tom has driven tourists around for 11 years. “It’s a shame the gaming won’t be the same, but we’ll be fine. We’re gonna get that Bass Pro Shop soon, that’s a million visitors a year. Guaranteed.”
“Bass Pro Shop” is the big bead on the rosary of every Atlantic City booster. Located near a cluster of successful outlet stores and across the street from White House Subs, the site of the future Bass Pro Shop signals to some Atlantic City’s future as a shopping destination. Mayor Guardian even used its skeleton as a backdrop for announcing the closure of the Showboat casino.
“The convenience gamblers have abandoned AC and they're not coming back,” says Roger Gros, the publisher of Global Gaming Business, a prominent casino trade publication. Gros has lived in Atlantic City for 30 years.
“I had somebody complain to me the other day that AC gets 70% of its revenue from casinos. Well that's true, but five years ago it was 90%, so it's really coming down, it's getting more balanced, and the shopping is part of that.”
But retail isn’t likely to inhabit the husks of the vacant casino buildings.
“There’s a lot of talented people who are scratching their heads about what kind of alternative uses can be put in place in the places that are going dark,” says Dr. Donald Moliver, a dean and professor of real estate at Monmouth University.
“Retrofitting is expensive in the construction business, which is already expensive in Atlantic City. I just don’t see people banging on anyone’s doors for that sort of thing.”
The mayor and others all profess that the casino closures and the resulting job losses are painful but necessary parts of Atlantic City’s evolution. “I think we need to close at least two more casinos, it's kind of right-sizing the market,” Gros says. “It just stands to reason that you can't have that many casinos open when you've lost that much business.”
Schwartz, the gambling expert, isn’t so sure.
“Some people believe that the key to making the city better is to downsize to five or six casinos. My question is, better for who? Better for the people who own those casinos? Absolutely. Better for the city? If you have 10,000, or 15,000 fewer people working, probably not.”
And there's the matter of casinos that are likely to be built in Jersey City and the Meadowlands. Governor Christie had promised to maintain Atlantic City's monopoly on gambling in the state for the duration of his five-year plan, but now he seems to be more willing to negotiate. Christie may alter his commitment at next month's summit meeting to discuss Atlantic City's fate.
"A North Jersey casino is almost inevitable," Gros says. "We just saw that poll that said the majority of New Jerseyans don't want casinos outside of AC, but that's before anyone starts lobbying for it," Gros adds with a laugh. "AC will have to get on board and get what they can out of it, whether it be a $10 or $50 million a year bribe to kind of go away."
On my last full day in Atlantic City, I take Mayor Guardian’s advice and check out the triathlon on the boardwalk. Children holding cups of Gatorade cheer the Spandex-clad runners, their fannypacks rhythmically bouncing past the signs warning visitors to not feed the packs of feral cats that roam the dunes.
I find some shade and sit down on a park bench next to a bald man reading a copy of the New York Post. He's wearing a red tank top and black mesh shorts. Given the amount of glances he's stealing at the runners, it appears he's too distracted to read the paper.
"Thanks for that great traffic jam out on 30 this morning!" he blurts, shaking with rage. "I sat in my car for forty freakin minutes! Real nice! Real nice, assholes!"
A pack of runners addresses him as they huff past us.
"Go fuck yourself," one wheezes.
"Suck my dick," the second adds.