On a rainy night in early 1980, Donald Trump walked down the Atlantic City boardwalk to check out a vacant lot. He was alone—he’d left his then-wife, Ivana, gambling at Bally’s. “I love that plot,” he said. By the end of the year, he’d leased what would become the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino from an FBI informant and two mob-affiliated Philly scrap metal dealers, described to Trump biographer Wayne Barrett by “associates” as “the short, dumpy guy with the open shirt and lots of gold . . . and the tall, dumpy guy with the open shirt and lots of gold.” The cork was popped; the gun was fired! The Trump Plaza would soon be born, but it needed a parking garage. Casino owners did everything in their power to make sure tourists only saw the boardwalk—the carefully bleached teeth of the city—rather than the obvious poverty a block away, so Trump bought a dilapidated brick nightclub standing behind the Plaza site from Frank Narducci Jr. and Salvatore Testa. At the time, Narducci and Testa were running a hit squad called the Young Executioners. Testa was also the twenty-six-year-old son of Philip Testa, “the Chicken Man” of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” who was killed by a nail bomb in Philly around the same time Trump stood in the rain looking at the site of his future casino.
It was the end of an era. The mafia was on the decline, although they didn’t fully know it yet, and white collar crime was ascendant—Reagan would be elected later that year. Having firmly cemented himself into city lore, Trump’s empire began to expand. The Trump Plaza was followed by Trump’s Castle and then the Trump Taj Mahal. During boom times, they employed over eight thousand people and accounted for nearly a third of Atlantic City’s gambling revenue. But like the rest of the man’s business ventures, the casinos were plagued by corruption and malfeasance, and when the 2008 recession sunk its teeth into the city, Trump bailed. The Trump Castle (renamed Trump Marina in 1997) became the Golden Nugget in 2011. Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal were sold to a friend of his—billionaire investor Carl Icahn—before being shuttered in 2014 and 2016, respectively. The Taj Mahal was bought and renovated by Hard Rock Entertainment, and so the flagship, Trump Plaza, was all that remained—a moldering heap, looming over the boardwalk. Sometimes, when the wind was strong enough, pieces of it would peel off and fall into the surrounding streets.
Last Wednesday morning, the city finally blew it up. The demolition was initially scheduled for January 29, with Atlantic City set to auction off the honor of pushing the button, but Icahn objected, citing safety concerns—although it seemed like it was the auction he really opposed. The date was pushed back to February, and a limited number of VIP seats sold for $550–$600 a pop while some watched from the beach or nearby Ducktown Tavern. The bulk of onlookers paid $10 to drive onto Bader Field for the show. Bader is something of a palimpsest of the city’s variable fortunes: a decommissioned airfield built during the city’s early twentieth century heyday, it’s now used for drag-racing during the summer and has, since the pandemic, become a food distribution site. Atlantic City recorded the largest decline in real GDP between 2006 and 2015 out of any metropolitan area in the country and was only just starting to recover when Covid arrived last March. The pre-Covid poverty rate was already close to forty percent, and at points over the last year, the lines at local food banks have been miles long.
Sometimes, when the wind was strong enough, pieces of it would peel off and fall into the surrounding streets.
“We normally have approximately ten thousand members working,” said Donna DeCaprio, the financial secretary treasurer of Unite Here! Local 54, which represents hotel and casino workers across South Jersey and Eastern PA. “Right now, that number has diminished between six thousand and six thousand five hundred.” The union managed to negotiate extended health care coverage for furloughed employees with several casinos, and they launched their own extension that enables workers to retain health care for a limited time. They need federal help though; DeCaprio called for an expansion of supplemental unemployment, expanded SNAP benefits, and government subsidized health care.
“This area—even before the coronavirus, we weren’t doing too well,” said Victoria Hillesheim. Hillesheim worked as a server at the Borgata before she was laid off in March. “There are no other jobs. We’re all in the union, so we all have our seniority. It’s not like I can just bump someone out at another property for their job. We’re all waiting in line, we’re all waiting to get called back to similar jobs.” Local 54 guarantees employees two-year recall rights, and Hilleshiem has until March 15, 2022, to be reinstated with her seniority at her previous pay rate. Local unemployment was last calculated at 13.7 percent, down from a 34.4 percent peak last June, but that number is deceptive. Even employees who have gone back to work often aren’t being assigned full schedules and capacity limits eat away at tipped workers’ take-home pay. Servers like Hilleshiem, for example, only make $4 an hour before tips—nowhere near enough to live on when business is so scarce.
The nature of the pandemic has forced some of the country’s most poorly compensated workers—teachers, grocery store cashiers, waitresses, meat packing employees, etc.—to risk their lives with little to no support. It’s particularly galling in the case of these casino workers; Unite Here knocked over half a million doors in Philadelphia, made over 2.5 million phone calls in Pennsylvania and Nevada, and arguably cinched the election for Biden. But among elected officials, calls for hazard pay have all but vanished, and the Biden administration has already managed to walk back a proposed $2,000 universal payment to a $1,400 stimulus check for those who made less than $75,000 a year in 2019.
“I have my college degree, but if you find a good casino job . . . they’re great benefits. It’s a great career. So, some folks kind of look down on us like, ‘So what’re you guys are just casino workers?’ No, we’re hard workers,” Hillesheim said. “I’m afraid that March 15, 2022 will come around and they won’t call us back. It’s making me really nervous.”
