The Other Las Vegas: Atlantic City

People stroll past Atlantic City shops and casinos

In the late 1970s when casinos first opened in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the town was advertised as the next Las Vegas.

Of course, Atlantic City had been a destination resort for a long time, opening its first commercial hotel, the Belloe House, in 1853. The wooden Boardwalk was started in 1870 to give tourists easy access to the hotels and to keep the sand out of the hotel lobbies. Never legal before the 70s, there were many gambling venues in AC all through the twenties anyway.

After World War II, the city and the resort went into decline and did not show any sign of recovery until gambling was legalized by the state of New Jersey. Proponents of legalized gambling promised new revenue for the city and the state, refurbishing of the downtown areas of AC, and a flock of tourists from all over the globe. That didn’t happen.

The new hotels that were built showed signs of opulence – Resorts International, Ballys, the Golden Nugget, Caesars and the Taj Mahal. The rigors of constant salt air and cold dreary winters weathered the buildings as well as the customers. Add that to an odd hurricane here and there that pushed sea water into the ground floors of many hotels and you end up with a place that many people aren’t too excited about visiting.

Recently a few hotels have experienced a resurgence – the Tropicana for one and the newest addition to the Boardwalk fleet of casinos, the Revel, will try to be profitable. Out by the marina the Borgata is doing well catering to a young, easy spending crowd. But the fact remains that Atlantic City never became the Las Vegas of the east.

On a spring or summer morning or afternoon the Boardwalk is full of tourists, mostly day visitors. They stroll up and down, stop for pizza or a hot dog, buy some salt-water taffy to bring home to grandma and they invariably go into one or more casinos to try their luck. But come evening the Boardwalk clears out and becomes a beat patrol for the local police department. At night the Boardwalk is not safe even in the warm months; in the winter it’s down right scary!

It’s hard to say why things haven’t improved after 40 years. Although Atlantic City gambling revenue has dropped off in the last few years, especially table revenue, up until a few months ago AC was still the #2 gambling capital of the US (Pennsylvania is now #2 and AC is #3). The Atlantic City casinos by law return about 8% of their take to the state of New Jersey. What the state does with the money is another story. I am fairly certain that most of it does not go back into improving the city itself.

Every weekday morning the busses loaded with pensioners still leave the New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. areas and every evening they return again, the riders all a little lighter in their pockets. Few people stay overnight and the future of AC, in my eyes, is not optimistic.

About the Author:

Robert Cancellaro is a former teacher and school administrator who has never been very far away from some game of chance. In the mid-1970s he began visiting cities like Las Vegas and later Atlantic City and returns to both areas regularly as an observer and willing participant. His focus is on casinos, gambling, and human nature and the very interesting place where they intersect. 

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