Off the Cuff

Last November, our cover story proclaimed that Atlantic City had reached the turning point in its comeback as a first-class resort. It seemed to me that change had taken much too long, and I was still somewhat cynical that all the positive signs would stick. The city has long been burdened by a dysfunctional government so bad, it made even Philadelphia look good. Atlantic City has remained decayed, poor, and crime-infested. It almost seemed as though the politicians wanted to keep it that way. How else would they maintain their power base?

Now, though, in what seems like overnight, Atlantic City has changed into an exciting, sexy place, with shopping, superb restaurants and great music — and not just for high rollers. And let’s not forget the beautiful beaches — and fabulous beach bars — that not even Las Vegas can boast. The transformation, it’s clear, is only beginning, so in keeping with our Best of Philly issue, and in the spirit of a midsummer’s night dream, I’m on board: Atlantic City is back!
The tipping point came two years ago, when the Borgata opened. It proved that if you build a quality casino, with name restaurants and exciting nightclubs, they will come, so now the other casinos are expanding. A city that hasn’t been hip since Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack were performing is cool once again; the Showboat’s House of Blues opened a few weeks ago with a concert by rapper Eminem. While I didn’t go, a lot of young people certainly did, and they’ll be back.

Yet the big problem in Atlantic City, since Resorts, the first casino, opened in 1978, has been how to bridge the divide: Even as a teeming world of gamblers played inside the casinos, the downtown was abandoned to drug dealers and prostitutes. One lesson of the casinos coming to town was that the availability of jobs, which the casinos provided by the thousands, did nothing to alleviate the problem: In 1970, eight years before Resorts started dealing, 23 percent of residents lived in poverty; in 1980 — during the height of the casino boom — it was 25 percent, and in 1990, a quarter of Atlantic City’s residents were still languishing. Donald Trump (during the good years) was getting richer; the city continued falling apart.

But now Atlantic City itself is changing. Recently I took a tour of the 27-story Bella condominiums (formerly the Regency) in the almost abandoned Southeast Inlet neighborhood. The building was constructed in 1989 by Caesars, under the auspices of the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, as part of a plan to provide more middle- and low-income housing for those who weren’t able to get in on the casino boom. In 2004, however, the building was sold to a New Hope-based developer who is revamping it into condos that will range in price from $400,000 to $700,000. And that, I’m convinced, will be the wave over the next decade: more and more higher-end housing.

It’s an important part of Atlantic City’s comeback, because the city could never become truly vibrant again when visitors would walk out of casinos — if they left them at all—into a virtual ghetto. And now, with the surrounding communities—Brigantine, Ventnor and Margate — either built-up or pricey, the need for housing is growing. Atlantic City, suddenly Las Vegas East, is the obvious next real estate boomtown at the Shore. Whether we like it or not, economic realities will fix what no social programs have: The rest of the city will catch up to the burgeoning entertainment mecca the casinos have already become. From Frank to Eminem: Atlantic City is back.