The wide, long boardwalk frames the beach side of almost half of Absecon Island, New Jersey, from the Inlet of Atlantic City (A.C.) to the end of Ventnor City, the two largest of the four cities on the island. Ventnor’s part of the boardwalk is mostly just a pedestrian and bicycle thruway. The three towns on that end of the island, Ventnor, Margate, and Longport, have always preferred to be mostly residential with some small businesses, like restaurants or shops. However, Atlantic City and its boardwalk have always relied on tourism as its primary industry, selling itself as “America’s Playground,” offering beautiful beaches and great family style entertainment. Unfortunately, in the past thirty years or so, it has become mostly about gambling and fancy outlet stores. Now the city is paying for letting the casinos dominate its tourist industry.
From the 1950s to the late 1970s, A.C. declined economically and physically. Some of the piers and other attractions were burned down or shut down or destroyed by storms; businesses suffered from competition from other resort towns up and down the East coast, and there were limited opportunities for jobs outside the tourism industry. Then in 1976 a referendum was approved to allow gambling within the city limits, and in May of 1978, the first casino, Resorts International, opened. However, despite all the largesse gambling’s promoters promised, the casinos never really re-vitalized A.C. the way most people had hoped it would. Now, they never will, because tourists can go to many other places to gamble, and A.C. doesn’t offer significantly more than casinos anymore.
When my mother was young, her parents would drive down from Philadelphia to take the whole family to the Easter Parade on the boardwalk. People loved to promenade there and show off their Easter outfits, then go shopping and to a fancy restaurant. They would also come for weekends in the summer to enjoy the beach, the ocean, and the boardwalk. All along the boardwalk there were shops, theaters, restaurants, and businesses that catered to tourists, like stands selling soft serve ice cream (also called frozen custard), pizza, fries, funnel cakes, t-shirts, hermit crabs, and so on. There were game arcades and specialty shops like Fralingers or Shrivers candy stores, Copper Kettle Fudge, and Planters Peanuts. There were many piers along the boardwalk with cheap but great entertainment from amusement park rides to theaters with big name headliners. Best of all, there were the ocean and the beaches. The island has always had some of the best beaches in the world with its fine, soft sand, as well as an easily navigated inlet port through which fishing and recreational boats can easily come and go.
In my childhood, A.C. was still a place where those of us living nearby went to shop or to the boardwalk for entertainment. Adults would sometimes go into the city for the night clubs and restaurants. In those days, most of the stores were still in fairly good shape, though business was seasonal, and many were not cheap. The boardwalk also had some expensive stores, as well as the tourist shtick. Fralingers candy store and Planters Peanut store were still two major landmarks. Some of the old hotels were still in business, adding a kind of charm and class the boardwalk hasn't seen since the last one was demolished in the early '80s. (To be fair, the Claridge was renovated instead of demolished and is still a beautiful hotel.) When I was young, A.C. was also a place where the Miss America parade and pageant happened, and where we could go to what was then called Convention Hall (now called Boardwalk Hall) to see the Ice Capades, rock concerts, and the Lipizzaner Stallions, among other events. In 1964 the Democratic Convention was held there, and a few days later the Beatles played there. Important things other than the Miss America Pageant did happen in the city even when it was in its decline.
Atlantic City High School and Holy Spirit High School still hold their graduation ceremonies at the Boardwalk Hall. I remember walking through the hallways and escalators to the main hall and stage, feeling special because our ceremony was there. It was a special night in a special place, and afterwards, we took photos outside the hall on the boardwalk. Decades later, my niece walked across that same stage for the same reason. By then, the hall was no longer used for conventions - there was a much newer, fancier convention center on the other side of the city by the train station, just off the entrance to the expressway. The Boardwalk Hall does still offer some interesting entertainment, but they are expensive. Rock stars, bands, boxing tournaments, and so on, are still part of the venue. Today, there isn’t much to do around Boardwalk Hall except go into the casinos and look out at the ocean. People love admiring the ocean, but they can do that at any of the islands up and down the East coast. The new, fancy convention center only offers the typical fare of convention centers, such as expos and car shows. It also is far from the boardwalk, close to the outlets which maintain regular business hours. People aren’t likely to leave those events and wander around town, the way they used to wander along the boardwalk to the shops and entertainment after an event at Boardwalk Hall.
