In the throes of pre-Great Recession economic hype, I wrote the following in a 2006 Washington Times arts-and-culture column:
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Growing up as a rock music fan near this coastal resort inevitably meant frequent treks to Philadelphia and its myriad great venues. Wayne Newton, Engelbert Humperdinck and other casino-lounge staples — ordinarily, this would be the place to say something snide about “my father’s music.”
But I love my father’s music.
Atlantic City’s music scene served up something worse: my grandfather’s music.
That’s all changing, thanks to a pair of new music spaces and a general revitalization of the city’s non-gambling nightlife that has attracted “younger, hipper, more affluent visitors,” says Elaine Shapiro Zamansky, spokeswoman for Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.
Oh, man, was I wrong. Not so much about the increasingly diverse live-music acts on offer in Atlantic City—that part holds up. But the “revitalization of the city’s non-gambling nightlife”: that turned out to be another wild-goose chase in a Potemkin economy.
Known simply as Revel, the newest addition to this gambling city was going to be different.
The emphasis was on luxury, with the Himalayan salt grotto in the spa, the botanic garden winding toward a rooftop pool, the Michelin chefs instead of all-you-can-eat buffets. There was no smoking in its 47 stories, and with floor-to-ceiling windows offering vistas onto the Atlantic Ocean, you could almost forget the seedier streets at its back. There was a casino, but it was self-contained on one floor, as if it were an aside. This was a resort, its promoters said, that happened to have gambling.
Little more than a year after opening, Revel is sorry. Deeply, dearly sorry.
And it is an expensive apology. As it fights its way back from bankruptcy, Revel announced that it would refund all slot losses and match all other casinos’ promotions for the month of July. Revel cost $2.4 billion to open and has spent millions more in recent months to install diner-fare restaurants, more slot machines and air filtration systems — because it now allows smoking, too. Buttons worn by employees and billboards along the Atlantic City Expressway declare its new slogan: “Gamblers Wanted.” And its new official name: Revel Casino Hotel.
No matter how long I live within the confines of the Capital Beltway, I will always call the barrier islands and back-bay towns tied to Atlantic City my home—and so I find this story incredibly depressing. As a kid, I remember hearing the locals tell a cautionary joke: “There’s a reason the casinos aren’t going out of business—because people lose their money in them. Stay away.”
Today, however, the island’s casinos are losing money—in part because of a depressed regional economy, to be sure, but largely because of the multiplicity of gambling options throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Revel—sorry, make that Revel Casino Hotel—has been reduced to begging commuter travelers to please, pretty please piss their money away there instead of some dodgy den in North Philadelphia. It has dropped the pretenses of luxury and elegance and smoke-free air and admitted an ugly truth: it is part of the addiction industry, and, in order to survive, must make itself more appealing to, well, addicts.
Don’t get me wrong. There was hubris in thinking that the Revel was above that sort of thing. And there was folly in believing that government should fund it. But I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t pulling for a different outcome: that Atlantic City could reinvent itself into something more like a conventional resort town.
Much as my circumstantial hometown, despite many righteous protestations to the contrary, will never rid itself of shady influence-peddlers, Atlantic City will remain what it is for the foreseeable future: a vice-industry hub.
And really, why should I have expected any different? Everyone else is doing it!