Atlantic City: For your consideration

By Rachael Roth

At 4:00 a.m. I get on a Megabus parked outside of a mall in Hadley. A traveling carnival is folded up like 20 silver bullet trailers taking a nap. Inside, I rest my head on a greased glass window that rattles evenly with the stalling bus engine.

On the bus I dream that I’m on a carousel in Atlantic City taking pictures of my friends with a Holga camera. We are drunk and laughing. The carousel speeds up dangerously and my dream cuts to a freeze frame of Donald Trump’s blue curacao cocktail jumping out of the glass to form an arched wave. Trump welcomes us to a titillating city by the shore as women in pearls and green sequined dresses puff on long-stemmed cigarettes.

I wake in the actual Atlantic City outside of Caesar’s, which I initially mistake for something more exciting than a hotel with slot machines in the basement. Galloping stone horses heel and spray water before Greek goddesses. Nikki, John and Val are already in the room eating pot cookies mesmerized by our view of Caesar’s spine as he commands the city below.

By the time we get to our third casino I’m not sure any of us know what time of day it is. The casino is sealed so that not even a drop of natural light can fall in. The sounds of gambling are not a crackle or sputter of die on a red felt table but instead, hundreds of wind chimes stacked on top of one another, sounding off in tritones fed through static. Nobody speaks. Cherry-Cherry-Bar. 7-7-Bar. Two women watch the screen as one of them loses. They sigh, release the handle, repeat.

While Nikki and Val are in the bathroom I look around the casino. The theme is the Wild West. There are elaborate sets of houses, stiff waterfalls and a painted starlit sky. Johnathon, shoveling in crumbs of a pot cookie says, “ So colorful. But it’s all pretend. Like a fun house, but it’s for f***ing adults.”

This simulated adult fantasy was born out of Donald Trump’s own imagination. Maybe not the styrofoam cacti or the spurs on the beer mugs, but certainly the opportunity to hide away in a fun house where you don’t even have to leave your slot machine to order a martini.

Creating these environments was no easy feat for Trump, who, since the 1980’s has been seizing properties in Atlantic City in order to build and expand his three major casinos.  It wasn’t until a 1998 that a judge named Richard Williams rejected Trump’s desire to seize the property of a widow whose house Trump decided was ugly.  Williams thought it was clear that Trump had no desire to improve Atlantic City, though he vowed to build public parks with some of the extra land. Trump refused to let this hiccup deter him, and to this day will not release his shares despite narrow evasion of an occasional dip into bankruptcy over the past three decades. Trump’s publicly traded Trump Enterprise company is still the largest shareholder of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino, the Trump Marina Casino and the Trump Plaza Hotel and Resort.

The fantasy moves past the casinos and spills onto the boardwalk. There are lanes for carts stuffed with middle-aged couples that a man pushes, while smiling. Fifty or more pizza shops advertise dollar slices. “If I were homeless,” Val says, “I would definitely come to Atlantic City.”

Yes. And if you are here to risk your savings on a slot machine it’s possible that you can afford to do only and just that. Trump himself once posed the question, “What would Atlantic City be without me?” It’s hard to say. Were casinos the only way to improve this city?

In 1997, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Spain turned around the failing economy of Bilbao. The structure was intentionally unobtrusive as its titanium walls mirrored the surrounding landscape. The Guggenheim attracts large numbers of international visitors because it’s the only building of its kind.

Perhaps the route is not to demolish houses but instead to build houses where possible. Architect Samuel Mockbee began the “Rural Studio” in the mid 1990’s, which enlisted architecture students to provide free housing to the homeless. These students used found materials such as windshield wipers and car tires to build houses in West Central Alabama. New Bern, Ala. and Bilbao, Spain are nothing like Atlantic City, N.J.. Who is Donald Trump to determine the city’s morale?

My last morning in AC has an early start. Down the boardwalk a carny opens up his booth to reveal fifty plus purple teddy bears as another batch of tourists cool off from their cocktail hangovers. The Trump Taj Mahal stands erect to acknowledge its own importance as its tinted windows eat up the sunlight. The casinos are extravagant enough to be monuments or museums and I wonder why they are instead full of jangling, sparkling LED screens.

On the bus home a man sits across the aisle from me, his cell phone making tinny sounds like the slot machines. His arms move slightly and rest individually on a thick gut, his hands unable to touch one another. He calls a casino and makes plans for next weekend, booking a room for, “Two adults, no, three adults. I forgot my cousin Griz was coming. I need a roll-away bed … No? Fine, I’ll sleep on the floor.” He calls another friend to tell him about a man he met in Atlantic City who “came with next to nothing, end of his rope, then the guy wins $100,000 in one weekend. It’s more than just a dream, man, I’m telling you.”

Rachael Roth is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].