Atlantic City’s Last, Last, Last, Last, Last, Last Chance

In 1976, the Shore's most famous resort turned to gambling to save itself. Three and a half decades later, there's just one thing that might prevent its ultimate demise: turning away from gambling

As Jimmy tells his story, more cops descend on the scene, with enough personnel and weaponry to quell a riot. They seem to think the shooter (or shooters) is holed up in a three-story brick apartment building. They’ve got a police dog. An ambulance. Two dozen cop cars. A tactical team with body armor, assault weapons and a riot shield. A couple officers have rifles trained on the stairway into the building.

Trying to get a better look, I position myself right in front of the action. But I’m too close for the cops’ taste, and—at a moment when it looks as if they may actually rush the building—they start screaming at me to get lost. Naturally, neighbors have congregated to stare. But they don’t seem too surprised by the spectacle.

The tense standoff ends anticlimactically a few minutes later. The police haul a pair of young black men off in handcuffs, and the victim is quickly treated for a minor gunshot wound in the leg. Luckily, no tourists are around to see any of it—Revel is, after all, still a construction site.

Still, incidents like this keep Atlantic City’s tourism boosters up at night. It will be hard to sell the town as a fun and safe seaside resort if future Revel guests see SWAT teams when they look out their windows. An even bigger problem, though, might be Jimmy. Few visitors will witness the aftermath of a shooting, but Atlantic City is full of drifters, dreamers and drug users. If Governor Christie and the casinos get their way, Jimmy and his ilk will soon be pushed back from the Boardwalk, exiled to more distant blocks.

It may not be humane, but for a city that once again hopes to make it as an actual resort town, it’s probably necessary. The commute between glamour and grit in Atlantic City is as short as an elevator ride to a hotel’s first floor and a walk through the lobby. At 11 p.m., about five hours after the shooting, I leave my room at the Chelsea Hotel for a short stroll. In four blocks along Pacific Avenue, I pass two cash-for-gold stores, see police officers putting cuffs on a shirtless man who looks to be both homeless and intoxicated, and avert my eyes after spotting a bag lady pulling- up her rubber pants, presumably after urinating under the balcony of the nearby Econo Lodge.

You can see similar sights most anywhere on Pacific Avenue, which serves as the feeder street to the vast garages of the beachfront casinos. The whole scene is a collection of pawnshops, low-rent sex stores, bail bondsmen, abandoned buildings and vacant land, broken up by an occasional local restaurant or retailer. And everywhere there are people like Jimmy—on the hustle—who make their beds in run-down boardinghouses or under the Boardwalk.

Earlier that day, former Atlantic City mayor and current state senator Jim Whelan showed me around his town. I was struck by two facts: First, many of Atlantic City’s most appealing sections, like the thriving immigrant neighborhood of Chelsea, aren’t directly on the tourist track, and second, so many of its most tawdry blocks are right there on Pacific Avenue, or on streets leading to the Boardwalk itself. Atlantic City, Whelan acknowledged as we toured, does a miserable job of hiding its misery.