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Atlantic City, New Jersey never really had a heyday, at least not one that lived up to the halcyon daydreams of its original architects. First conceived as the East Coast’s answer to Europe’s fashionable seaside resorts, its tawdry boardwalk attractions, backroom gambling establishments, and casual violence never approached the elegance of Cannes or Biarritz. Nevertheless, it held on for a while before taking a particularly American downturn. The legacy of the cut-and-run business which caused that downturn is captured in Brian Rose’s new photography book Atlantic City.
The years after World War II were unkind to many East Coast cities. Thousands of hotel room windows remained dark during what was once the high season in Atlantic City. Not even the 1964 Democratic National Convention could salvage the streets on which Monopoly, that celebration of American cutthroat capitalism, is based. With forecasts worsening as calendars rolled over to 1976, citizens were desperate to revitalize the economy. Charmed by snake oil salesmen posing as real estate developers who touted casinos as a panacea to what ailed “The World’s Famous Playground,” Atlantic City passed a referendum to legalize gambling.
Investors flocked to capture what conventional wisdom took to be an under-exploited market of mid-tier gamblers looking for a quick escape from nearby New York and Philadelphia. But instead of a boomtown, they turned the city into an enormous mining pit, the residents being the unwitting ore. With every hotel-casino that went up, they dug Atlantic City dug deeper and edged it closer to heaving its last soot-soaked breath. Chief among those to exploit the short-term gains was Donald Trump, whose multiple casinos succeeded only in fleecing working and middle-class gamblers, whose money bypassed the local economy on its way to his bank accounts. He then absconded for good with his proverbial sacks of cash, telling Atlantic City in no uncertain terms, “Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200.”
Page after page of Rose’s book features the banal exteriors of windowless casinos, designed to prevent its inhabitants from noticing the passage of time. They have more in common with prisons than the pleasure palaces they purport to be. Rose’s photographs are imbued with an overwhelming sense of erosion, of the city’s denudation alongside its best-laid plans and ill-gotten gains. The reality of global warming, often ignored by now-President Trump and his ilk, make this eventuality more imminent, unavoidable, and terrifying. Many of the casinos were built right along the water’s edge.
Mostly taken on wintry afternoons, the pale light of Atlantic City’s photographs suggests a pervasive melancholy blanketing the concrete landscape, lacking even the artificial flash of neon to brighten its torpor. Rose strips away the last peels of paint from an already thin facade of glitz and glamour. Humans are rarely seen, underscoring how unimportant they were to those who made Atlantic City what it is. One exception comes in an image near the middle of the book, of a restaurant ironically named “White House: Home of the Submarine.” In a caption, Rose describes it as “a wonderfully happening and funky sub shop” in the diverse and densely populated neighborhood of Ducktown. But this picture is an exception. The remainder that capture the parts of Atlantic City where its people reside are categorized by empty lots, dilapidated houses, overflowing trash receptacles, and defunct public services.
But more than a portrait of a city in decline, Atlantic City is a prognostication of America with President Trump its helm. The text accompanying the photographs, largely written by or about Trump, illustrate his philosophy of extortion and rupture that pays no regard to those who are ransacked, ruined, halved, or quartered. Quoted in Politico, one Atlantic City jitney driver perhaps most eloquently summarizes Trump’s self-professed business acumen when speaking of him and his occasional crony, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: “They both knew how to squeeze a buck and leave us for dead.”
Though most of the quotes and excerpts buttress the thesis of its photographs, the book’s central weakness also lies here: There’s an overabundance of Trump tweets. Looking like the manifestation of Derrida’s specter of history long since ended, the circular cutout of his orange face and towhead hair cheapen the book. Moreover, each tweet conveys the same sentiment, encapsulated in one from 1:36 pm on August 31, 2014: “What is happening in Atlantic City, casino closures, is very sad — but does anybody give me credit for getting out before its demise? Timing.” Rebroadcasting his sociopathic schadenfreude only serves his purposes. Like America, the book would be stronger without this blathering.
Even so, Atlantic City is a powerful testament to the destructiveness of unchecked crony capitalism. With tax cuts for the uber-wealthy, the lease of public land to oil and gas companies, and the imprisonment of asylum seekers irrespective of age, Trump is playing out his Atlantic City strategy on a national level. Rose makes it clear that all of us constitute the raw materials to be dredged, stripped, and pumped for someone else’s benefit, until all value has been removed and what’s left is a barren landscape of abandoned buildings and false memories of glory days that never were.
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