ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- In travel guides, this fabled seaside town is where the nation's first national highway begins, but Atlantic City has always been a destination.
Vacationing families came for the ocean's soothing powers. In World War II, the city's hotels were converted into military hospitals -- their specialty was amputations. Beginning in the 1960s, white flight and urban decay turned it into the most glamorous address of any slum in America. All the while, it remained a mecca for young beauties wishing for a better future as Miss America.
Today, new waves of dreamers come, hoping to impose their will on garish devices known as one-armed bandits.
Slot machines, the most popular form of legalized gambling, are revitalizing Atlantic City. But they are laying bare an unsettling truth: For many people, casinos signify a new version of the American Dream that is a mostly a mirage, a glittery world where where riches flow easily.
"That might be 'the dream' right there," said 35-year-old security guard Tom Curciona as he pointed at one of the high-rise casinos that dominate the boardwalk. "People think they're going to make that million dollar score. Something for nothing -- that's what's wrong with this country "
The traditional version of the American Dream was that those who came to the great cities of the United States from other shores could rise as far as their talents would take them -- provided they worked hard.
Along Route 40, however, from the mountains of Utah to the Jersey shore, Americans believe that too many people expect the fruits of the dream without being willing to expend the labor. They fear that something for nothing has become a kind of national value.
Gambling is an inherently hopeful pursuit that in one sense typifies America's optimism. The flip side is that gambling winnings are, by definition, something for nothing. And the most relentless "players" in this new national obsession are state governments, which have been soliciting lotteries, casinos, riverboats and racetracks -- and taking healthy cuts from the profits of a business that produces no product.
"Too often, public officials view gambling as a quick and easy way to raise revenues without focusing on gambling's hidden social economic and political costs," President Clinton said recently.
Many Americans agree with this sentiment. But they tend to cite a different example in insisting that government rewards the wrong kind of values. They are upset with the growth of welfare.
"Right now the economy is doing OK, but we're in trouble," says Steve Ryzner, a 35-year-old electrical engineer here for a convention. "Drugs and welfare are the two biggest problems. ++ The solutions offered by politicians, Bill Clinton included, are a facade."
Such sentiments are echoed by Joan Wentzell, owner of the Kountry Kitchen diner outside Atlantic City. After it burned down last year, she discovered that even with insurance, reopening would cost her $100,000. Because two of her grown kids work in the business, she rebuilt anyway.
She didn't expect a trophy, but she was "flabbergasted" when the county increased her property taxes by 30 percent. "We still have a lot more going for us than other countries, so you don't like to complain, but middle-class people are just paying for everything through the nose," she said.
It is stories like this that make Americans who feel overtaxed nonetheless leery of tax cut promises from politicians who aren't willing to make tough spending choices. In other words, it seems like more something for nothing. "We just got a supposed income tax cut in the state of New Jersey," said Charles Fullerton, a retired phone company employee from Glendora, N.J. "My bill was $35 less this year. But my real estate taxes went up $200."
Feeling pressed, Americans complain about immigrants and welfare recipients -- and search for short cuts of their own. Lured by the casinos, Atlantic City recorded 33 million visits last year, ranking it ahead of Walt Disney World.
"Everybody dreams of hitting it big," says John Bonk, a 37-year-old waiter at Donald Trump's Taj Mahal. "How can you help it?"
Means of escape
The dark side of the dream are the 32 pawnshops on Pacific or Atlantic Avenues behind the casinos, all with their stock sign: "Cash For Gold." The proprietors take 30 cents on the dollar for diamond-studded gold Rolexes or Piagets.
"A lot of people don't realize this can be a tough city," says Joseph Marto of Action Gold Jewelry. "They come here with $1,000 or $1,500 hoping to make more. They get tired or they get mesmerized and they lose it all. Sometimes they don't have enough left for a phone call so they come in here."
Gaming industry executives insist that most people who patronize their casinos realize it's unlikely they'll get rich, and that their customers have more complicated motivations for gambling.
