The Death and Life of Atlantic City
Zeno’s paradox down the shore.
BY NICK PAUMGARTEN
Mike Hauke opened a pizza and sub shop in Atlantic City in 2009, but only after he had failed in nine tries to rent the space to somebody else. He had bought the building three years earlier on the advice of his father, an accountant who considered distressed real estate a smart long-term bet. This piece of real estate seemed to test the proposition. It was a bedraggled three-story clapboard house that years of neighborhood demolition and neglect had stranded at the edge of several mostly vacant blocks, which together formed an urban badlands reaching all the way to the dunes. This was the South Inlet, a once thriving part of town and now more or less a desolate slum at the northeastern end of Absecon Island, the landmass that is home to Atlantic City and three other municipalities. People from “offshore,” as locals like to call the mainland, tend to think of the island’s Inlet end as north, because it’s upcoast, but locals call it east. Atlantic City has a Bermuda Triangle effect; it can confound a compass.
Three blocks west of Hauke’s place, an immense slab of steel and glass was rising over the badlands: a hotel and casino to be called Revel, destined to be bigger and more opulent than anything Atlantic City had ever seen—two towers, reaching almost fifty stories, nearly four thousand rooms, and parking for more than seven thousand cars. Morgan Stanley, the investment bank, had bought the land in 2006, for seventy million dollars, and sunk about $1.2 billion into the project. (Revel, as some have noted, is “lever” spelled backward.) By the end, the cost of building Revel reached more than $2.4 billion, making it the most expensive private construction project in the history of New Jersey.
Hauke went after the crumbs. Unable to find a commercial tenant for his house’s ground floor (the apartments upstairs were designated Section 8, for low-income tenants), he started selling rudimentary takeout to Revel’s construction crews. Their rush-hour bulk orders overwhelmed his staff, but off hours the place was dead: a trickle of casino workers and, in Hauke’s words, “shitbags, crackheads, hustlers, and pimps.”
Hauke, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, had spent a couple of years in Hoboken and Manhattan working in marketing, but he had no restaurant experience. One of his first customers was a neighborhood junkie known as V8 Man (“All the white kids are junkies,” Hauke said. “The Inlet does it to everybody”), who, on opening night, picked a fight at the counter with a male prostitute and another customer; Hauke smashed a pizza paddle on the counter and used the sharp end to scare him off. More than once, a guy came in trying to unload stolen merchandise as the victimized storekeeper came running up the street in pursuit. One morning, a neighborhood kid rode by on a bicycle and threw a crude pipe bomb through the window; Hauke chased him in his car and, after cornering him briefly in an abandoned house, hounded him on foot across a vacant tract called Pauline’s Prairie, named after Pauline Hill, a city planner in the sixties who’d had this stretch of the neighborhood bulldozed for urban renewal, which never came. The kid, looking over his shoulder, ran into the side of a parked box truck. The police appeared and put him in cuffs. His grievance was that cops had been patronizing Hauke’s shop and that sheriffs had evicted his cousins, Hauke’s Section 8 tenants, from one of the apartments upstairs. The tenants, according to Hauke, had been running a welfare scam. They’d also been throwing dirty diapers on his customers and fishing for pigeons from the roof.
Hauke hoped that, in spite of such annoyances, Revel would either provide him with an income stream or else buy him out. A few neighborhood property owners said that it would never happen. They’d been holding on for years themselves, in the hope of selling to a big casino, and in the interim they’d been gutted by rising property taxes and ongoing decay. The problem was that the area was zoned for big casino-hotels. You couldn’t build a house, and the few houses left in the neighborhood—most had been demolished or had burned down, accidentally or not—were old and badly battered by the salt air. One of them, down near the beach, across the street from a run-down low-income housing complex called the Waterside, belonged to a teacher Hauke had got to know named Tony Zarych, who’d moved to Atlantic City as a teen-ager forty years earlier, when his family was buying up property around town. He’d worked as a baccarat dealer at the Sands, until it closed (it was demolished in 2007), and now taught English as a second language at an elementary school. He liked to hunt wild turkey offshore and sometimes had carcasses hanging outside. His property taxes had risen sharply, as the city contended with a steep drop in tax revenues from the casinos. “Get out while you can,” Zarych told Hauke.
Sure enough, in 2009, amid the financial meltdown, Revel, only half built, ran out of money. In April, 2010, Morgan Stanley quit the project, booking a loss of almost a billion dollars. Construction stopped. Hauke’s business withered. “There were no more tourists or construction workers,” he recalled. “Mostly just cops. And crackheads wanting free shit.” But something about the city, and about the Inlet’s seaside squalor, made him want to stay on. Maybe it was the fact that his great-grandmother had attended shul in the Inlet. Or that he’d simply got sand in his shoes, as the locals say about those who take to the place.
After grinding along for another year, Hauke shut down the shop, spiffed it up, and rechristened it Tony Boloney’s. He bought a food truck, which he named the Mustache Mobile, and developed a line of pizzas and novelty subs that he marketed as “indigenous Atlantic City grub,” as though he’d revived an obscure provincial cuisine. Soon, Tony Boloney’s began winning foodie awards and luring in not just gamblers, night-clubbers, food-truck connoisseurs, politicians, and cops but also a procession of casino magnates and real-estate speculators who were visiting the neighborhood, often on the sly, to size up the distressed property next door.
the beginning of 2011, Governor Chris Christie pledged tax incentives to Revel worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars. (The incentives were tied to certain revenue targets, which, in the end, Revel failed to meet.) Christie had evidently decided that Revel’s success was essential to the survival of Atlantic City, and therefore his gubernatorial track record. His pledge helped Revel secure new financing from an array of hedge funds, including Chatham Asset Management and Canyon Capital, which manage hundreds of millions of dollars in New Jersey state pension funds.
Construction resumed, and Christie came to town. After a photo op at a famous sub shop called the White House and a visit to the Revel site, he dropped in at Tony Boloney’s and urged Hauke to keep the place going. “Listen, you gotta stick around,” Christie told him. The Revel executives were emphatic as well: “It’ll look bad if you close. Please don’t go anywhere.” The head of Chatham Asset Management hired Hauke to cater his annual Halloween party, up in Essex County.
