Pulse: A.C. Journal: Unplugged

“If the Civil War were today, the South would win hands down,” wrote Glenda McCardle to her hometown newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, after a recent visit to Atlantic City.

The occasion for such a weird proclamation? The casino shutdown. In the industrious South, casinos were some of the first businesses to reopen in the aftermath of Katrina, and that was an act of God. The three-day closure of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos was an act of indolent government.

Glenda had a point. Because of New Jersey’s budget fiasco, an estimated $1.3 million in tax revenue a day was lost, as was some credibility and goodwill for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, which has spent millions marketing the town as “Always Turned On.” Despite the non-gaming attractions opened in the weeks leading up to the shutdown — the stunning Pier at Caesars glamoramall, the Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck restaurants at the Borgata — the A.C. I saw during the shutdown was thoroughly and decidedly turned off.

And it was good. Sometimes you need to be reminded that there’s an actual city in Atlantic City.

Until it’s gone, the source of the weird tension that’s usually in the air in A.C. is hard to place. People come here, in essence, to be assaulted with that overdraft-notice feeling, a low-grade anxiety that has to be the result of the collective loss of money by people who could really use a win. When the assault stops, the relief is palpable. Walking the streets, I couldn’t help but notice that not a single person I saw wasn’t smiling. (I didn’t run into Glenda.) There was a mildly disoriented-looking couple carrying waffle cones and laughing. Kids slurped at chocolate-dipped frozen custard on the Boardwalk outside an amusement park I’d never noticed. The just-opened It’Sugar candy store in the Pier at Caesars, a glitzy two-story monument to confection, was abuzz with families. “They started banging on the doors at eight, right when the gambling stopped,” the manager told me. “They were a little ticked we weren’t open yet.” For the first time, a day in A.C. felt like a day at the beach.

But it took the shutdown to demonstrate how much potential A.C. has if it manages to expand beyond gambling. The blackjack table and the beach exist to serve separate human needs: one for risk and action, one for repose and outlet shopping. To make these things work together requires imagination. The magnificent new Pier is a great start. But except for families getting glucose hits, it was largely empty during the casino shutdown. And as Glenda reminded the citizens of Raleigh: “We chose [A.C.] not for the beaches, but for the casinos and the gaming they offer.”

Gaming isn’t going to be enough anymore. Today, half the states in America have legalized casino gambling in some form or other, whether it be riverboats, slots, or full-scale emporia of luck like A.C.’s. Even Pennsylvania, where you can’t buy a late-night bottle of wine, will open slot parlors, and New York is set to do the same.

All of this is why Atlantic City remains in such a precarious spot—and why the town needs you, to come back, to eat, to shop and swim (but mostly to shop). Louis Vuitton, Coach and Burberry are all here, charging Governor Corzine’s seven percent sales tax. Two casinos — the Borgata and the Trump Taj Mahal — have opened 10 new restaurants and nightclubs since June, and 10 more await when the Pier opens its awe-inspiring third floor. You may not realize it, but A.C. turns out to be an awesome place to play Skee-Ball and get a sugar fix in the ocean breeze.

So please. It’s time to show that there’s more to A.C. than gaming. Prove Glenda wrong. The outcome of the next Civil War could depend on it.