PANIC SEIZED ME twice on my last trip to Atlantic City.
The first occasion: I’m in the fifth-floor bar of the Chelsea Hotel at happy hour, enjoying what began as a quiet drink alone. Suddenly the room fills up around me. People pack in on all sides. The women, I can’t help but notice, are young and simply stunning. Eventually it sinks in: They’re models. Almost all of them are models.
I am in Atlantic City, and I am surrounded by models.
The crowd grows larger still. The new arrivals are more earthly, but still elegant. I see big watches on the men and big diamonds on the women. There is a coral-blue handkerchief in the pocket of a black Armani suit. I look down at my flip-flops. I observe my worn four-year-old striped, collared shirt. Was it from Old Navy? The Gap? It’s one thing to feel underdressed and outclassed in Miami Beach. You expect that. But I was not prepared to feel seriously out of my league in Atlantic City, not at a hotel bar at 5 p.m. on a Thursday. This is the dying city?
At the bar, I hear that the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino wants to build in Atlantic City. Patrons swear to me that the nightclub scene is far hotter than anything Philadelphia offers. They tell me about the huge musical acts that perform weekly, the amazing- spas, the cool multi-ethnic vibe of the Chelsea district. They point north and tell me about Revel, the under-construction super-resort billed by many as Atlantic City’s savior. They say: A.C. is back, baby.
The second moment of panic comes 24 hours later, as I near the Revel construction site, when a cop in body armor wielding an assault rifle screams at me—with actual urgency in his voice—to get the fuck away lest I get hit by a stray bullet.
LONG BEFORE THIS TRIP, and without ever really thinking all that hard about it, I had somehow decided that Atlantic City just wasn’t the place for me. I enjoy gambling only when I win, so I couldn’t see too much reason to go. That ambivalent take was all wrong. As I soon figured out, Atlantic City is packed with good reasons both to stay the weekend and to stay the hell away altogether.
A few years ago, Atlantic City would have been more or less indifferent to a non-gaming- tourist like myself. Not anymore. Gaming- revenue, the city’s lifeblood, has been in free fall three years running. Casinos with famous names—Resorts and the Trump Marina—have been sold off for less than some Shore vacation homes. The Hilton-, the spot where Frank Sinatra used to perform, stopped paying its mortgage in 2009.