“I understand you’ve spent the summer on someone’s ass. Can you tell us what that was like?”
Revel opened in the spring of 2012, with Beyoncé performing a series of concerts in its auditorium. (She also took over the Presidential Suite, relegating Michelle Obama and her daughters to another suite.) The plan had been scaled back—just fourteen hundred rooms, and one tower instead of two. The tower’s midsection had a half-dozen stories not yet built out; you could see clear through it. Still, it was an impressive building, with sleek, airy marbled atriums and lobbies that had little in common with the smoky, windowless, carpeted caverns of the older mega-casinos down the boardwalk. Unlike all the rest, it directed one’s attention to the ocean and had ample outdoor space, a two-acre terrace with firepits and cabanas. Even from the outside, Revel had an ethereal appeal. The reflective glass took on the sky’s hue and became almost invisible at dusk, a stealth casino guarding the edge of town.
If only. During construction, a tower crane collapsed. Lightning struck a worker’s cement bucket and killed him. Three top Revel executives died in a plane crash. A guest plunged from one of several escalators that climbed vertiginously through the heart of the lobby. A couple were found dead of an apparent drug overdose in a suite. The N.F.L. player Ray Rice punched out his fiancée in an elevator, and the surveillance video went viral.
The casino wasn’t making nearly as much money as the developers had anticipated. Some observers blamed the layout—the hotel-room elevators didn’t access the casino floor, and a long, tortuous trip from the entrance to the check-in desk didn’t take you through it, either—or the fact that Revel prohibited smoking, or that its slot machines didn’t seem to pay out, or that it was stingy with the comps. Even though occupancy was decent and the night clubs and restaurants were busy, the tables and slots weren’t taking in enough to offset the cost of operating the place—the burden of debt service, high property taxes, bad leases with the tenants, and an expensive arrangement for power and light. Within a year of opening, Revel filed for bankruptcy. It restructured and emerged from Chapter 11 a few months later, but the economics still didn’t make sense, and so, in the spring of 2014, it went bankrupt once again. Finally, last September, unable to find a buyer, it closed.
From the time Morgan Stanley began searching in vain for equity partners, Revel had been in play, and all along Tony Boloney’s had served as an informal commissary for would-be investors and buyers. Among those whom Hauke and his staff said they’d seen were Steve Wynn, who had sold the Golden Nugget in 1987 and vowed never to come back; various hedge-funders from New York; and a group of Chinese men—the Export-Import Bank of China was at one point in talks to buy a piece—who took over Hauke’s tables and held meetings for hours, without ordering anything.
A mysterious character in tattered clothing and a handlebar mustache had been showing up a few times a year, engaging the staff in conversation about space travel and Elon Musk. He claimed to represent someone who was going to buy Revel. Hauke and his team were skeptical, but one day last summer, just before the casino closed, the man rolled up in a baby-blue Bentley convertible. Maybe he was for real. “My guy’s going to offer ninety million,” he said. His guy, he went on, was from Florida and intended to erect a “Tower of Geniuses” on the Revel site, a high-rise think tank, which would draw on NASA and the federal government’s aviation-research facility at Atlantic City Airport, just offshore.
If not for zany schemes, Atlantic City would still be a sand dune. Within weeks, news broke that a little-known Florida developer named Glenn Straub, the owner of Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club, had offered ninety million dollars to buy Revel. Straub wanted to put up the aborted second tower and fill it with academics and scientists charged with solving the world’s problems: your Tower of Geniuses. Few in town took this seriously, but, as far as the bankruptcy was concerned, he’d established a baseline. Everything has a clearing price. The bad news was that Straub’s offer was less than four cents on the dollar—a chilling signal of how far Atlantic City had fallen and may yet fall. The good news was that the building—and you might even say the town—was worth anything at all.
Most cities exist as a consequence of commercial or strategic utility. Atlantic City is more of a proposition and a ploy. The town fathers of Cape May, the first American seaside resort, weren’t interested in a railway, or perhaps the class of people who’d ride in on one—the well-to-do arrived from Philadelphia by boat—so a group of investors built, in 1854, what became known as a “railroad to nowhere,” to a spot a little way up the coast that was more or less the shortest possible distance from Philadelphia to the sea. Over the decades, and with the industrial-era advent of leisure time and disposable income, this forsaken wedge of salt marsh and sand became “the world’s playground”—a crucible of conspicuous consumption and a stage for the aspirations and masquerades of visitors and entrepreneurs. In some respects, Atlantic City was where America learned how to turn idle entertainment into big business. For a while, it was home to some of the world’s grandest hotels (the Marlborough-Blenheim was the largest reinforced-concrete building in the world, and was later imploded in the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”), as well as some of its more ardent iniquities and diversions. The night clubs were as often as not fronts for backroom gambling halls, intermittently tolerated by the authorities.
The city, like so many, has its racial demons. At the turn of the twentieth century, Atlantic City had one of the highest African-American populations of any city north of the Mason-Dixon Line, owing to the abundance of jobs in the hotels. The archetypal amusement was that of white working-class visitors kicking back in the boardwalk’s famous wicker rolling chairs while black people did the pushing—a “public performance of racial dominance,” notes the historian Bryant Simon, in “Boardwalk of Dreams.” Though the Northside, traditionally a black neighborhood, had been a thriving district, the decline in tourism to the city, after the Second World War, hit it hard. With the rise of affordable air travel, people started going to Florida and the Caribbean instead. The city desegregated. Disneyland opened.
Legalized gambling was supposed to rescue the city from its obsolescence as a resort and convention town, a condition that came to national attention during the 1964 Democratic Convention there and grew more conspicuous as the decade wore on. A dozen years later, the state passed the Casino Control Act, which was, at least ostensibly, an attempt to reverse the decline. But, perhaps predictably, a lot of the money that flowed in flowed right back out—to the casino operators and their financing schemes (“I made a lot of money in Atlantic City,” Donald Trump said at the recent Republican debate. “And I’m very proud of it”) and to their subsequent efforts to lobby for the approval of casino gambling in other states. New Jersey, which taxes the casinos to fund a seniors’ prescription-drug program, among other things, always got its piece.
