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Atlantic City - Beating the Odds and Expectations

Mark Glass - Click to Enlarge
by Mark Glass

Mark Glass is a journalist trapped in a lawyer's body, balancing his practice with
writing and broadcasting on travel, entertainment and professional sports.  

I've always been curious about Atlantic City, but not quite enough to get there. I'm not a gambler; and even if I were, my home turf teems with such opportunities, now that the Mississippi River is getting clogged with riverboats, legalized and rigged up for Brett Maverick wannabes. But Atlantic City has a tourism identity beyond its casinos (amazingly, they only started in 1958 - it seems as if they've always been there). The Boardwalk dates back to more leisurely days (opened in 1870); and it's parallel to an actual ocean - far more alluring than the aforesaid river, unless you're in the barge business.

I'd heard the gamut of pros and cons about this East Coast playground. Glitzy casinos in ornate hotels; don't miss the Boardwalk; don't stray too far from the Boardwalk; venue for the rich and famous; venue for busloads of geriatric slotaholics.; empire of Donald Trump (pro or con - your call). So wherein lies the truth, along the spectrum evoking that Dickensian dilemma - the best of times, worst of times?

Recently, the chance arose for a visit (Note - If you're connected with the IRS, I went strictly for business; for the rest of you, my desire to see Atlantic City tipped the scales heavily in favor of attending that convention.), and I'm glad to have finally been able to form my own conclusions. 

On one side, the 4 -mile Boardwalk abuts an expanse of open sea that's beautiful to behold, especially for one from an ocean-deprived part of the country. Opposite stands a string of massive hotel/casinos - most of which are relatively new, or refurbished. Accommodations are quite reasonably priced, since the rack rate is hardly the fuel that drives their engines. These towering spires of temporary residence rise, financially and architecturally, from the broader bases of gambling facilities on their lower floors. Different hotels feature various decor themes, to attract the eye, or distract the visitor from the underlying reality that the games are all the same, whether draped in the Roman splendor of Caesar's, or surrounded by the faux frontier motif of Bally's Wild, Wild West..

Once inside, the sprawl of machines and dealers raking in or doling out currency is what one expects. Bright lights, big city. Whirring slots, clanking coins, shuffling cards, spinning roulette wheels - all surrounded by hordes of the hopeful. Even without dropping a dime into any machine, these cathedrals of fiscal faith provide a highly entertaining spectacle. In that regard, today's casinos bear a kinship with sports stadia - a place for mass worship of a nonsectarian, earthbound variety. Everyone arrives at either, seeking some type of Holy Grail - whether a jackpot, or a Super Bowl title - as a tangible key to a better life. Just as athletes aspire to that Zenlike state of fluidity known as being "in the zone", so do the mesmerized players at the slots. Maybe that's why we stamp "In God We Trust" on our currency.

Strolling the Boardwalk is another vacation from normal life. I had no idea how far I'd walked until the aches of age started setting in. Seemingly, every inch of landward frontage is occupied by hotels or other businesses. Virtually no streets or footpaths reach it to mark the passing of blocks, thereby obscuring distance, as windowless, clockless casinos do for time. But a fine walk it was, on a bright sunny day!

Seaward, the beach is below, so those frolicking on the sand can remain virtually unaware of those monuments to capitalism a couple of hundred yards behind them. The only major structures on that side are the Steel Pier amusement park at one end, and a three-story shopping mall, Ocean One (shaped like a 900-foot cruise liner, facing the Atlantic) in the middle. The pedestrian parade is a microcosm of the world, not just the U.S. - all ages, many languages; lots of families, with toddlers to teens in tow. Those who tire of walking have the option of riding in small carriages pushed by hand. These vehicles offer the rest of us the advantage over horse-drawn hansoms of not having to watch where we step. 

The Boardwalk and its environs fully envision, and embrace, the making or losing of fortunes that can occur. Upscale stores welcome the winners; 99-cent shops allow the rest to still return home with all they can carry; a few pawn shops invite the latter to try again. Fast-food joints let both groups resume their efforts, with minimal time loss, or expense. 

Admittedly, there's a significant drop-off from Fantasyland on the inland side of Casino Row. But not nearly as drastic as I'd been warned. Of course such a place has a sleaze factor - a couple of strip clubs, adult bookstores, etc. The Yellow Pages list a plethora of Escort Services (I only looked for academic interest; no calls placed). 

But the depressed neighborhoods are not as bad as those in many other cities. It only seems that way because you have to pass through them to reach the Promised Land, as opposed to most urban areas that are large enough to separate tourist attractions from the parts they prefer not to publicize. Yet among those side streets, whose names are known to anyone who ever played Monopoly, are fine restaurants, like Dock's Oyster House, that have been pleasing the locals and enlightened visitors for generations.

Atlantic City also offers a wide range of recreational activities, apart from the obvious reason that draws most of its 30-plus million visitors per year to a city of about 38,000. Minor league hockey and baseball teams play in first-rate venues. There's an Art Center and Historical Museum. The Ocean Life Education Center is a fine little aquarium, near the tour boats operating from Garner's Basin.

And whatever downside exists is changing. The new Convention Center and its adjacent (casinoless) Sheraton are several blocks in from the oceanfront; that's where our Miss Americas (or is it Misses America?) are crowned each year. Even farther inland, another cluster of hotel/resort/casinos is under construction. New housing and infrastructure upgrades are under way at an encouraging pace. A major share of parking revenues from the casino garages are earmarked for this work. The City has a full deck of plans on the table - five condo draw; seven restaurant stud - and everyone seems to be winning. 

One road project actually resulted in a net gain of wetlands area. Talk about your long shots paying off! 

For further information on Atlantic City, call 1-888-AC-VISIT, or check the website,

When you return, you can e-mail me about what I missed by not dialing any of those Escort services.               

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Email: (Mark Glass)

Mark Glass is a Mark Glass is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in St. Louis, covering travel, entertainment and professional sports for his readers and listeners. Mark was travel editor for "St. Louis Connoisseur", and now have that role for "Life in the Midwest", based in Indianapolis. For the last fifteen years, he's written and broadcast features on travel, entertainment and sports, while maintaining his law practice in the St. Louis area. (More about this writer.)


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