MAY 26, 1978, the day the Resorts International Hotel and Casino opened its doors for legalized gambling, was a moment of great optimism in Atlantic City. Long-neglected hotels had freshened up their rooms with paint and wallpaper in anticipation of the inevitable hordes of tourists. Crooner Eddie Fisher was booked for a performance at historic Steel Pier, which was scrubbed and renovated.
When Resorts finally opened, the crowds were overwhelming. But the action was largely confined to the casino floor. Hardly anyone turned out to hear old Eddie Fisher, and local businesses—the ones outside the Resorts compound—found their preparations largely wasted. “Redecorated restaurants threw out tubs of clam chowder and trays of baked ziti. Boardwalk store owners stared at tall, undisturbed stacks of salt water taffy boxes. Some businesspeople felt like embarrassed party hosts standing- by doors waiting for guests who never showed up,” writes Temple University professor Bryant Simon in his brilliant history of the town, Boardwalk of Dreams.
That weekend foretold the next 25 years. The casinos made good on their promises of jobs and tax revenues, but they failed utterly to revive Atlantic City’s local businesses and street life. And that’s really the way the casinos wanted it. Like their Las Vegas counterparts, Atlantic City’s resorts were conceived and constructed as self-contained fortresses, designed to isolate gamblers from the outside world as much as possible. Never mind that, unlike Vegas, the Atlantic City resorts were built on an existing urban grid at the ocean’s edge, in a city with a real history and real population. What mattered above all was keeping gamers inside, at the tables and slot machines. And so you got absurdities like a wall of oceanfront casinos almost totally devoid of guest-room balconies.
Perhaps if Atlantic City had had an enlightened, capable government, the great social experiment of legalized gambling on a massive scale would have turned out better. The casinos did, after all, dramatically increase ratables. And they have contributed $1.8 billion—as required by state law—to the state-run Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, or CRDA, most of which has been spent in Atlantic City on projects that include 1,500 new housing units and the Walk, a successful outlet-store complex. But ever since the days of Nucky Johnson, the political boss and racketeer now being glorified on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Atlantic City’s government has been better known for corruption than for competence.
Four of the city’s last 10 mayors—and more council members than I could count—have been brought up on charges. “This is a carnival town,” Whelan says when I ask him about political corruption. “The carnival exists to take your money. And at the carnival, everybody is in on the con.”