Top 10 impressions from Atlantic City
7 Nov 2016
By Clare Fitzgerald
By Clare Fitzgerald
Last week I went down to Atlantic City for the launch of GameCo's Danger Arena at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City and to check out a day or two of the PokerStars Festival New Jersey at Resorts Casino Hotel. Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, this was my first proper trip to Atlantic City; it was also my first poker festival. I wasn't sure what to expect.
10. The skyline is hilarious
A lot of cities have distinctive skylines, but most still fall within an overall standard look for city skylines, with large clusters of tall buildings out of which you can usually identify the tallest and/or most famous ones. Atlantic City is a little different.
Atlantic City, and most of the area around it, is flat. The surrounding terrain is so flat that you can see AC's weirdly barren, gap-toothed skyline directly in front of you while you're still ten miles away.
The gap-toothed look comes from the fact that the enormous casino hotel towers are pretty much the only buildings in AC taller than three stories. Everything else is low-slung Jersey Shore bungalows and two-story economy motels for miles. The roadside billboards aren't even up on stilts like they are in most places; they're propped up on the ground. The folks who run Atlantic City tourism initiatives have sensibly chosen to cluster all the casino silhouettes close together when designing tacky skyline memorabilia, resulting in images like this. The actual skyline driving in looks a little more like this.
9. Getting around is surprisingly hard
So, AC is flat. The only buildings I wanted to go to were highly, even extraordinarily visible. Most of it is set up like a grid like a normal American city, not like Boston's infamous cowpaths. There wasn't even a lot of traffic. So why did I have so much trouble getting anywhere?
The glib answer is that I'm too GPS-dependent, but that still doesn't explain why even with two GPSes I could never manage to end up where I was trying to go on the first try. Atlantic City's system of addressing repeatedly confounded both the navigation system in my car and the Google Maps app on my phone. I regularly ended up being directed onto dead-end streets two or three blocks down from wherever I was trying to go, and Atlantic City's dead-end streets don't even have cul-de-sacs at the end like suburban residential ones; they just run up to the edge of the boardwalk and end. When I searched for the nearest gas station to Harrah's, I ended up at a Coast Guard base (maybe there was a gas station in the base? I do not know; I am not in the Coast Guard); when I searched for the second-nearest gas station, I was directed onto the highway and across nearly the entire city, although at least there was in fact a gas station when I got there (and I didn't have to pump my own gas, because New Jersey).
8. The Taj is the ugliest building I've ever seen
One of these drives from Harrah's to Resorts brought me right past the entrance of the recently shuttered Trump Taj Mahal.
I had seen pictures, mostly ones taken at night when the lights were on, and I had heard it referred to with words like "gaudy," but I was still nowhere near prepared for the sheer hideousness that hove into my vision as I pulled up to a red light on South Virginia Avenue.
This Orientalist monstrosity was built in 1990 but looks like it could have been built a hundred years earlier by Victorians trying to show that conquering India was the way of the future at a World's Fair. The hotel tower is striped with thin lines that make it look either like the scaffolding was accidentally left on after construction was completed, or like it was built out of dirty white Legos. The parking garage looks like a cartoon of a parking garage and I would be afraid to go into it, both for its actual history of people getting murdered there and because I would expect a large anvil labeled "ACME" to fall on my head if I did. If casinos generally are Disney World for adults, the Taj may be the cringe-inducing Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom.
I'm still trying to process this.
7. Super retro decor everywhere
The Taj is certainly not the only example of dated casino tackiness in Atlantic City; that is, in fact, the city's general vibe. Mostly, it's goofily, charmingly retro.
Most of Atlantic City's casinos opened between 1978 and 1990, and it shows.
Harrah's gaming floor is afflicted with a delightful purple-and-gold color scheme that epitomizes what was considered sumptuous in the late '70s/early '80s, and goes perfectly with the lurid lights of the gaming machines. Caesars' heavy faux-Roman architecture resembles a large dollhouse more than a real building for human use. I really don't know what's up with the Showboat. I think it's supposed to be shaped like a boat with a sail? It's not a casino anymore, so it just kind of lurks asymmetrically along the Boardwalk.
But it was Resorts Casino Hotel that really wins the prize for being loudly and unapologetically retro. While the exterior of the building is deceptively classy, a simple white 19th-century building with the occasional red accent, the interior is officially "Roaring Twenties"-themed (according to all the PR put out during its 2004 expansion) -- but my immediate impression was that a parrot had died and been turned into interior decorating. The gaming floor carpets are a vertigo-inducing blue and yellow that matches the cocktail waitresses' blue sequined uniforms. More serious parts of the complex, like the ballroom the PokerStars New Jersey Festival was held in, bear bold, although comparatively muted, black-and-brown geometric patterns.
All in all, being in Atlantic City is like taking a time machine back to that period in American history before we invented sleek but after we'd forgotten the difference between luxuriousness and gold spray paint.
