We celebrated my wonderful wife’s birthday last weekend with some good foodie friends (they are good friends, foodies and good foodies all at once) in the basement dining room of Chef Vola’s in Atlantic City. Eating on the later side, we had a chance to talk with some of “the guys” and at one point we were asked “What do you think of Atlantic City?”
There is no easy way for me to answer the question. To me, Atlantic City is years of New Jersey Dental Conventions, and the place that took our teachers one 4-day weekend each November. It’s the 1920s captured in Boardwalk Empire and the dark light shone by Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster and the hope of tall new hotels dotting the beach like a small strip of Caribbean island transported 1,500 miles north. But all of those things leave space between; they are all incomplete when it comes to giving the city a soul and an identity. Atlantic City isn’t suffering from too much darkness; it’s suffering from way too much white space, opportunity squandered and therefore covered over with the civil engineering equivalent of doodles and marginalia.
The casinos had a 30-year head start, and have no identity, individually or collectively. With legalized gambling at New York racetracks, up and down the Delaware River, and at Connecticut’s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the lure of cards and dice is no longer sufficient. There’s nothing particularly inspiring or relaxing about the hotels, save perhaps the ultra-expensive spas at the Borgata and Revel. The boardwalk lacks the appeal of Seaside or Point Pleasant for the younger set, and lacks any redeeming value for adults. Even Mr. Peanut has migrated to saltier latitudes.
Every city in the world has crime and poverty, and yet none of them feel as desolate as Atlantic City. What’s lacking is a destination, or a set of destinations; there’s simply no “there” there. What local color should be flood filled by restaurants, boutiques, surf shops, or bed and breakfast places that create an experience superior and smaller and friendlier than the hotels is instead washed out by the pallor of Bader Field and the light-sucking facade of dilapidated and abandoned buildings. Look north from the odd-numbered rooms at the Revel, and you see a landscaped dotted with houses in various states of disrepair. The emptiness stares back at you; the people in the buses who take a vig on their Social Security checks to get a free sandwich and sit at slot machines don’t seem to notice.
Hurricane Sandy didn’t make things better, but the erasure was already underway. It was underway when the H-tract turned into the Borgata, when Trump’s casinos changed names and capitalization faster than he changed hairpieces, when the millions of redevelopment dollars didn’t result in any new development.
But I am a believer in the words of our state poet laureate and keeper of the flame, the true Boss of the 20th century, who has always found a way to balance the white space and the darkness on the edge of town:
Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
When there are places to meet, and reasons to dress up, Atlantic City will fill in the space around the casinos and institutions like the White House, Formica Brothers and the Knife & Fork, and become not just a city but a destination again. Maybe it means turning Bader Field into something other than a grass-riddled patch of tarmac for concerts; maybe it means getting large-scale financial investment and real estate development to deal with the abandoned and damaged houses; maybe it means attracting small businesses and non-seasonal ventures to the shore. It’s a challenge, but white space is meant to be filled in.