Neglect of the city has been attributed to a bloated municipal payroll—a budget nearly double what it was ten years ago—and the years of corruption and mismanagement in city government. Some blame the suffocating effect of the casinos, which are boxed off from the city and are designed to keep patrons inside losing money rather than outside spending it. Others point to the thorny old problem of race or the dreary question of the structure of municipal government statewide.
“He’s very self-loathing, but not enough.
The dividing line between south and north, and between white and black, used to be Atlantic Avenue, the main commercial street, which runs parallel to the sea. It was where South Jersey shopped for wedding dresses and jewelry; now it’s a gantlet of shabby storefronts and fast-food joints, running toward and away from the New Jersey Transit bus terminal. In the streets that run from the boardwalk, dilapidation and squalor are not hard to find. Wood’s Loan Office, a pawnshop established in 1927, is owned and operated by Martin Wood, a seventy-nine-year-old Atlantic City native. Wood, who is white (his grandfather, a metallurgist, came to town from Lithuania at the end of the nineteenth century and used to scavenge for junk on the beach with a horse-drawn wagon), has noticed an uptick in the number of shopping bags from the outlet mall, a few blocks away. In his opinion, the sixties were worse. “It’s not that bad here. Yet.” Twenty years ago, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority moved the pawnshop a few blocks, in an effort to remedy the city’s oft-lamented lack of a supermarket. “But they opened a discount liquor store next door to the new supermarket,” Wood said. “That was not a good move. They wound up with winos hanging around. People were scared to go to the supermarket. So it closed up.”
“Atlantic City turned its back on the boardwalk,” Paul Steelman, a prominent casino architect who grew up nearby, said. “It’s the most prominent pedestrian walkway in the world. It’s got everything going for it except the buildings that are on it.” His solution: “Cut holes in the casinos and let out all those people, all that capital.”
In order to prevent monopolies, the Casino Control Act stipulated that no one could own more than three casinos. In the eighties, Donald Trump became the first to hit that limit. Eventually, the provision was scrapped, and by 2014 Caesars owned four. Carl Icahn now effectively controls a quarter of the market with just two casinos, the Tropicana and the Taj Mahal.
Does Atlantic City need more gambling, or less? There are proponents on both sides. Some favor alternative entertainments (concerts, water parks, polo, legalized marijuana) or the panacean potential of higher education (Stockton University, a state college headquartered offshore, has long wanted an Atlantic City campus). A few push for smaller boutique casinos, and others swear by the existing big-box regimen, just done better. In Las Vegas the ratio of revenue is two-thirds non-gaming to one-third gaming. In Atlantic City the situation is reversed. Since 2006, gaming revenue has dropped by half, from a peak of $5.2 billion to $2.7 billion. As that stream dries up, logic suggests tapping others. And yet the casinos remain lucrative. Divided among eight casinos—that’s how many are left—$2.7 billion isn’t bad. This may be the locals’ most commonly stated reassurance. The city has a higher concentration of casinos than anywhere outside Nevada. It gets twenty-five million visitors a year.
I asked Steve Perskie, who wrote the Casino Control Act as a state legislator representing Atlantic City, if casinos, in the final accounting, had been good for the town. “Compared to what?” he replied. “Imagine Atlantic City without them.”
When word gets out that a city is on the skids, people seem eager to imagine post-apocalyptic desolation, a rusting ruin at Ozymandian remove from the glory days. But American cities don’t seem to die that way. They keep sopping up tax dollars and risk capital, thwarting big ideas and emergency relief, chewing up opportunists and champions.
Two weeks after the shuttering of Revel, Trump Plaza closed—the fourth casino to do so in 2014. The first was the Atlantic Club, né the Golden Nugget, built in 1980 by Steve Wynn, with financing by Michael Milken and one of the earliest iterations of the junk bond, and then owned (and rechristened), in succession, by Bally’s, Hilton, and Resorts International. Two competitors, Tropicana (owned by Icahn) and Caesars (controlled by the private-equity firms Apollo Management and TPG Capital), bought out the bankrupt Atlantic Club, closed it, and divvied up the scraps. Next came the Showboat. It was profitable, but its owner, Caesars, hobbled by debt, needed to consolidate. (The amputation failed: in January, Caesars declared bankruptcy; another of its holdings, the Bally’s casino, has been rumored to be the next to go.) Meanwhile, Trump Entertainment Resorts declared bankruptcy (its fourth), and Icahn, who’d bought up Trump’s debt, played a game of chicken with the casino workers’ union and the state. (Donald Trump himself no longer runs the company or the casinos, and he has sued to have his name removed.) In December, the Trump Taj Mahal was about to close; Icahn, having squeezed the state and the union for concessions on taxes and benefits, found twenty million dollars to keep it open, and since then it has limped along, a zombie casbah.
It’s not all the big shots’ fault. There’s just been less money to go around. Atlantic City has lost its monopoly on legalized gambling on the East Coast. First came the casinos on Indian reservations in Connecticut, in the nineties, and then, in recent years, the advance of gaming across state lines, in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and upstate New York. (Some industry experts will tell you that Manhattan is destined to have tables, too.) Now there’s talk of casinos in North Jersey, which, along with video-slot parlors at the racetracks (“racinos”), would cannibalize the action in Atlantic City.
Neighboring states approved legalized gambling in the hope that it would do for their economies and state treasuries what it once did for New Jersey’s. Perhaps they should hope instead that it does not. The casino closures in Atlantic City have contributed to the loss of nearly ten thousand jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and who knows how many associated income streams, reputable or not. The city has fewer than forty thousand permanent residents; the majority of Atlantic City’s workers live offshore, in the townships of Atlantic County, which, in the first quarter of this year, led the nation in foreclosures. Property taxes in the city have doubled since 2008 and were up twenty-nine per cent in 2014, to make up for the drop in tax revenue from the casinos and in the taxable value of the property. The city is around four hundred million dollars in debt. Earlier this year, its credit rating was downgraded to junk-bond status.