6. New constructions are visually noticeable
There are a couple of visitations from the modern world in Atlantic City, some of which seem to have been put in with little attempt to integrate them into their surroundings.
The most obvious example of this is Playground Pier, hilariously located right behind Caesars. The pseudo-ancient, sand-colored edifice of Caesars extends its aesthetic influence onto the sand-bleached Boardwalk behind it, then abruptly runs up against the tinted glass box that is the Playground. Inside, the Playground is cool and dark and quiet, and houses ultra-contemporary brands like Lush Cosmetics and an Apple store.
Speaking of Apple stores, the iGaming lounge at Resorts strongly resembles one, though it's tucked into the heart of the chaotically colorful Resorts gaming floor. Tablets and touchscreen tables are spaced well apart in the nearly all-white room, where guests can sign up for and play on New Jersey's regulated online gaming sites. They were also running a promotion where you got a $20 no-deposit bonus and a free T-shirt for signing up with the Resorts online casino, so I retired to the iGaming lounge to play 10-cents-a-hand video poker every time I needed a respite from the sensory overload of the rest of the casino.
5. Nothing can ruin the Boardwalk
Well, maybe bad weather, but that only temporarily.
I was there on a beautiful, sunny fall day and it was glorious. The various casinos extended their carnival-like atmospheres onto their sections of the Boardwalk, with video ads, pumped-in music, glittering signs and patio seating for their restaurants. That the carnival was nearly empty, it being the off-season, may have actually improved the experience: An empty casino interior is kind of sad, but an empty beach is often nicer than a crowded one.
Not even phantom announcements from Guy Fieri or unseasonably early Christmas music from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra advertisements could put a damper on how utterly lovely it was to meander down the Boardwalk eating saltwater taffy and ignoring everybody, and I say this as someone who really hates both Guy Fieri and Christmas creep.
4. Being the only one railing an event at a poker tournament is super awkward
As I mentioned in the intro, the PokerStars New Jersey Festival was the first poker festival I've ever attended (full story coming later this week). I decided not to try to play anything, figuring I'd just check out what this whole thing was without adding the stress of losing money to the equation.
I learned many cool and valuable things over the course of the two days I spent hanging around, and one of them is this: A poker festival is probably a lot more festive if you're actually playing poker.
I do like watching other people play, but for most of the events I wanted to observe, I was pretty much the only one. Anyone else who wasn't playing was evidently more likely to go shoot hoops in the StarzFun Skill Zone or go explore Atlantic City. The only event that regularly had people watching it was the Main Event, which at minimum had the PokerStars Live blog team writing live updates.
I didn't really like watching the Main Event, though; it seemed too grueling. I preferred watching the $2,000 high roller -- but only for a few minutes at a time, at which point I felt like I was hovering, and obviously it's rude to hover over people when they're minding their own business trying to work.
3. It's kinda empty
I know that midweek isn't necessarily going to be the busiest time for a tourist hub, nor is November the peak season for a beach resort of any kind (for some weird reason. Oh well, more beautiful empty beach for me!). But I still don't think that fully explains the degree to which Atlantic City as a whole was essentially a ghost town.
The real culprit, obviously, is decades of financial mismanagement and the city's imminent takeover by the state, but it's one thing to read about that in the news and another thing to have an entire city practically to yourself.
Some of this might also just be perception, a reaction to the fact that the city's tourism spaces are built to accommodate such large crowds. As an example, I don't think the PokerStars New Jersey event was poorly attended, but it occasionally felt that way because all but the largest events got lost in the cavernously huge ballrooms it was spread out in. I would have preferred a more intimate setting that didn't make me feel like I was getting unreasonably close to someone if I came within speaking distance.
2. Don't go walking alone
I had my car with me, so I did relatively little walking outside except for my Boardwalk jaunt, and none at all after dark. The same was not true of everyone I talked to, some of whom reported being followed, being accosted by people loitering in corners and doorways, and generally being made to feel unsafe.
This, of course, is probably both a direct result of the city's financial collapse, and now a barrier to rebuilding it as a desirable and family-friendly vacation destination. Le sigh.
1. It ought to be delightful
The prior two points are especially sad because Atlantic City has been successful before, and it still has all the ingredients necessary to be successful again. It's in a beautiful shore location in a temperate climate. It's within a reasonable travel distance of densely populated cities like New York and Philadelphia. It's already been laid out and built up, although its public transit, like most cities in the U.S., is lacking. Rent is cheap, at least compared to the major coastal housing crisis cities like New York and Boston. It has a colorful history. There's saltwater taffy.
All it really needs is to sort out its finances and for a massive infusion of new businesses to decide to set up shop there.
"It has a lot of potential," was how Team PokerStars.com pro Fatima Moriera de Melo put it, and I think she's right.