Up until the ‘70s, Steel Pier was still a great place to take kids because it was cheap; for the price of one cheap ticket, anyone could see a movie and a show in the music or dance hall with big name headliners like Frank Sinatra or Diana Ross, play in the amusement park, ride the diving bell, watch a diving horse, or sometimes even see a small circus. It was a major tourist attraction, more popular even than any of the other piers. Fire, neglect, high costs, and lack of interest caused it to shut down in the ‘70s. It was rebuilt, though smaller, and today is once again an amusement park, but only an amusement park. It is now surrounded by casinos, many of which in that section of the boardwalk are now closed. The only other significant non-casino entertainment in that section of the boardwalk in the past decade has been the House of Blues, which recently closed down along with the Showboat casino.
The Million Dollar Pier, which was once also a theater and amusement park, suffered its own losses with fire and neglect. It was rebuilt as a pier of indoor shops. Ceasars owns it now, but a number of local and Philadelphia media claim it was recently bought by a Philadelphia developer. There’s hope they might do something interesting with it. Today Central Pier still offers arcades and a few tourist shtick shops, but is grimy and small. Steeplechase Pier once housed a large auditorium where headliners like the John Phillip Sousa band played. It also had a big amusement park with a roller coaster and other attractions. The storm of ’62 destroyed most of it. A fire burned the rest in 1988, and it was demolished in 1996. It was never replaced. The Garden Pier once offered a large theater with many famous singers and musicians. The first Miss America Pageant was held there in 1921. Today it houses the Atlantic City Historical Museum and The Atlantic City Art Center, both interesting places to visit though small, but located at the end of the boardwalk after all the closed up casinos. There is little parking around there now, too, since those casinos and their parking garages are now closed.
There were still successful nightclubs, especially around Kentucky and Arctic Avenues, and theaters, through the 1960s. Most had closed down by the late '70s, though, and the rest went out of business when the casinos came in with their own theaters and entertainment. Even the Club Harlem succumbed to the urban decay of its neighborhood, never fully recovering from the gang war on Easter Monday in 1972 that left five people dead there. It closed for good in 1986. What is left in A.C. now, outside of the casinos and restaurants or clubs huddled in a few blocks around them, are mostly small, local bars. A few places managed to hold on through close proximity to the casinos, like the Atlantic City Bar and Grill, or by becoming part of the fairly new, outlet stores section of the city, being near the new Convention Center, or specializing in something unique, like the Tun Tavern Brewery, which makes its own microbrews. A few classics continue to hang on, like The Knife and Fork Inn, Dock's Oyster House, Tony’s Baltimore Bar and Grill, and the historic Gardner’s Basin, which has changed greatly over the years. It now offers the Atlantic City Aquarium as well as new shops, sightseeing boat tours, and restaurants. There are still small stores, particularly on Atlantic Avenue, that cater to locals, but most businesses, especially along the boardwalk, couldn't compete with the casinos.
I was a freshman in high school when gambling was voted into Atlantic City, a junior when Resorts first opened its doors. I can remember some of my classmates talking about how they wanted to be dealers at a casino, and how easy it would be to make money that way. Some locals were sure that the casinos would bring more jobs and more money to the area, more opportunities for everyone. It gave people hope in a place that hadn't had much hope in some time. And the casinos did do that for some, for awhile. Some of my classmates did become casino employees, either as dealers or cocktail waitresses, or other staff. But in those early years, the casinos brought in people from Las Vegas or Tahoe for the management positions.
About fifteen years or so after graduation, I ran into a former classmate while I was adjunct teaching at the local community college. He was taking classes there. He told me that dealing cards at the casinos was not what he had imagined. It was a hard life, spent standing for hours in a smoke-filled room, dealing cards to people who were often rude, drunk, desperate, or on vacation and thoughtless about the people who live and work in their vacation land (a problem often encountered in all aspects of life on an island fueled by a tourist economy). The casino didn’t pay as well as he had thought it would when he started on that career path, and the cost of living on the island had risen. Now his paycheck didn’t go very far, so he was going back to school for a college degree. I left a year later for a job far away, but I hope he finished college and was one of the lucky ones who got out of the casino industry before so many lost their jobs.