"Their kids are grown, their husbands have retired -- or died -- and it's either come here or wait for their grandkids to call," says Herbert Wolfe, the president and CEO of Showboat, a popular casino with a New Orleans motif. "Well, they might not call. But they know we will be open."
As he listened recently to a group of casino customers explain why they come, Wolfe concluded that the casino has replaced the church as the center of the social life for many of the elderly gamblers. A moment later, an 89-year-old woman from Philadelphia told the group, "I was supposed to be in church Tuesday night, but I said, 'Oh heck with it, I'm getting on a bus to Atlantic City!' "
Asked what he's selling, Wolfe replies in one word. "Escapism."
He knows his clientele, who are sometimes bused into terminals located inside the casinos themselves. As he's speaking, the low-rollers begin congregating in Showboat's indoor bus terminal for the 60-mile rides back to Philly. One woman, a retired stenographer in her 70s, who gives her name only as Linda, is asked why she comes to play the slots.
"To me, it's an escape," she replies. Linda comes to play quarter slots. It gets her out of the house she shared with her husband of four decades. The memories are painful this summer. "It's been exactly a year since he died," she says.
Jerome A. Kilbane, a local social worker, says people are "almost surgically implanted by the casinos into a town they literally never see." But they may see more than he knows.
The Dream fades
"I think Atlantic City was better when I used to bring my kids here 35 years ago," says Linda. "It was nice to go in the ocean and have fun."
To her, the American Dream is more about family than success. For her it began to fade in 1969 when her brother was killed in a holdup. "If I had a dream," she says, fighting back tears, "it all went to hell."
Her grief is a sober reminder that 30 years of rampant violent crime has devastated millions of American families.
Pawnshop owner Joe Marto is perfectly willing to discuss the state of Atlantic City and America. But first he needs to tell you about his 31-year-old daughter Lisa who is missing and presumed murdered in Virginia.
"Can you do anything?" he asks plaintively.
Gambling cannot heal such scars in people's hearts. What it can do is help clear the physical blight that epitomized Atlantic City. Today, tax money from the casinos is financing a new train station, a new bus depot, a new convention center and scores of other projects. Last year, a glorious $76 million high school that looks like a Sun Belt community college opened its doors.
This was the promise when New Jersey residents voted gambling in 20 years ago, though it was slow to be realized. Initially, neither the local government nor the casinos took the lead. Today, under the auspices of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, money is being pumped into the community.
"Clearly, over the last 15 years, gambling has not proven to be bTC the catalyst for change in the community that people thought it would be," says Jerry Kilbane, director of the Covenant House, ++ which takes in abused and homeless children. "But it's changing."
'Opportunities aren't there'
"We are a leading corporate citizen," says Casino Association president Nicholas R. Amato. "Since the first casino opened in 1978, we've paid $3.2 billion in state taxes -- and that doesn't include local property taxes. We employ 45,000 people. Everyone who wants a job can get a job here."
Sitting in his office with its view of tacky Atlantic Avenue and an oversized Dunkin' Donuts sign, Amato is asked about the American Dream. He mentions his father, who was born in Italy and then points to a color photograph of his brother's three children. They have movie-star good looks and are pursuing advanced degrees at prestigious colleges.
"That's the American Dream, right there," he says.
It is a picture he says he sees everyday on the streets. "You know who realizes this? Immigrants. That's why they work so hard. In their countries they still work hard, but the opportunities aren't there. We sometimes overlook that in this country."
George Kramvis doesn't. Ten years ago, he was a member of the Greek community in Johannesburg, South Africa. At 35, he was a dentist with a thriving practice, but the arrival of his third child made him look to the future.
So he came to Atlantic City, bought a run-down home three houses off the beach and fixed it up. Today, he manages a Day's Inn -- his wife works with him -- and his three children are never more than a 10-minute walk away.
Is the American Dream intact? "Oh yeah!" he says enthusiastically. "As long as you want to work."
Pub Date: 8/07/96