This week New Jersey governor Chris Christie went down toAtlantic City for a closed door meeting to discuss that city’s current crisis. Four of its twelve casinos have closed this year, victimized by the expansion of gambling in New York and Pennsylvania. Atlantic City is going into severe decline as the casino closings seem to be building on each other with startling regularity, with no end in sight.
Gambling was once Atlantic City’s salvation. Many Jersey Shore communities went into decline in the sixties and seventies, as greater alternatives for long distance travel drew vacationers to farther-flung locations. Atlantic City was no exception. I recently watched the film The King of Marvin Gardens, released in 1972 and shot in Atlantic City and its environs. It is an emotionally brutal rumination on the false promises of the American Dream, and the run-down hotels and empty boardwalk make an ideal landscape to tell such a tale. After all, Atlantic City is the town where the streets in Monopoly get their names from, and it’s also where Miss America is crowned each year.
The empty desolation chronicled by the film would disappear by the end of the seventies with the advent of casinos in Atlantic City. Back then it was really the only place to gamble in America outside of Nevada, and the money rolled in. Nowadays gambling is extremely common across the Unites States, and Atlantic City has lost its competitive advantage. Basically, they bet the house, and lost.
That is less surprising than the fact that so many cities and states have decided to mimic Atlantic City by making casinos their economic foundation. In a quarter century America has gone from a country where legalized gambling was extremely rare to it being ubiquitous. I remember a time when this expansion of gambling was controversial, but now it's just accepted. Even Republicans, supposedly the party of "family values" have been boosting the casinoization of America.
That phenomenon attests to the neoliberal system that has been erected in the last three decades in this country. State-level politicians try to do everything they can to spare the rich form any sort of tax burden, so cigarettes and gambling become an easy target for revenue, even though they are highly regressive in who they take money from. It's also interesting that the paragon poster-child of capitalist bad taste is Donald Trump, who rose to prominence with his casinos in Atlantic City. In the same decades that casino gambling has grown and grown, so has the biggest casino of them all: Wall Street.
Today Atlantic City crumbles, victim of its own realization at the beginning of the great neoliberal transformation in the late 1970s that America would become a nation of gamblers. With so much uncertainty and a shredded social contract, why not throw some money away on the spin of the wheel or a lottery ticket?