In 1854, Atlantic City transformed into a premier destination after Dr. Jonathan Pitney lobbied to build a railroad into the city. Atlantic City was the premier East Coast vacation destination up until the 1950s. It had a boardwalk, luxurious hotels, and a grand music scene. Plus that horse who could dive from great heights into the ocean.
But in the 1950s, there was a problem. Air travel got cheaper and more ubiquitous, and tourists who always went to AC now opted to board planes and visit the Caribbean islands, Bermuda, and the exotic world of Florida. The grand hotels, almost all of which were completed before the 1929 Stock Market Crash, became considerably less palatial. With the city's tourism dollars eroding rapidly, it fell into a funk in the 60s and 70s. And then came the "Atlantic City Gamble."
In 1976, state voters approved a referendum to allow casino gambling, but only in Atlantic City. As author George Sternlieb wrote in his book The Atlantic City Gamble, the impact gave locals hope for what could become the city’s Hail Mary. "Expectations were high: the gaming industry could rejuvenate a dying city core, employment would swell, the tax base would broaden, and welfare rolls diminish, tourism might spread through the state, and the cruel spectacle of a poverty-stricken community would be eliminated."
In 1978, the first casino opened. Ten years later brought a dozen more. The number of yearly visitors jumped from 700,000 to 33 million. Thirty thousand new jobs were created. It seemed like a giant success story. But in Atlantic City, there is always a catch, and here was this one: casinos were their own self-enclosed worlds. Employment growth was largely in casinos and the municipal services protecting them. Casinos opened their own restaurants and bars, boxing out the city’s mid-level restaurants, bars, and other businesses from the impact of increased tourism.
Housing prices, inflated by casino development, moved out of the range of most lower to middle-class residents and crime rates increased. It simultaneously became more expensive and dangerous to live in AC, and, as Bob Ruffolo, owner of Atlantic City's Princeton Antiques and Book Service, told me, "the majority of middle-class people who worked in AC had to move out, and most small businesses and restaurants were forced to close or move offshore."
At the time, explosive growth from the casinos papered over most of these deeper issues until the city ran into another problem: competition. By the 90s, nearby states recognized the revenue gains casinos brought in, legalizing gambling for their residents. Suddenly, Atlantic City was no longer the premier destination for gaming. To combat this, the city tried to double down with newer casinos and revitalized... casinos, aiding in a short term recovery until 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. Shortly after the city recovered from the storm in 2014, four casinos closed. Thousands upon thousands of jobs were lost.
Six years later, Atlantic City no longer keeps to the casino company line. The modern history from AC's public library discusses new projects devoted to “broadening the appeal of the city beyond gambling." Outlets were built in 2003. The closed Showboat casino is converting its hotel rooms into rental units to help add population density. But, I wondered: What had all this flux and peril done to the city’s food scene?