Atlantic City Is Really Going Down This Time

There’s no doubt that Atlantic City is going under. The only question left is: Can an entire city donate its body to science?

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,579 words)

Atlantic City covers the northern third of Absecon Island, a barrier island made up of an alarming amount of sand. It is a bad town to die in — there are plenty of vacant lots but no cemeteries. In many places, if you dig down more than eight feet you hit water. A couple blocks away from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is built on a submerged wooden foundation for exactly that reason — so long as you keep wood wet and away from oxygen, it won’t rot. “We haven’t tipped yet,” said Buddy Grover, the 91-year-old lighthouse keeper, “but it does sway in the wind sometimes.”

“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.

A little more than two years ago, when I was an intern at a now shuttered website called The Awl, I went out to Atlantic City to cover the Trump Taj Mahal’s last weekend before it closed for good. My first night there I met a woman named Juliana Lykins who told me about Tucker’s Island — New Jersey’s first seaside resort, which had been slowly overtaken by the sea until it disappeared completely. This was a month before the election. The “grab ’em by the pussy” tape had just broken, it was pouring rain, the city was on the verge of defaulting on its debts, and 2,000 casino workers were about to lose their jobs. At the time — my clothes soaking wet, falling asleep in a Super 8 to the sound of Scottie Nell Hughes on CNN — it was hard to understand what Lykins was saying as anything other than a metaphor for the country. I missed the larger menace and focused on the immediate. Trump was elected obviously, but Tucker’s Island wasn’t a figurative threat; it was a very straightforward story about what happens to coastal communities when the water moves in.

Last June, NOAA released a report on high-tide flooding in the United States over the course of 2017. Atlantic City and Boston were tied for second place with 22 days of flooding from high tide alone. The only metro area more affected, with 23 days of flooding, was Sabine Pass, which sits on the Gulf Coast, where Texas meets Louisiana. “Sea level rise is very spatially dependent,” said Maya Buchanan. Buchanan is the resident expert on sea level rise at Climate Central, a research center based in Princeton, New Jersey. “So even New Jersey and New York are expected to have a different amount [of flooding] because there’s a lot of different factors. Some of them are global, some are regional, and some are very, very local.” New York is built on bedrock — metamorphic rock specifically, once incredibly hard and hot; that’s why so few dinosaur fossils have been found in the city. New Jersey’s soil is considerably more porous. “Atlantic City in particular,” said Buchanan, “but even New Jersey writ large, are expected to experience more sea level rise than the global mean.”

*

The decade since the recession has been rough for everyone except the wealthiest, but here the recession was a disaster. According to the South Jersey Economic Review, more than 25,000 jobs were lost in the past decade and the city’s real GDP declined by 21.4 percent between 2006 and 2015, the largest dip of any metro area in the country. Five casinos shut down in two years, and the day after the 2016 election the city was taken over by the state in order to avoid default. Oliver Cooke, an economics professor at nearby Stockton University, has referred to the past 10 years as Atlantic City’s “lost decade.”

The shuttered casinos — windowless basements filled with slot machines — were perfect for a lab.

For the first time in a while things are looking up. Last year violent crime and property crime were down 36 percent since 2017 according to the Atlantic City Police Department, and the boardwalk was markedly busier this past summer. The only place Trump’s name still appears in the city is on an old mural in the bus station, and the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal reopened as a Hard Rock Café in June. Come hell or high water, it is always sort of 2005 in South Jersey (a lot of Simple Plan on the radio) and the Hard Rock is designed to capitalize on that. In place of the Taj Mahal’s famous chandelier is a giant guitar, and what was once a jewelry store has been reborn as a shrine to Boomers called the “Rock Vault.” A Kramer Pacer, painted in the style of acid-wash jeans, hangs on the wall. bon jovi, it says. new jersey. As far as I could tell the only holdover from the Trump Taj was a sandwich chain called White House Subs, although improbably enough that does not seem to be a nod to the president. When I walked by, a man was standing at the counter wearing a Rob Zombie T-shirt that read, 100% corpse fucking flesh eating zombie loving god damn son of a bitch.

