ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- What everybody needs to know about this city can be summed up in two words: Pacific Avenue. On such a street, all who knew this place in its youth should now say prayers for the deceased.
Pacific Avenue is one block west of the beach, running parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. It's the street where the big casinos have simultaneously placed the back of their hotels and given the back of their hands.
Pacific Avenue should be basking in the warm glow of money, but instead is stricken with the familiar cancers of urban decay. When they brought legalized gambling to this city nearly 15 years ago, everybody said the money from out-of-town rubes would cure this sickness. Now, everybody wishes you would not bring up such previously expressed nonsense.
It is bad enough to bring up a woman named Cynthia Holmes. She is a grandmother being prosecuted by the Atlantic City district attorney for the crime of leaving her 7-year old granddaughter at home one night.
The granddaughter was locked inside the house alone and could not leave when the house caught fire. Everyone is upset because the grandmother left the child in order to wager money at a casino.
This is supposed to be the great metaphor for the dangers of legalized gambling: addiction, degeneracy, all of that business. For such insights, you need psychiatric therapists working overtime. It is easier, and more readily apparent, merely to drive along familiar stretches of Pacific Avenue and mourn.
In its day, the street was spotless. The sun shined brightly on this city back then, back when it was the grand lady of ocean resorts, when all those not strolling the boardwalk or swimming in the sea might wander into the neighborhoods and feel bathed in cleanliness.
Now there are stores boarded up and trash piled in gutters. The hotel people, hoping to distract you, invite you with open arms and hope you won't mind stepping over that wino sleeping in the doorway of the abandoned grocery store across the street from their glittery casinos.
The glow that was supposed to extend from the casino onto all the streets like Pacific Avenue is like a wave in the ocean that broke without ever reaching shore. It's a caution to all those places wishing to legally gamble their way out of tough economic times.
The buses empty gamblers here hour after hour, and the parking garages are filled to the roof with out-of-town cars, and yet none of this seems to touch this main drag a mere half-block away.
"Unbelievable," says a security guard named Robert, gazing across the throng at the Bali Hotel casino. "The buses start rolling in about 5 in the morning. Two buses at a time, three at a time, all day long. You wouldn't know it was a recession going on, would you?"
"They can't even find enough buses," says a lady named Jacqui, who's a professional drink freshener at the Trump Taj Majal. She's making the rounds of blackjack tables where people are lined up to play $25 a hand and seem to think nothing of it.
All these people, all this money. But where does it go? Not to streets like Pacific Avenue, not so you'd notice. The casinos seem self-contained worlds, unto themselves, little mini-cities which cater to your needs, so why go outside with those undesirables falling down in doorways?
"I grew up in this town," says the security guard Robert, "but I haven't lived here now in 10 years. They told us the gambling money would fix up the town, so I waited for a while. Now I drive in every morning.
"You see what it looks like out there? You go down the end of Pacific Avenue, there's all these abandoned apartment buildings there, and there's homeless people living in the empty rooms."
"Can you walk there?" Robert is asked.
"You can," he says, "but you wouldn't. You wouldn't walk Pacific Avenue after dark, not anymore."
So people still come to Atlantic City, but not really. They come to the old geography, but they avoid much of the town. Stay inside the hotels, stay on certain sections of the boardwalk, then slip back home.
The casinos are a bet that hasn't paid off in 15 years. The money was supposed to save this town, but it's only saved hotels. If gambling's still seen as the salvation for communities down on their chips, we can all learn from Atlantic City and take a pass.