Curtis Kugel danced on the boardwalk on the November night in 1976 that New Jersey voters approved a referendum to bring casinos to Atlantic City. Still a little bleary eyed, he got up the next morning and started to fix up his faltering business, Luigi’s Restaurant. Eighteen months later when the first casino, Resorts International, was set to open on Memorial Day 1978, he stayed up late making vats of clam chowder and trays of baked ziti.
From the window of his restaurant, Kugel watched as a stream of cars passed by. He heard stories of lines snaking down the boardwalk and of people waiting five hours to get into resorts. The casino made so much money that first night it couldn’t count it fast enough to open on time the next day.
But at the close of the holiday weekend, Kugel was dumping his soup down the drain and his pasta in the trash. He hadn’t done much business.
Kugel’s story was in many ways the story of Atlantic City as a casino town. While the casinos prospered, building glittering glass towers and bringing Frank Sinatra and millions of visitors back to town, the city as a place to live suffered. It never experienced the promised urban renewal. Within a decade of the resorts opening, more than 200 restaurants, including Kugel’s, shut their doors. The city lost a third of its population and housing stock. By the turn of the 21st century, Atlantic City attracted 35 million visitors a year, ranking as one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations, yet it didn’t have a single movie theater or a supermarket.
Casino companies, the Atlantic City experience makes clear, aren’t bad at creating jobs and paying some taxes. But that doesn’t make them effective civic planners.
Casinos don’t want people out on the streets; they want them inside standing like soldiers in front of slot machines. They don’t want their customers to leave until their pockets are empty. That’s why casino executives traditionally designed windowless structures with bland exteriors and clockless, climate-controlled gaming floors.
They do not want to compete for a gambler’s attention. In recent years, casino executives in Atlantic City and elsewhere have started to talk about the need to build attractions outside the casinos, but it might be too late. There is only so much another high-end restaurant or dance club can do for a city like Atlantic City, where basic public necessities were allowed to atrophy for so long while the casinos prospered.
Perhaps Steve Wynn said it best when he declared, “If you want to make money in a casino, own one.” For everyone else, including cities and states, gaming halls are, at best, a risky bet. That’s the lesson to be drawn from Atlantic City’s gamble.