It’s a start, but the reality is that people don’t gamble the way they used to. According to a YouGov poll from May 2018, 47 percent of millennials find casinos “depressing,” and next door to the Hard Rock, where the former Revel has reopened as the Ocean Resort, business was much quieter. The Ocean is visually striking — an enormous mass of curved glass — but it doesn’t seem to have a real identity besides ‘playing a lot of Frank Sinatra’ and several of the pushcart operators that work on the boardwalk told me they’d placed bets on how long it will last. As I was walking past, a woman asked a couple if it was as beautiful inside as it is from the boardwalk.

“Not really,” they said.

*

A little more than three years ago, as hope for a revival began to ebb, an architecture firm called Perkins+Will proposed a plan. Within the range of plans for Atlantic City, this one was unique — it was responsible. Atlantic City is four square miles, about the size of some college campuses. The shuttered casinos — windowless basements filled with slot machines — were perfect for a lab. The idea was to take the city’s vulnerability to the sea and turn it into an asset. Atlantic City would become a global hub for climate science, casinos gradually replaced with laboratories, the convention center reinvented as a training ground for civic leaders. “We weren’t talking about abandoning Atlantic City,” said David Green, one of the primary architects behind the project. “We were talking about repurposing it and bringing in academic and research partners to kind of rehabilitate the area as a kind of research hub.” Scientists would study ecological changes, sociological changes, and the way different kinds of buildings respond to sea level rise. One of the central parts of the plan was something Green called The Line, which would be a physical reminder of the changing coast and a way to make clear to the public what was happening. “You’re testing not just the physical community, but social community elements,” said Green. It was a good idea, but maybe a couple years ahead of its time. Climate change hadn’t settled into the national consciousness yet, and in the confusion of casino closings and the 2016 election Green’s plan failed to gain traction with local politicians and eventually died off.

*

In the early 1950s, two writers for the New York Daily Mirror named Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer published a book of all-American gossip (communists! grift!) called U.S.A. Confidential. New Jersey did not fare well. “There is no such place as New Jersey,” they wrote. “It is a breeding bed, playground and refuse dump for New York and Philadelphia and a refuge for their criminals. It is a highway between the two great cities. Few who use it ever stop off or look behind its billboards. If they did, they’d see plenty of ugliness.”

There is no such place as New Jersey. Pretty harsh! But Atlantic City leaned into it, learned to monetize it. The referendum to bring in casinos, paradigmatic non-places, was passed in 1976, but their success was contingent upon maintaining a duopoly between Atlantic City and Vegas. Once gambling was legalized in New York, Connecticut, and (especially) Pennsylvania, things started to decline. “What happened was that we lost the convenience gambler,” said Heneghan, “and that was a big chunk of the market. The regulators in Pennsylvania, I think very, very wisely on their part, chose sites close to the [Delaware] river to kind of create a barrier. With apologies to Winston Churchill, there was a casino curtain drawn around New Jersey.”

The city has been struggling to develop a coherent comeback plan for years. Last June, Philly Mag ran a feature on the arrival of John Longacre — a developer and bar owner who helped gentrify South Philly and is looking to open a bar in Atlantic City. Others are looking to esports — the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is in the process of finalizing a deal to install 6,000 square feet of secure servers in the city, and souvenir shops prominently display shirts that read do you even fortnite bro? Because most of the esports audience is underage, it won’t exactly bring an economic boom, though. The New York Times threw its money on sports betting, which was legalized in New Jersey in June and could help bring in revenue during the city’s lean winter months. None of these reports mention climate change.

You gotta be up the whole night just to push the water out. Unless you got a big-ass vacuum to suck it up, you gotta do it with a broom.