Atlantic City was founded by a Quaker, although it rarely gets credit for that. Said Quaker is now buried at the center of a traffic circle in Northfield, New Jersey. Jeremiah Leeds was a tall man of “stalwart mould,” who settled on Absecon Island in 1783 and spent the next fifty-five years raising cattle and grain, buying the surrounding land to keep neighbors away, and carefully building up the dunes that surrounded the island. His tenure there would be more or less the last time such scrupulous attention was paid to the area’s natural environs. When Leeds died, his widow, Millicent, began running a tavern and boarding house out of their log cabin, and the city as it’s seen today began to take shape. AC has garnered an outsized national reputation since the financial crisis as a cautionary tale—the epicenter of all of Trump’s personal failings—but in person it’s a slow, ramshackle beach town; a friendly, depressive cousin to the more boisterous Philadelphia.
I’d been traveling there for several years to talk to residents about ongoing flooding. Atlantic City sits on a barrier island and is extraordinarily vulnerable to sea level rise. A 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that New Jersey is one the states at the highest risk and could lose $108 billion in property values by the end of the century. A recent study in Ocean Science showed that sea level rise is currently following the most pessimistic forecasts. At the rate we’re going, according to Climate Central’s flood projections, the city will be functionally underwater by 2100—things will get bad long before that, though. Sea level rise is not just a matter of the coast receding; it raises the water table, contaminating the groundwater and rising up from behind you. This is happening most obviously in Louisiana, but New Jersey is not that far removed from a state of crisis.
After Hurricane Sandy, the state expanded a program called Blue Acres, which offers voluntary buyouts to homeowners in the floodplain. But as insurance programs and FEMA are stretched to the breaking point by Covid, wildfires, a deepfreeze in Texas, and two hurricanes hitting Louisiana within the space of a month, a voluntary buyout may not be enough. As Obama was leaving office, his administration quietly set up a working group focused on managed retreat—proactively moving vulnerable communities out of harm’s way. It was abandoned under the Trump Administration, although Trump did offer federal funds to states that agreed to use eminent domain to evict homeowners who would not leave voluntarily. It’s unclear, at the moment, how this will play out under Biden. At the behest of a man named David Dichter, Atlantic City briefly revived a plan to use climate change as a tourist attraction by turning itself into a hub for climate science and conventions, but the plan once again failed to gain traction, and Dichter passed away in January.
Atlantic City was the last place I went before the lockdown last March, and as my friend and I drove toward it again last week, it was clear things had taken a turn for the worse. “Never a good sign when this many billboards are blank,” he observed. There was one hopeful holdout—a Kiss concert at the Hard Rock scheduled for August 21.
The gates to the Trump Plaza viewing site opened at 7:00 a.m., but a few cars were already gathering outside around 6:30. A man named Robin DiGrazio had driven down with his son, “just to spend some time together. You don’t see [your kids] so much once they move out of the house.” DiGrazio is a gambling addict who’s been sober for ten years now. “I can’t walk in there, same way an alcoholic shouldn’t be in a bar, I can’t walk into a casino.” He was looking forward to the implosion, though.
It was sunny, bitterly cold, and windy—weather that makes you feel like you’ve just lost money—but there was also a festive air. Three men stood outside their cars drinking, and a few vendors wandered around selling pretzels. While the fact that the Plaza was a Trump property seemed like a motivating factor for some, most attendees were there simply to see the implosion, a few going so far as to identify as “implosion guys.” April Knighton, a very friendly woman dressed head-to-toe in Lilo and Stitch gear, told me she’d driven up from Maryland. “I know CDI [Controlled Demolition, Inc] is the best because I’ve seen them do a lot of other stuff, but I’ve never seen one in person. This was the first casino I ever gambled in.” She won fifty bucks.
As a coda to four years of a disastrous administration that oversaw a deadly response to the first pandemic in a century, the implosion was a little lame.
On some level, any business—especially a drinking establishment—is more about the people who work there than whoever’s name is on the sign. Nilda and Scott Mahrer met while employed at the Plaza and got married there. They both worked in entertainment, beginning more or less when the casino opened. “Our children grew up watching shows at Trump Plaza,” Nilda said. “So yeah, it is bittersweet.” They planned to Zoom their former coworkers when the building went down. Asked what Trump was like to work for, Nilda made a face. “You take that one,” she told her husband. “Fortunately for us, he was very hands off,” said Scott. “This was his first casino; he knew absolutely nothing.”
It might be for the best that most of the gathered spectators I spoke to weren’t looking for catharsis. As a coda to four years of a disastrous administration that oversaw a deadly response to the first pandemic in a century, the implosion was a little lame. Sure, the Trump Plaza was an eyesore and a safety hazard, but Donna Decaprio speculated that its demolition may just end up raising taxes for local residents. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword . . . because the city will be losing a ratable. The taxes on just the land will be significantly less than the taxes on the building and land. Which will most likely result in an increase in either assessed value or the tax rate itself for residents. Which no one can afford on a good day.”
In the absence of meaningful government aid, symbolism is cold comfort. Still, it is fun to stand on an airfield in the cold, February light and watch a casino come down. April Knighton was right: Controlled Demolition, Inc is good at what they do. The Trump Plaza swayed and then crumbled gracefully into an eighty-foot pile of debris and you could pretend, for a moment at least, that a curse was being lifted—that Atlantic City’s new arch villain was not the sea itself. A young man grinned at me and ran back towards the parked cars, fists raised in the air as though he’d just won a boxing match. “End of an era!” he yelled. What happens over the next few years is anyone’s guess, but the field we were standing on is likely to be below the tideline by the end of the century.