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

FOR ATLANTIC CITY, that means the Boardwalk. The state-run tourism district is the latest in a long line of initiatives designed to restore the walkway’s faded glory. As imagined by Christie, the district will pump up policing, roust the homeless who take shelter beneath the Boardwalk, provide free family entertainment (think stilt walkers and live music), and ease redevelopment along the Boardwalk and the big avenues of Pacific and Atlantic. Casino operators could not be more enthusiastic. Gomes, the Resorts boss, likens the new strategy to the University of Pennsylvania’s public-safety offensive of the ’90s. Like Penn, Gomes says, the Boardwalk needs a high-profile police presence. He wants bike patrols and high-tech camera surveillance systems, like those at Penn, to create “a sense of security.”

It’s an appealing analogy. Like the casinos, Penn looked inward for decades as the city grew more impoverished and dangerous. And that strategy backfired, as it did for the casinos. The best students and faculty began to stay away from the university.

And so Penn retooled. It acquired and developed land, formed a business improvement district, and ramped up security patrols. The neighborhood rebounded, and so did Penn’s academic standing. But Gomes is leaving a lot out of the West Philadelphia story. Penn also made a long-term investment in a local public school. It offered low-interest loans to professors and staff willing to move to the area. The university’s leaders realized, in other words, that police and physical development weren’t enough. Penn needed to fully engage its neighborhood in order to change it.

“The problem with the tourism district is, it continues to imagine the casinos and the Boardwalk as separate from the city,” says Temple’s Bryant Simon. Langford, the city’s black mayor, puts it another way. He calls it “apartheid.” Langford felt left out of the loop when Christie created the district with state legislators. But there’s more to his objections than hurt feelings.

When I ask if he at least supports the aims of the district—including its call for stepped-up policing of the Boardwalk—he replies: “Not at the expense of the indigenous people who live here. The more serious crimes, the murders, the shootings, are all in the neighborhoods. So what are we really saying? … That we care about tourists but we don’t give a damn about the residents?”

Then he lets me in on a secret: There aren’t any more cops in the tourism district now than there were a year ago, before it was formed. Early talk of having state troopers on patrol didn’t pan out, and Langford himself helped spike a plan to assign 200 of the city’s 330 cops exclusively to the district. “It’s a hoax,” he says of the enhanced police presence.