After convening a few summits on the predicament in Atlantic City, which resulted in a dire report, Governor Christie, in January, appointed two emergency managers, Kevin Lavin and Kevyn Orr, to oversee the city’s finances, wresting control from the mayor and the city council. The fact that Orr had previously served as Detroit’s emergency manager, steering Detroit into and out of bankruptcy, led observers to predict that he’d been hired to do the same for Atlantic City. Perhaps mercifully, the mayor, Don Guardian, was relieved of some of the hardest decisions, about who and how many to fire and what services to deprive the citizens of. “A good manager welcomes a good auditor,” he told me. The mess was now Christie’s. Presiding over the first bankruptcy for a New Jersey municipality since the Great Depression would not help his Presidential ambitions, and, perhaps more important, it would raise the already high costs of borrowing across a state whose finances are very grim. Christie staked a lot on his rescue of Atlantic City, and so far the bet’s not looking so good.
In May, the city submitted a plan to lay off two hundred city workers, about a fifth of the municipal workforce. Orr returned to private practice, having been paid seventy thousand dollars for three months of part-time work. (He’d billed the state nine hundred and fifty dollars an hour.)
Abandonment, and the spectre of bankruptcy, intensified the bleakness of the winter in Atlantic City. At one end of the boardwalk, Revel loomed dark. At night, the blare of piped-in pop warped in the wind, and floodlight spilled out over the dunes, which, post-Sandy, were just a layer of sand atop an armature of giant sandbags. The obituarists who came to gawk didn’t have to bother going so far. On the façade of the first casino that one saw after pulling off the expressway there was the ghost lettering of the immense sign that once spelled out “Trump Plaza” and, beneath it, a billboard that read “The Center of It All.” (The small print read “Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER”—advice, maybe, for the city itself.) Visitors regularly stopped to photograph this, to add to their portfolio of what some locals, resenting the attention, considered ruin porn.
The greatest ruin was to the lives of the thousands who’d lost their jobs. One morning, I met Dawn Inglin, who had gone to work as a cocktail waitress at the Plaza when it first opened, in 1984. She’d come to town three years before, when a friend got her a role in a dinner-theatre company down shore, in Ocean City, and then she found herself auditioning at Harrah’s, which, in those days, used cocktail waitresses as dancers in its TV commercials. “The choreography was difficult,” she recalled.
When she applied for a job at the Plaza, she auditioned for Donald Trump at Trump Tower, in Manhattan. She remembers a weigh-in, and an interview in a bathing suit, and she and the others were required to wear two-and-a-half-inch heels. (When I met her, she had her hair up and was wearing a smart lavender suit.) “I very much enjoyed working for Donald Trump,” Inglin said. “When he was there, it was tip-top. You’d’ve thought he was the Messiah.”
Inglin’s generation of casino workers, whose professional primes track the birth and decline of the industry in Atlantic City, speak wistfully of the abundance and camaraderie of the halcyon days. “Back in the eighties and nineties, the money flowed. It was glamorous,” Inglin said. “Then the attention and the business was diverted from the Plaza to the Taj. Things started closing. Restaurants, room service. For four or five years, there were constant rumors that this or that person was going to buy us. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of people who were going to save us. The last few years were so stressful. You watched people lose their jobs. They were taking away severance, the machines disappearing, equipment rolling past you.”
After thirty years, she was fourth in seniority among cocktail waitresses at the Plaza and was making $8.99 an hour, plus benefits. It ended last September. “When we found out we were closing, we were standing at the bar—the last bar in the casino. We saw it on the six-o’clock news. We were frantic.”
Despite coming up empty in a search for another job, Inglin felt that she was going to be all right. Since the Plaza closed, she has been attending classes at the community college in pursuit of a degree in human services—a growth field in these parts. “We have an addiction problem here,” she said.
I met a bus driver named Kip Brown, who worked the Port Authority route, up and back each morning, for Academy Bus Lines. He had been at Academy for fifteen years and was No. 3 in seniority, out of seventy drivers in the region. As ridership has fallen, Academy has been cutting back on its schedule. The number of visitors arriving by bus is an eighth of what it was a quarter century ago. In the spring, Brown, just forty-seven, retired.
Now he was looking for work as a livery driver. Brown also used to work in the casinos, at the Showboat, bussing tables, and at Trump’s Castle, stripping and waxing floors. “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor,” he said. “It was the eighties, I was a teen-ager, but I remember it: they put us all in the back.”
He lives in the Northside, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard, in a house that, like many in town, was inundated during Hurricane Sandy. “Sandy: that was the beginning of the fall of Atlantic City,” he said. Because of the rise in property taxes, the value of the house is well below the value of the mortgage, so he is stuck with it. “If I could get out of my house, I would. I don’t want to live in Atlantic City, to be honest with you.” Recently, one of the employees at his cousin’s corner store had been killed in an armed robbery.
Atlantic City has had three great bosses, political or otherwise. In the decades prior to the First World War, Louis Kuehnle, a transplanted New Yorker and powerful Republican known to all as the Commodore, turned the resort into a bustling metropolis and the state party into a patron and beneficiary of the evolving local aptitude for vice. Enoch (Nucky) Johnson, his successor and the basis for the Steve Buscemi character in “Boardwalk Empire,” continued this work and presided over Atlantic City’s glory years, during Prohibition, which, largely thanks to his efforts, never really pertained. The third was Hap Farley, a Republican legislator and master puller of wires, whose political swan song was his support, behind the scenes, for the second (and successful) attempt, in 1976, to pass the state bill to legalize gambling in Atlantic City.
Since then, there have been party bosses, governors, and mayors with varying degrees of power and venality, but no kingfish of the stature of the Commodore, Nucky, or Hap. “I’ll give you Atlantic City,” the mayor of Camden said, to F.B.I. agents disguised as Arabs during the Abscam sting. “Without me, you do nothing.” But by then such an offer was beyond the reach of any one man. In city politics, the Democrats held sway. (The electorate is now thirty per cent Hispanic and forty per cent black; Democrats outnumber Republicans nine to one.) The only Republican elected to* City Hall in the casino era was James Usry, the city’s first black mayor, who got caught up in a corruption investigation that cost him the 1990 election—until 2013, when, to the great surprise of the city’s political establishment, Don Guardian, a gay white Republican, beat Lorenzo (Rennie) Langford, an African-American, by fewer than four hundred votes.