Heneghan, like everyone else I spoke to, doubts that sports betting will be enough to fix the city’s economic problems. At the time we spoke, the only nearby states in which it was legal were Jersey and Delaware. But Rhode Island legalized it in October, Pennsylvania in November, and New York and Connecticut are expected to follow suit in 2019. Essentially, it’s the casino curtain all over again. “I think sports betting will generate some additional revenue,” said Heneghan,“but it’s not the panacea, no.” When I asked him what the city wants to be, he had trouble answering. We were standing at the top of the lighthouse now, overlooking the Absecon Inlet — once called Graveyard Inlet because of the frequency of shipwrecks — and the small section of the boardwalk that was destroyed in Sandy. “I remember in January of ’76 I went to a meeting with the local press corps and one of the city commissioners was the speaker,” Heneghan said. “He was an older guy who had been a member of the governor’s cabinet and had been state commissioner of banking. This was before casinos and he was kind of bemoaning how quiet things were in Atlantic City. He said when he was a kid, Atlantic City was a place to go to with somebody you shouldn’t be seen with. Do things you couldn’t do at home.” The bars, Heneghan reminded me, never close here.

*

Last spring, Climate Central published a report on the injustice inherent to Atlantic City’s floods, focusing on a single block called Arizona Avenue. The casinos are protected by large dunes and the Army Corps recently finished building a sea wall with recovery funds from Sandy. Along the back bay though, residents largely rely on aging, undersized bulkheads, and where there are vacant lots there’s often no barrier at all. Things have not improved much over the past year.

“They’re always saying ‘We’re trying to work on it, the sewer systems, blah blah blah,’ but honestly I mean, come on. How do you not make a contingency plan knowing that the bay is right there, the ocean is right here,” said Raymond Mendoza. Mendoza works as a porter and a barback at the Borgata and lives about a block and a half from the back bay. When I met him he was walking a very fat, amiable beagle named Roy. “I’m always worried. When it’s really bad I just watch the tide, ’cause once I see that,” he said, pointing to the water, “come this way, I’m taking my car and driving it right into the casino [parking garage].”

‘Nuisance flooding’ is the technical term for this, but it doesn’t feel adequate. It only takes six inches of fast moving water to topple a grown man. Two feet can sweep a car out to sea. As the water rises so will structural damage. Black mold will spread, kids and the elderly will get sick, and the already debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program will edge further toward collapse. “You gotta be up the whole night just to push the water out,” said Neto Alavez. Alavez moved up here from Maryland to work for his uncle’s painting company. “Unless you got a big-ass vacuum to suck it up, you gotta do it with a broom. All they have to say is ‘just go somewhere else.’ They protect all them places over [by the boardwalk]. You know what I’m talking about, the fancy stuff.”

Everyone I met spoke of Hurricane Sandy as the high-water mark for catastrophic flooding, but Sandy — despite the damage it caused — was only a post-tropical storm by the time it made landfall near Atlantic City There is a pervasive Tale of Two Cities narrative that hangs around Atlantic City — the obscene wealth that circulates within the casinos butting up against dilapidated row houses outside — but the reality is rich people don’t really live in Atlantic City, they just come for conventions. It’s a city of waitresses and bartenders, and many of the residents are elderly. Others moved here after being driven out of Philadelphia and New York by rising rents. Some of them do not have anywhere inland to which they can evacuate. A stronger hurricane, a more direct hit, and people will lose everything.

“A lot of people see sea level rise as just an inundation risk, right? Or this slow problem that’s encroaching,” said Buchanan. “But any flood is basically the summation of sea level and tides and storm surge. Anything that’s adding to that platform just makes a flood that much more likely and it can really increase the frequency and severity of floods.” Last year, scientists at Rice University and Texas A&M released a paper on fossilized coral reefs that showed sea level rise did not happen gradually at the end of the last ice age, but rather in fits and spurts with brief periods of stasis.

Things could get bad here very fast, and all of the revival plans are short-term fixes. We’ve already locked in a certain amount of sea level rise at this point, so for Atlantic City it’s a question of when, not if. According to Climate Central’s risk map, even if we cut carbon emissions to zero yesterday the city would still flood by 2100. It’s likely to happen much sooner, but in that scenario at least, the Borgata is one of the last places above the waterline. Mendoza has been parking his car in the right place.

