This is not the first time Atlantic City has had to demonstrate their ability to withstand difficult circumstances. The city has a long history of attempts to reinvent itself. In 1854 so-called “Father of Atlantic City” Jonathan Pitney, discovered the area, and he envisioned it as a health resort. Building on his vision for the settlement, the first boardwalk was constructed. By the early 20th century Atlantic City was booming. Luxurious hotels dotted the boardwalk and it slowly became the most important resort town in the northeast.
During prohibition, when the rest of the country was forced dry, Atlantic City under the reign of political boss ‘Nucky’ Johnson established national fame as the premier destination to satisfy all vices. With the constant and reliable flow of liquor, Atlantic City relished in their new title as “The World’s Playground.” The “Boardwalk Empire” had reached its tourism peak.
With the end of prohibition, Atlantic City was no longer needed as the country’s safe haven. While many other U.S. cities prospered after WWII, the beach town was plagued with economic decline and increasing violence. The rise in personal automobiles and highway infrastructure allowed tourists to come and go as they pleased. Atlantic City went from serving an ultimate summer experience to only attracting one-night visitors. In 1964 the city became the host of the Democratic National Convention. The media attention that came with the event drew a critical light on the demise of the once renowned resort.
The 1976 referendum legalized gambling in the city. Casinos started opening along the main avenues and boardwalk. Prior to the recent closures, there were 12 casinos within 17 sq. miles. Robert Walls, who currently works at the Tropicana, remembers how he first got into the industry, “The casinos were just a new upcoming thing. I went to a local community college and the classes I took all said to get into the casino industry now while it was young. So I went to dealer school for Craps.” The advice was not a poor recommendation at the time. In 1989 Times magazine declared the city to be one of the most popular tourist destinations of the United States.
Local 54 member and casino worker, Al Kare, also recalls the better years in Atlantic City. He mentions the 40/40 Club, a group of union members who started in the casinos together, started families around the same time and all turned 40 the same year. They frequented a bar near Local 54, of the same name (The 40/40 Club). When the casino industry first came they promised good paying middle class jobs, healthcare and pensions. Michele Jackson, Al Kare, many of their union colleagues and ‘40/40 Club’ members were able to create their livelihoods from these jobs. A letter written by Local 54 states, “Our jobs allow us to take care of our families. We don’t make a lot of money. We average $12.50 per hour, but the one thing that made our jobs worthwhile was our benefits. With the union benefits we can make sure our families stay healthy and we knew we could retire one day.”
Unfortunately, billionaires such as Carl Icahn, who bought Tropicana in 2009, are no longer delivering on their promise. A Local 54 member and 47-year-old cook in the casinos, explains how hard current times are, “I have been working since eight years old, and this is the first time I ever had state assistance and I need to apply for welfare.” Sands Casino was the first to close in 2006. Then in 2014, massive unemployment rates were the result of The Atlantic Club, Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza shutting their doors. Now Local 54 is fighting Icahn to keep the Taj Mahal opened.
Michele Jackson, remembers her final week with her coworkers, “It was hard. Like I said, it was like a funeral. Like your being called in the hospital to say your goodbyes for the last week of somebody’s life. That’s how it felt to me. And I am sure that is how it felt to a lot of people there. Cause we were all intertwined. Like I said, we leaned on each other when we had bad times. We laughed together when we had good times. We were like family. So, it was hard, it was real hard.”
As of 2013 the US Census estimated Atlantic City’s population to be 40,000, of that half of them are in the workforce. What happens when almost half of the residents within a city lose their means of living at exactly the same time? The first image that appeared was probably one of crime, violence or of a decrepit façade.
However, that is not the scene in Atlantic City. Local 54 members, casino workers and residents have come together to fight for the city they believe in. In unison they shout, “What do we want?” Together they answer, “Justice.”
This is where resilience is found. Not in the city– once health resort, turned Boardwalk Empire, turned gambling monopoly. Resilience is the very fabric of Atlantic City residents.