Langford, out of the public eye since then, has been writing a memoir and working as a substitute teacher. He lives in the same modest split-level that he’s been in for twenty-eight years (“In two years it’ll be paid for”), on a street in the Northside that has been renamed L. T. Langford Lane. We talked in his “man lair,” a furnished subfloor with jazz paraphernalia and a wall of fame: his wife, Nynell, with him and Jay Z and Beyoncé; Stevie Wonder; Janet Jackson; Michael Vick; and Lionel Richie. He had on a Champion sweatshirt, jeans, and Nikes. His grandfather had come to town in the twenties, bought some trucks, and won trash-removal contracts at the big hotels. Langford’s father dropped out of high school and worked in a factory. Langford went to college, then dealer school at the Casino Career Institute, on the Black Horse Pike, one of the old Atlantic City arteries, and started at Caesars when it opened, in 1979. He spent fourteen years in the industry—as a floor supervisor at the Playboy and a pit boss at the Atlantis and the Taj Mahal. In 1992, he ran for city council.
People dish a lot of dirt about Rennie—how he’d put his extended family on the payroll; how he had sued the city and, after becoming mayor, got a settlement of more than four hundred thousand dollars (a judge later ordered him to repay it); how his wife’s goddaughter, the pop singer Ashanti, got paid twenty thousand dollars for spending a day at the Atlantic City high school—but it’s hard, when you’re in his home, hearing his side, not to admire his cheek, in the hurly-burly of Chris Christie’s New Jersey, or not to credit his assessment that in the end what has befallen Atlantic City could not have been prevented by any mere satrap.
“You can’t take a solo after every serve.”
“For the last four years, everything was my fault,” he said. “No matter how many times I talked about neighboring jurisdictions or the national economy, it was ‘Langford, it’s your fault.’ ” As for the Revel project, he says that from the start he’d considered it “extremely risky” in a saturated market, and that it got such extravagant support from Christie and the state because it was a way to steer the support of the construction unions to the Governor and his party. Langford said, “What Christie thought would be his shining achievement will be the albatross around his neck.”
His successor, Guardian, is sixty-two and from North Jersey. He is a former Boy Scouts of America executive. (“I couldn’t have gotten out at a better time,” he told me; he left just before the Scouts’ policy regarding homosexuality became a national controversy.) Guardian made his name, locally, as the head of the city’s Special Improvement District. He was a keen advocate and errand man for the tourist precincts, the guy out on the boardwalk on his bicycle at dawn, picking up the plastic cups. He was not a part of any machine, but he worked tirelessly to round up votes, and Langford, having survived a bruising, expensive primary and confident of the black vote, apparently got complacent. Guardian also picked up the support of the state’s Republican establishment and of the unions, in light of his promises to put “cranes in the sky.”
Guardian has been frank about the city’s predicament yet optimistic about its prospects. He has a jolly goofball air and a tireless enthusiasm for particulars. He wears bow ties and has trouble pronouncing his “r”s and “l”s. His partner of twenty-one years, Louis Fatato, whom he married last summer, runs a spa at the Borgata. Guardian is routinely unpunctual and speaks off the cuff with enough dash that Chris Filiciello, his chief of staff, usually sticks close to keep watch. At City Hall, a dreary D.M.V.-like cube of concrete and glass, they share an office on the seventh floor, with sweeping views toward Revel and the South Inlet. When I visited, Filiciello looked on coolly from his desk, dipping into a tub of animal crackers, while Guardian enumerated some of the intractable financial problems the city faces. “If I can take eighty million out of the budget, that’s sustainable, but that’s not feasible right now, not if we want to provide public safety and public works. I can get forty out.”
In public, he projects a no-bullshit boosterism reminiscent of Ed Koch. He was the keynote speaker at this year’s annual luncheon of the Metropolitan Business and Citizens Association, a kind of super-charged chamber of commerce. The luncheon was at Caesars Palace, on the day, as it happens, that Caesars, the parent company, declared bankruptcy. The Palladium Ballroom was filled with glad-handers, as the casino’s employees—employed for now—poker-facedly delivered pats of butter molded into the profile of Augustus.
“You think you had a bad day?” Guardian began. “I woke up this morning, Caesars filed bankruptcy, all three elevators are broken in City Hall, and there’s a major water leak at public works.” He went on, “Hey, at least we’re not Detroit!”
“Last year, I promised you a root canal,” Guardian told the crowd. “I just forgot the Novocain.” But the good news was that “the root canal is over and the healing is about to begin.” Or, as he said at the end, “2015’s got to be better than 2014. 2014 sucked!”
The hosts of the luncheon, and the founders of the M.B.C.A., were the local philanthropists Gary Hill and John Schultz. Schultz, an Atlantic City native and three-term city councilman, and Hill, from Reading, Pennsylvania, made their money operating night clubs (Studio Six, Club Tru) in a forlorn stretch of town where the Sands used to be. Eventually, the casinos figured out the night-club business, so Schultz and Hill got out, and started giving their money away. Twenty years ago, they bought an old building near the clubs, next door to a porn shop, and converted the top three floors into a triplex they called Casa Del Cielo, where they live together and preside as ambassadors, of a kind, over various gaudy but charitable entertainments. In a way, they are avatars of the town’s long-dormant gay scene, which has reawakened in recent years.
The night of the luncheon, they had me up for a drink. Past a suite of paintings by Ringo Starr and a library shelved with scrapbooks chronicling Hill and Schultz’s twenty-seven years together, a loggia led to a heated pool, which they once filled with wine corks. Here and there were garish furnishings salvaged from the casinos: headboards from Trump Plaza, smokestacks and banquettes from the Showboat, chandeliers from the Sands. Last summer, they hosted Mayor Guardian’s wedding; Schultz officiated. The event was catered by Hauke and Tony Boloney’s.
It was hard to find a building or enterprise in the city limits that was not in some way touched by crisis and folly. But none was more conspicuous, and of greater likely consequence to the city in the long run, than Revel. Last September, with Glenn Straub’s ninety-million-dollar offer as the stalking horse, the bankruptcy court held an auction to sell it. The winner, at a hundred and ten million dollars, was Brookfield Property Partners, based in Toronto. Brookfield owned the Atlantis in Nassau and the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, and so saw some synergy here, but it couldn’t make a deal with the owners of Revel’s adjacent power plant, which had been built solely for Revel and was charging Revel three million dollars a month for utilities. (The power plant was a separate, independently owned entity, called ACR Energy Partners—an arrangement that has proved poisonous.) In November, Brookfield decided to forfeit its deposit, of eleven million dollars, and walk away. The only bid left, apparently, was the one predicated on a Tower of Geniuses.