*

The news was bad this past year. In April, a lawyer named David Buckel lit himself on fire in Prospect Park to protest the world’s continuing use of fossil fuels. In early October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that we only have until 2040 to drastically alter the world’s economy in order to prevent an effectively uninhabitable planet. In late October, the World Wildlife Foundation released a report estimating that humanity had managed to destroy 60 percent of wildlife since 1970. In November, the deadliest wildfires in a century swept across California. This January, Science released a report that showed oceans were warming 40 percent faster than previously believed. In Atlantic City, a man by the name of David Dichter began petitioning lawmakers to take action. Dichter grew up in Atlantic City and served overseas as a Marine Corps officer and a foreign service officer before retiring. “I think I came back,” he said, “with a pretty good understanding of how screwed up the environment really was.”

Sea level rise did not happen gradually at the end of the last ice age, but rather in fits and spurts with brief periods of stasis … Things could get bad here very fast.

Dichter’s plan was more modest than David Green’s, but the foundational idea was the same: Atlantic City is really going down this time, the question is whether it can figure out a way to make the transition less painful. Dichter focused on tourism — if Atlantic City could position itself as the place for climate conferences, maybe that would lead to bigger things. At the very least it was a way to bring in revenue.

A resolution to turn Atlantic City into a hub for climate science and conventions was passed through the Atlantic City Council, the county freeholders association, and the state legislature, but it’s unclear how committed lawmakers are to specifics just yet. The city was still under state control and about $450 million in debt as of June 2018. The first climate conference took place the weekend of January 25th at the Claridge Hotel, and Dichter has been speaking with David Green about the way things might progress, but it’s been slow going so far. Atlantic City is, for lack of a better term, behaving like Atlantic City. In December, the mayor, Frank Gilliam, was arrested after getting into a fight outside of a casino. (Asked by a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer if he was still mayor, Gilliam replied, “Today.”) A few weeks later he was being investigated by the FBI.

What seems to be lacking at this point is grassroots community involvement. “[The city] should invite the people that organized themselves in Staten Island [after Hurricane Sandy] for the buyout,” said Klaus Jacob. Jacob is a geophysicist and Columbia University’s disaster risk and climate expert. He became somewhat famous for essentially predicting the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York’s transit system a year before it hit. “It came from the community, it didn’t come from the government. Invite one of those main macho people that organized that neighborhood for a buyout and get a little primer from them. I’m a geophysicist, so what am I talking about here? Not my field of expertise. I just have seen it happening over the last ten, twenty years — where things are moving and where they don’t move … Wherever you look, unless there is a buy-in from neighborhood families — forget it.”

*

Climate change can’t be solved, or really even mitigated, by tourism, and there’s no shortage of people who stand to profit from future disasters. But South Jersey is much poorer than the rest of the state and as the water rises and fire spreads across the West, Dichter and Green’s respective plans might be a way for Atlantic City residents to avoid being lost in the shuffle. Whether or not the city ultimately ends up donating its body to science, there is something oddly endearing about this last push for revenue. There is no such place as New Jersey, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer wrote 70 years ago. Turns out, they weren’t all wrong! The state will be significantly smaller in a hundred years. But if this plan moves forward, Atlantic City — a place that, for all its faults, has always tried to make the best of a bad situation — may at least be able to go out in something like style.

I reported most of this story over the summer, and every time I came back to New York I had to walk through Times Square to get to my subway stop. Mel Chin’s Wake and Unmoored had just opened — an exhibition put on by No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Wake was a 60-foot wooden sculpture meant to mirror a sunken ship or a whale’s ribcage, and Unmoored added context. Chin had paired with Microsoft to create a VR rendering of what Manhattan might someday look like should climate change go unchecked. When you put on the VR glasses boats began to float above you, crowding the airspace until they suddenly disappeared in a rush of plankton. It was a little too obvious and the boats looked like something out of Minecraft, but it was effective in spite of itself. The water is already above our heads, we just can’t see it yet.

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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer and a bookseller based in Philadelphia. She’s written for The Awl, The Outline, Medium, and others. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Factchecker: Ethan Chiel

Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross