From the 1870s to the early Twentieth Century, Atlantic City had become America's Atlantis. A bizarre and wild city rose above the nation's first boardwalk as unregulated and unchecked gambling emptied the pockets of the elite to erect palaces lost to black and white photographs of another time.
By the time Prohibition was enforced in the 1920s, Atlantic City sealed its fate in lawlessness. It's bloated economy was built on crime, and in order to sustain itself Prohibition was ignored. Atlantic City developed a deserved reputation as "The World's Playground." Anything went, and visitors and investors knew it.
|Fake windows echo a city's former glory, but provide views of nothing.|
Unfortunately the Great Depression hit just before Prohibition was repealed. By the time Atlantic City was in a position to legally regulate the sale of alcohol, those driving its economy had retreated home to maintain their fortunes.
That's when Atlantic City fell apart.
Every city along the East Coast, the Rust Belt, and the Great Lakes got hit by the Depression, and many rebounded. But Atlantic City had long overlooked an organized criminal element, one that needed the wealthy to survive. When the wealthy left, the crime remained, and Atlantic City found itself without the resources to police a criminal element turning to new avenues to support itself.
Between the Great Depression and the 1960s, Atlantic City suffered through its darkest days. Thousands of residents employed by its illegal gaming halls were forced to find work elsewhere. The city's crime and poverty continued to drive many of those residents to the suburbs. With a car or two in every garage, vacationers were traveling to healthier shore towns, even to Long Island or exploring the cleaner, warmer coasts of the Southeast.
In 1976, with no other option than to revisit the one characteristic that once made it an attraction, New Jersey voters legalized gambling in Atlantic City. But the appeal of its glory days had long since faded, and the illegal gambling that was once just an incidental factor in a successful city is now corporatized behind windowless gaming halls facing the city's should-be attraction: the ocean.
Legalized gambling works, but it works in isolation, not integration. The only city that's managed to thrive from gaming is Las Vegas, and it works because it's in the dessert hundreds of miles from anything. The casinos don't contribute to a healthy Atlantic City for the same reason casinos wouldn't work on Market East or North Broad Street. Attempting to tether a casino to a city's individuality is like asking the gamblers within to take a tour of the Liberty Bell. They're there to gamble and nothing else.
|Without a buyer, Revel Casino could find itself abandoned.|
With casinos popping up around Pennsylvania, even in Philadelphia and other major cities, gamblers don't need to travel to Atlantic City for a wild night of wasting cash. They can just drive to Harrah's in Chester or fly to Las Vegas for the true experience. Atlantic City's casinos are showing signs of wear from national competition and proving that its proximity to the shore is meaningless.
The city's failed effort to return to its roots exposed the flaw in those roots, and that in order for Atlantic City to succeed, it needs to learn how to act like a real city. Something New Jersey hasn't understood since Trenton was relevant.
Revel Casino has declared its second bankruptcy in two years, and if it can't find a buyer could wind up an abandoned blight at the end of America's first boardwalk. Ask Detroit what a dead skyscraper does for a city's morale.