Straub began unfurling his plans. He said he’d spend three hundred million dollars building the second tower and another half billion to buy up derelict property around town. He’d refurbish Bader Field, the defunct downtown airport, and establish an equestrian center for two thousand horses, polo fields, high-speed ferries to Manhattan, a life-extension university, and the world’s biggest indoor water park.
Whenever I called Straub, he answered his own phone and seemed not to have assistants or gatekeepers, or any kind of filter at all. The first time he picked up, at his club, he told me, through bites of an apple, that he had just finished playing a polo match, that he lived and worked on a yacht, that he was debt-free, and that he had two brilliant adult daughters with whom he had failed to spend enough time. Once, he answered his phone as he was getting fingerprinted by the Casino Control Commission, for his gambling-license application. Another time, he announced that he was at a urinal. With bankruptcy-court procedures in mind, I asked, “So what comes next?” and he replied, “I wash my hands.”
Straub invited me to meet him at Revel one day in February, on one of his trips to town. He tended to fly up on Spirit Airways, to save money. When I arrived, he was still busy trying to buy Bader Field. (The city, the Mayor had told me, wanted far more for it than Straub was willing to pay.) Straub also talked of buying the racetrack, Trump Plaza, the Showboat, and several large tracts of undeveloped land in various parts of the city. At times, he talked as though he’d bought some of these things already.
In the all but abandoned Revel corporate offices, overlooking a slatey winter sea, two of the remaining Revel employees were waiting for Straub to arrive. They didn’t work for him yet, but, given that he was the putative buyer, they allowed him to use the space and they were inclined to be deferential.
“Have ye seen a whale that matches this swatch?” MAY 25, 1998
“It’s kind of hard to believe Glenn Straub might be our white knight, but here we are,” one said.
“Just a tip,” the other said. “He likes to be called Mr. Straub.”
Straub arrived alone, wearing a zip-up hoodie under a blazer. He had a Florida tan and hair that was brushed back and reddish-brown. He’s trim, at sixty-eight, and he had the bent gait of an aging country-club athlete. In a kitchenette, he made a sandwich for himself and sat down in a conference room with a view down the boardwalk: in the foreground, the empty lot that would one day, he hoped, be home to his water park, and then, stretching south, the casino cordillera—Showboat, Taj, Resorts, Bally’s, Caesars, Trump, Trop.
“It’ll be done the right way,” Straub said. “I’ll actually wash the windows here. It’ll cost a couple of dollars. There must be ten million windows in this frigging place. That’s the first thing we’ll do. Get the laser light shows and wash the windows and hire four thousand employees. That way, I’ll get the politicians. ‘Oh, Straub, I know him. I want to do business with one of his marinas,’ or whatever. . . . Get their attention. ‘Guys, I got a high-speed ferry. . . . Midtown Manhattan, what do you got there for a pier?’ Politicians can get you into that place that you can’t get into.”
Straub’s way of talking in a stream-of-consciousness rush, in the manner of an Appalachian Don King, often made his big plans seem scattershot and his tactical explanations disjointed, at least to someone not adept in vulture finance. “He has a learning disability,” his daughter Kim, a branding consultant in New York, told me. “When he was a kid, when it was time to read aloud in class, he’d count the people who were supposed to read before him and then, just before his turn, go to the rest room. He’s a bit of a savant.”
Straub comes from Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father had a business providing transportation to the Texas Eastern pipeline and later owned auto-leasing franchises and taxi fleets. “So you worked, and if you didn’t work Dad got the belt out and beat your butt,” Straub said. “Anyway, he died, just when I got my driver’s license.” After high school, Straub and a brother helped run the businesses. In time, they owned a network of sand and gravel quarries and concrete and asphalt plants; highway- and airport-construction contracts made them rich. (In recent years, those long-moribund quarries, in the upper Ohio River Valley, have been found to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas, extractable by horizontal drill, making Straub even richer.)
Straub retired at forty, moving his family (his wife, from whom he divorced in 2007, and two daughters) to Florida. “I lasted six months,” he said. He started investing in distressed and bankrupt properties. It was a good time to have cash on hand. In the wake of the savings-and-loan crisis, at a Resolution Trust Corporation auction, he bought a twenty-two-hundred-acre golf and polo club in Wellington, for $27.1 million. It was called Palm Beach Polo. “All of a sudden, people were giving me a half a million dollars for an acre,” he said. “I sold two or three hundred million dollars’ worth, and we still have another thousand acres down there.” A big driver was the equestrian center: “Never once thought it would turn out to be a gold mine, but it did turn out to be a gold mine, because then the Bloombergs of the world and their daughters, and all the movie stars’ daughters, they would go down there, and they would have the big Olympic stars do the show jumping, and there was this thing called polo. I didn’t know what a polo game looked like. They put you on a horse. And I thought, This isn’t that hard. I was good in sports, amateur sports. I can hit things. I can pick a fly out of the air.”
Straub has been called “the dictator of Palm Beach polo.” His reign has been contentious. In numerous lawsuits, he has been accused of neglecting his residents, as well as the grounds, and charging undue fees. In 2010, he was tried, and ultimately acquitted, on criminal charges of polluting protected wetlands. He was once convicted of contempt, after interfering with a federal marshal who’d come to seize a yacht at a marina Straub owned. He tried to appeal the verdict all the way to the Supreme Court, without success. Through the years, he has been proudly litigious. “If you check me out, I’m pretty good at protecting our rights in the court system,” Straub told me.
In the conference room, he told me about his idea for an ocean liner. “An old ocean liner, like the QE2. I’m gonna buy it,” he said. He squeezed mayonnaise from a packet. “Bring this ocean liner in, and I don’t know if you’ve been around Ripley’s down in Orlando, the whole building shaking and everything else. I’m gonna teach my kids, or my kids’ kids, what World War II was all about, and the Holocaust, and Zeros coming in from Japan, and so when you go inside this thing, this ship, it’s gonna make you feel like you’re being bombed, like Pearl Harbor when the damned Zeros came in, took out our whole fleet in the Pacific. The ship’s suites where the crew used to be will be for my construction workers, because if we’re gonna spend this kind of money up here I need to get cheap housing for them, so instead of shipping them back to Philadelphia and bringing them here every day I’ll let them store themselves in the bottom of the ship. It’ll be like the back lots at M-G-M.”