The success of A.C. has always been interrelated with the surrounding communities’ success. After World War II and before casinos, the two major industries in the entire area, both on the island and on the mainland, were tourism and the Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center (FAA Tech Center), which was called The National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center (NAFEC), then. My father worked there, and later my two brothers, as well. There were also hospitals and other health care systems, a community college, and The Richard Stockton State College, but they were all smaller then. Tourism was the lifeblood of the island.
Today, the main industries in this area are more varied, but only for certain skill sets. The biggest employers are gambling and the entertainment that the casinos provide to attract gamblers, tourism related businesses such as restaurants, the local hospitals or medical facilities (like urgent care clinics), the Richard Stockton College of NJ, the Atlantic Cape Community College, and the FAA Tech Center. Of these, the only ones that don’t require a college degree to be employed there in most positions except, perhaps, janitorial or cafeteria work, are to be found within the casino industry and businesses that rely on tourism. According to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development Division of Labor Market and Demographic Research, ”accommodation and food services” was the largest category of employer in all of Atlantic County in 2010. The second largest was the “health care and social industry.” Many of those other employers are not directly connected to A.C., but they will be affected by that city’s decline. The increase in unemployment is going to add to the economic problems of the entire area. Who can afford college if unemployed? Who can afford decent medical care without health benefits? Who can shop or spend money without a steady paycheck? If tourists aren’t coming in large numbers to gamble anymore, what income will keep businesses open? Surely “America’s Playground” can attract tourists for things other than gambling.
Now, homes in parts of A.C. and its neighboring towns on the island have increased in value and cost because of the casinos and because property near the beach is at a premium. As property values increased, so did property taxes. Houses in those towns and certain sections of A.C. have grown more and more expensive to buy because of their property values, and to maintain because of taxes. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, much of Margate and Longport, and the more high-end areas of Ventnor and A.C., have become summer residences of the wealthy, whose primary residences are often in Philadelphia, New York, North Jersey, or even further away, or places to entertain CEOs or VIPs from the casinos and related industries. Consequently, schools have closed or had to be consolidated with schools in other towns, and young people with families or anyone making a middle or lower income salary, who can rarely afford to buy a house in any of those areas, today are settling on the mainland or other areas, not on the island. If they can’t keep or find jobs, they will have to move out of the county or even out of state. Retired people on fixed incomes, many of whom have lived in the area their whole lives, often can’t afford to keep their houses on the island because of the taxes and are also being forced by economics to move. And so the local, year round consumers that could help keep businesses afloat beyond summer, the main tourist season, are disappearing, and so are the once steady streams of gamblers. That is not going to change any time in the foreseeable future.
As John Oakes, a resident of Margate said to me, "Prior to the legalization of gambling, the area was basically dependent on the summer tourist season. Once Labor Day came, the locals would 'roll up the sidewalks' until next summer. The biggest difference between those days and the present is that back then families remained in town. Today the year round residency is below 50% in many shore towns. The schools had multiple classes per grade. Today we have seen school closings and consolidating within school districts. My personal take is that the casinos came in to do one thing, make a buck. Once they couldn't make a profit, they pulled the plug and closed, leaving many people to fend for themselves. Yes, the area has seen development, but what happens when the people can no longer afford to stay? Hopefully the area can reinvent itself and avoid foreclosures, abandoned homes, urban decay, and increase in crime."
As the demographics of the local population change to a larger percentage of part-time, summer residents and short-term summer rentals, the casino industries are more dependent on tourism for their business, both in gambling and entertainment, rather than a steady pool of local customers, and they are even more at the mercy of all the casino competition springing up in nearby states, such as Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Atlantic City is no longer the only place to gamble in the northeast. As the effects of this past recession and hurricane linger, casinos are closing, thousands are unemployed, and the economic effects of these are going to ripple out to the other businesses in the area. Major changes need to occur in business models in A.C. if it is ever going to become a vibrant, economic success again. The entire island is framed by some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Surely there are other ways of bringing in tourists than just casinos.