Now, I had been warned before I left, but the pull of peeling glamour can be very strong indeed. Atlantic City was once everything that Las Vegas is today, a getaway of excess where holidaying tourists could make or – more likely – break themselves, a resort of hucksters and chancers, a playground for the mildly deranged and the hopelessly optimistic. The glitter and the seedy underbelly of the American dream rolled into one. First of all, though, came a seemingly endless train journey, sitting on a spartan carriage, staring listlessly out of the window at the less than salubrious views of South Jersey after the crossing the broad, sweeping splendour of the Deleware River. Seldom have I seen a greater contrast in such a short period of time as I have between the art deco magnificence of Philadephia’s 30th Street Station and the fading suburbs of Cherry Hill and Pennsauken. The train moved at a glacial pace through these little towns before picking up speed as we moved through woods and countryside as the ocean started to peep into view.
The slow decline of Atlantic City is the first thing that you see as you exit its concrete jungle railway station. Trump Plaza was the folly of world renowned quasi-human Donald Trump. Lavishly built and giving the distinct impression of sticking two fingers up at the rest of the town, it faltered through two bankruptcies before finally closing in September 2014, recently enough for the imprint of Trump’s failed venture to still be visible on the outside of the now-vacant building that sits in plain and faded view. It’s a curiously pleasing sight, albeit one tempered by the knowledge that Trump himself will have suffered little personally from its closure.
You come, of course, for the boardwalk made famous again by Steve Buscemi’s recent televised attempts to build an empire, but the gambling overlords of the city don’t really want tourists walking its length, taking in bracing gusts from the adjacent ocean and, most specifically of all, not spending their money in their dens of inequity. So it is that to get there requires a degree of negotiation, through brightly lit plazas with the sun reflecting on the sea like a suggestive wink in the distance. We eventually emerged at the top of a pier that didn’t even stretch into the ocean, looking down on the herringbone patterned boardwalk and wondering whether it may be an optical illusion. Even when finally at ground level, the beach and the sea remain hidden behind shuttered amusements. Small wonder that, judging by the paucity of footprints in the sand, so few people seem to have taken the opportunity to sample the breathtaking magnificence of the ocean for which this city is named of late.
Eventually, of course, they pull you in, almost whether you want to enter or not. First of all, there’s the shopping, the sanitised but peculiarly creepy American consumer experience of factory outlets and designer boutiques jostling for position in dimly lit alleyways. The staff are incredibly polite and personable (Note to British readers: you know all you’ve heard about the crazy levels of customer service in the USA? Well, it’s true – all of it) and the prices, to a British visitor at least, are reasonable, although I can’t shake the feeling that if I’d wanted Bluewater, I’d have gone to Bluewater. Louis Vuitton is a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me, and all that. Perhaps the thing about these valleys of the malls is that they can entice when set against a background of mundanity, but here I’m just yards from the Atlantic ocean, a straight line to the west coast of Ireland or Portugal. Here, of all places, there must be more to see than yet another Apple store.
The answer to this riddle comes, of course, in the form of gaudy casinos, but even they have something of an anachronistic feel to them in the twenty-first century. There was a time when prohibitive American gambling laws made them the go-to destinations for those seeking to fritter away their hard-earned, but these days a tablet and a half decent broadband connection has the potential to empty your bank account should you want it to be emptied. So what do we go to casinos for, now? Well we possibly go to be appalled. There are hints of the decadence of the Nevada desert in Atlantic City – the eponymous statue inside Caesar’s Palace, the lavishly chintzy chandeliers that hang above the gaming tables in Trump’s Taj Mahal – but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Atlantic City’s heart might not really be in this any more.
The failure of several of the larger casinos has given the boardwalk a gap-toothed smile. This pockmarked waterfront seems to be looking for a new identity, and that’s understandable when so much of its reputation was built upon what now feels like little more than relics of a bygone age. Sure enough, there are still plenty of people prepared to sit at slot machines with credit cards attached to elastic ties so they don’t forget them, apparently getting no more joy from their experience than a factory machinist would get from theirs, but the elderly have a limited shelf life and there seem to be precious few people at the slots who aren’t advanced of age. Perhaps a predilection to gambling comes with age, and those amongst us of more tender years will fall prey to it as time passes. As business strategies go, though, this doesn’t feel like one with much long-term security.
The other relic upon which Atlantic City seems to continue to base much of its identity feels similarly archaic. Miss America. Now, this particular beauty pageant likes to style itself as being modern in so far as that it asks its contestants complicated political questions which it expects them to answer in a monumentally short period of time, but the question of whether it is appropriate for a middle-aged man in a dinner suit to be standing in front of a queue of smiling women in swimsuits is a more than valid one, particularly as, for all the political questions, the contestants remain little more than objects. Yet Atlantic City clings to this relic. The Sheraton hotel has an assortment of memorabilia in its lobby, whilst a dedicated area to the contest remains on the boardwalk. As with gambling in casinos, beauty contests feel like a phenomenon that belong to the present by only the slenderest of margins, and certainly not to the future.
I live on the coast, barely twenty yards from the sea. I wanted to like Atlantic City,but I couldn’t. There’s no question that it’s interesting, but that doesn’t make it fun. After all, Rome during the time of the Emperor Nero was almost certainly interesting, but, it’s unlikely that much of its decline and fall was much fun and, unlike so many other parts of America that I have visited, this was a place without the charm to sustain it. Over time, Atlantic City has become a place that functions solely to separate visitors from their money, but there doesn’t seem to be much will to even coat this with do much as a veneer of welcome. This may be just about tolerable in a resort that is thriving, but Atlantic City is definitely not thriving at the moment. Off season, with some of its biggest attractions of recent years sitting empty, it was difficult to avoid asking myself the question of why anybody particularly would want to go there, and if this question cannot be more successfully answered in the future, then its further decline seems more likely than otherwise. I’m glad I saw Atlantic City, but it does rather feel as though this is because I strongly suspect that it may not be there in a decade or two’s time.
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