Throughout the winter, Straub made regular trips to Atlantic City and to the federal bankruptcy court in Camden, where he pressed his attempt to have his bid approved. Amid innumerable motions, hearings, and rulings, attorneys representing bank lenders, unsecured creditors, jilted tenants, other prospective buyers, the power company, and the gutted estate argued for and against his offer, sometimes changing sides as the circumstances evolved. Other bidders waded in and wandered off. The power company remained a sticking point. The lawyers racked up their fees and did their pressers on the courthouse steps.
One cold morning in February, Straub arrived at the courthouse in a gray suit, with a trenchcoat slung over his shoulders. He said he’d left his cell phone in a bathroom at the airport, and someone had retrieved it and was sending it back. He looked at the pairs of lawyers filing in through the door. “A few more guys and we’ll get a soccer game going here,” he said. “I wish I was getting paid a thousand bucks an hour.” Straub’s lawyer, Stuart Moskovitz, of Freehold, not normally a bankruptcy attorney, called them the “bankruptcy cabal.” It was essentially the deadline on Straub’s bid, now at ninety-five million dollars, but he had failed to close, owing to some unresolved questions about his obligation to old leaseholders and to the power plant.
“We need to know what we’re buying,” Moskovitz said.
Revel’s lawyer told the judge, “We’re ready to move on to another buyer.”
“Can I get back to you when there’s someone to overhear me?” NOVEMBER 7, 2005
Problem was there didn’t seem to be one. With this in mind, Straub and Moskovitz had been threatening to put in a much lower bid if their offer fell through. At one point, Straub stood and handed his lawyer a piece of paper. Moskovitz read aloud, “Sometimes the judge has to protect the debtor from himself.”
In the back of the courtroom, a lanky man in a yellow sweater, his graying hair perfectly in place and his eyes darting around, fidgeted with his fingers as though he were handling invisible chopsticks. His name was Vincent Crandon. He was a low-profile Jersey dealmaker from Mahwah, and he had been circling various properties in Atlantic City for years, to no avail. He’d failed in attempts to buy Trump Plaza and the Atlantic Club. Early on, he’d been after a bricks-and-mortar property to go with an Internet-gaming company. But his quest had morphed into something else, and so now he just lurked, waiting for the court, or perhaps the entropy of Atlantic City, to scuttle Straub’s bid. Quietly casting himself as the new white knight, he’d submitted an offer, but so far it had gone unacknowledged.
“Straub is done,” Crandon told me later. “We’ve put in a better offer. We’re sitting back, taking our time.” He added, “Straub thinks he’s the only guy in town.”
The town, and the sellers, seemed to think so, too. After the ninety-five-million-dollar offer fell apart, Straub put in a lower bid, for eighty-two million, and lawyers for Revel and the lenders, increasingly desperate, supported it in court. At the beginning of April, the presiding judge, Gloria Burns, who said she would not let the case delay her impending retirement, abruptly ruled in favor of Straub. The questions of the tenants and power plant remained unresolved. For a few days, anyway, the town experienced something like hope.
Atlantic City, formerly a breeding ground for big ideas, was now a tar pit—trapping financial mastodons and big-eyed dreamers, whether or not their intentions were pure, as the capricious gods of commerce looked on. Revel kept luring in new ones. In April, the day after Straub took ownership of Revel, he called Crandon and—according to Crandon, anyway; Straub denies it—offered to flip the property to him for a hundred million dollars. A couple of days later, Crandon drove down to Atlantic City. With Revel blacked out (owing to the inevitable dispute between Straub and ACR, the power company), the only people allowed inside were security officers from the Casino Control Commission. They stood in darkness guarding acres of idled slot machines, which Straub wasn’t technically authorized to own, since he had no gaming license. So, according to Crandon, the two men who would decide Revel’s fate met in one of its parking garages. Crandon had along one of his partners, Don Marrandino, an Atlantic City native known as Rockin’ Don, for his music-industry connections. He had been the president of Hard Rock in Las Vegas and of Caesars East Coast operations. Straub was accompanied by Tara Lordi, his adviser and “toxic-asset manager,” a horsewoman and former banker. Crandon says Straub told them he wanted much more than a hundred million for Revel, but at least he now had a possible out, and Crandon had an in. (Straub says the meeting never happened.)
Crandon had been eying Revel for a year. Crandon, who is fifty-three, grew up in Delaware, but his parents were from New Jersey, and as a kid he worked at a service station his grandfather owned on the Black Horse Pike. His surname used to be Ceccola; Crandon is an adaptation of Cranendonk. His father-in-law is Theodor Cranendonk, a wealthy Dutch oil trader who was once imprisoned in Italy on charges of delivering thirty bazookas to the Mafia. (“It was all made up,” Crandon says. According to Crandon, Dutch commandoes sprung Cranendonk from a prison hospital and brought him back to the Netherlands.) One of Crandon’s investment vehicles is called MidOil, but Cranendonk was not involved in the Revel bid. “He doesn’t do gambling,” Crandon said.
Crandon said his group—“We’re Jersey guys”—planned to spend hundreds of millions reconfiguring the space. The new name would be Rebel. Crandon said they were planning a forty-night Bon Jovi residency. Rockin’ Don had the pull.
The money wasn’t from Jersey guys. Crandon says he spent a marathon weekend in town and in New York wooing representatives from a Chinese real-estate firm that had been buying up properties around the United States. Crandon’s group and the Chinese were betting that Macau, the Asian gambling mecca, was tapped out, amid a Chinese government crackdown on corruption and gambling, and that travellers from mainland China would soon be including South Jersey on their U.S. itineraries. The Atlantic City airport would be the hub for jumbo-jet charters from Asia. The margins are better if you can lure a plane from Hong Kong than a bus from Port Authority. Atlantic City, born in proximity to the population and early industrial wealth of Philadelphia, would now reach halfway around the world for money and the guests from whom to separate it.
