Yet for all its problems, and despite that line of carnival-barking politicians who’ve ended up in jail, people keep coming to Atlantic City. For a long time, they came for the gambling. But before that, they came for the Boardwalk and the beach. Increasingly, they come for the food, nightlife and shopping. Whatever the reason, there’s something about Atlantic City. And that gives the place a fighter’s chance not just of surviving, but of thriving.
It’s intriguing to imagine what Atlantic City would look like today had gambling never been legalized. The most popular theory is that the city’s decline would have continued, even more middle-class residents would have fled, and the community left behind would be more abandoned and worse off than it is now. Maybe so. But it isn’t hard to come up with an alternate ending.
Before the casinos came, Atlantic City was emerging as a gay resort destination. Maybe it would have become Jersey’s Fire Island. The streets of Chelsea offer up another model: Atlantic City as a destination for immigrants. Or perhaps a few of the great hotels of the past would still be here, ripe for renovation by some forward-thinking- developer, just as Congress Hall was reborn in Cape May. “It would have been a different place. It would work on a different scale. And maybe it would have been more sustainable,” says Simon. “But you know, beachfront towns, they don’t just die.”
To be sure, Atlantic City is in a dangerous stretch. But it’s not hard to see the potential upside in gaming’s decline: Now, for the first time, the casinos have a profit motive to give a damn about the city itself. And that may be the best reason to think Atlantic City’s future can be better than its past.