Crandon believed that Straub was planning to demolish Revel. A consultant had told him you could net a hundred million dollars if you sold it off as spare parts. There was a precedent: In 2004, Straub bought Miami Arena for twenty-eight million dollars, half what the city had paid to build it. He promised to turn it into a venue for horse shows, conventions, and minor-league sports, to help revive downtown Miami. “Tearing it down serves nobody’s purpose,” Straub said at the time. Four years later, he tore it down.
Events on the ground in Atlantic City seemed to be pushing Straub in that direction. As soon as he bought Revel, he found himself, not unexpectedly, in a war with ACR, the power plant, and thus, in short order, with the city. The maneuverings often seemed frivolous and petty, except that a city was at stake. Straub refused to pay ACR the three million a month for power, and ACR refused to provide it for free. And so Revel remained dark: no light, heat, air, or water, no sprinklers or alarms. The city’s fire marshal deemed the building unsafe, and the city rescinded Straub’s certificate of occupancy and began fining him five thousand dollars a day. Observers wondered about catastrophic fire and debilitating mold.
Straub dug in. He told reporters, as he unsuccessfully challenged the plant’s owners in court, “We’ll erase them off the map.” He brought in a fleet of diesel generators and parked them outside the casino. But he had no permits, and ACR owned much of the connecting infrastructure. Back to court they went. Straub, the loser again, sent the generators away. He told me, referring to city and state officials, “If they won’t work with me, I’ll just go back to Miami.” Publicly, he made the threat explicit: “I’ll tear the building down.”
To circumvent ACR, Straub had set about trying to buy the empty casino next door, the Showboat, and tap into its power plant instead. The Showboat’s owner, at the moment, was Stockton University, the state college, which, a few months earlier, had bought it to establish a long-desired Atlantic City campus. The university had paid just ten dollars a square foot. “You can’t even buy tile at Home Depot for ten dollars a square foot!” Herman Saatkamp, Stockton’s president, told me.
But the campus plan had suddenly fallen apart, when Trump Entertainment, owners of the Taj Mahal, next door, unexpectedly opted to enforce an old covenant mandating that the Showboat be a casino-hotel, and nothing else. Icahn, who controls Trump, didn’t want a college campus next door. “Who is this guy?” Bob McDevitt, the president of Local 54, the casino workers’ union, said of Icahn, with whom he has been feuding for a year. “How does he get to decide everything? He’s disembowelling the city.”
Icahn blames the unions. “I saved the Tropicana, which was bankrupt, and made it into one of the only vibrant and surviving casinos in Atlantic City,” he told me. “I have also saved the Taj Mahal and have saved six thousand jobs. Bob McDevitt has caused three casinos to close and the loss of thousands of jobs. Ask yourself: Who is the villain of this story?” Capital or labor? Germany or Greece? Depends on whom you talk to. In July, Taj workers, having lost many of their benefits, voted to authorize a strike.
At any rate, now Stockton was stuck with a vacated casino on its balance sheet and monthly maintenance costs of four hundred thousand dollars. That’ll buy you a lot of tile. And so Saatkamp, the university’s president, who is also a leading scholar of George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), rushed into a provisional agreement to flip the Showboat to Straub. At the end of April, Saatkamp, out of his depth in these sharky waters, resigned as Stockton’s president, his tenure scuttled by the Showboat and Revel mess. Santayana: “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon.”
Throughout the spring, Crandon pressed for a deal while Straub held out for more. Straub told me, “Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re so fucking smart, Mr. Straub.’ And I’m saying, ‘I’m not smart. I can just outlast everybody.’ ” Tara Lordi e-mailed Crandon one afternoon in early April:
Can you kindly by the place so I can get back to the warm weather I’m freezing my ass off here.
In early May, according to Crandon, the two men met aboard Straub’s yacht, the Triumphant Lady, which he’d brought north to Atlantic City and docked at the Golden Nugget. Crandon says they actually shook on a deal, for a hundred and thirty-two million dollars. (Straub denies this meeting took place and in general was dismissive when I asked him about Crandon, referring to him as “Kramden.”)
But they continued to haggle over terms and timing as Crandon worked out his arrangement with the Chinese. There were stories of Straub stiffing a local law firm, and of his filling a truck with Revel fixtures and tools, bound for Florida. (He denies wrongdoing in both cases.) His deal to buy the Showboat foundered, and a court gave Stockton the go-ahead to seek another buyer. As weeks passed, Crandon made promises that he’d soon hold the keys to Revel, and then the deal would recede again: Zeno’s paradox down the shore.
At the end of June, Crandon texted me to say that his deal with Straub was off. “Greed and evil have destroyed A.C.” He explained, “What happened is we got circumvented.” Straub, apparently, had cut him out of the loop and gone directly to the Chinese. He had come to see the potential of junkets from overseas. Crandon sent photos of Tara Lordi in Shanghai with a Chinese man, whom he still, vestigially, called “my partner”: “2 days after that photo, Chinese canceled our deal.” Crandon vowed revenge: “We will keep it in litigation for years. No one will get Revel.”
If Straub was really planning to sell to the Chinese, he wasn’t saying. Lordi says she went to Shanghai to play polo. Straub said he was looking for groups to help manage the hotel and the casino. All the while, Revel remained closed. Still no light shows or clean windows, to say nothing of the four thousand new jobs the city so desperately needed. Revel’s remaining employees were let go. There was no one left, really, except for the security guards overlooking the slots, in the sweltering heat of an un-air-conditioned glass box in high summer.
“No word on Revel, Showboat, or any of these things,” Mike Hauke said, down at Tony Boloney’s. “It’s frustrating.” Weekends were busy, weekdays were soft. It was hard to make decisions or plans. “Sometimes, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you drive around town and see four or five cars.” The talk at the shop was mostly about water parks, or the recent news about the mysterious disappearance of three million dollars, which the Langford administration had given to a Bronx businessman in 2013, for a community-loan program that seems to have never made a loan. ♦
*An earlier version of this article stated, incorrectly, that James Usry was the only Republican to serve as mayor in Atlantic City’s casino era.
From the original article in The New Yorker Read here.