The Saddest Tourist Destination in the United States Has Just Gotten Even Worse

I genuinely didn’t think my opinion of Atlantic City could get worse. But they are apparently trying to take the home of an ill senior citizen, son of a murdered holocaust survivor, in order to help a failing casino in some unspecified, Underpants Gnome way.

Now, I grew up on Long Island but didn’t spend summer weekends in the Hamptons. My family went to the Jersey Shore. We used to take the North Jersey Coast Line to Point Pleasant. I have wonderful memories growing up of the beach in New Jersey, although I don’t remember the train as being especially reliable. I loved it when my train broke down on the way back to New York once, I think I was 7 and I was happy waiting for the next train to come by and pick us up since the cafe car on ours had run out of M&Ms.

Take the beach in New Jersey and add legal gambling and you should have an even better destination in Atlantic City.

On its face Atlantic City should have every conceivable destination. Not only is there beach and gambling, but proximity to Manhattan — as a population center and financial center. Who should need Vegas, when you have Vegas-on-the-Beach accessible by car?

There’s this thing in travel, though. We’re not supposed to say that destinations are awful, even when they are. We say things like we “didn’t connect with” someplace we went, as though it was our fault or the destination wasn’t for us even though we all presume that it was – of course – special. We just didn’t get it. We failed.

Sometimes a place can be a cesspool though. Sadly, that’s Atlantic City, although it really shouldn’t be. In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage portrays a suicidal alcoholic and makes Vegas seem depressing. Vegas ain’t got nothing on Atlantic City.

Unemployment in Atlantic City nears 14%. Most of the hoped-for casino projects over the past decade have failed to materialize.

Wikipedia gives us a list of cancelled casino projects, most of which currently sit as vacant lots.

New Jersey has some of the worst crony capitalism in the United States, and yet (or because of?) Governor Christie sees Atlantic City as a standout for how poorly their regulatory regimes work. United offers new regional jet service to Chicago and Houston… not because there’s value in the route, but because Chris Christie promised big taxpayer dollars to support public transportation to and from United’s Newark hub if they’d do it, which would be a net transfer to the airline no matter how much they lose on the flights.

So it struck me when I saw Heels First write about the plight of a man she met while visiting the city.

It was at dinner I got the chance to chat with their clients — Charlie Birnbaum and his wife.

…Charlie was a brilliant concert pianist earlier in his career and now worked as a piano tuner using the house as his “studio”. I was touched by the painstaking care with which he maintained the house over the years, enjoying it as a living memory of his parents and a respite from Atlantic City’s hectic atmosphere.

And it was heartbreaking to know that it might all be taken away and torn down. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is attempting to use eminent domain to take his property for a yet-to-be-determined “better” use.

This has to be one of the saddest and most frustrating stories I’ve heard in recent times. Searching online for more details (it’s relatively high profile, subject of a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week), it just gets worse.

The property was purchased by the man’s parents in 1969. They had met while hiding in a forest during the Holocaust. His mother continued to live in the home until she was murdered.

He works out of the home, its central location key to his ability to work at all because of his autoimmune condition.

Now the government has come for this home.

They’re trying to take the property through eminent domain to support the Revel casino — which has been behind in property taxes by an 8 figure amount, filed for bankruptcy last year, and has seen its value drop by three-quartersin unspecified ways. Seriously — they can’t even articulate exactly what they’re going to do with the property once they take it. (There’s a ‘conceptual plan’ to use the property for “restaurants, specialty stores, boutiques and residential housing for rent and purchase”.)

Fortunately this man is being represented by the Institute for Justice, the same organization that successfully stopped Atlantic City from taking the home of a senior citizen in order to give it to Donald Trump for a parking lot.

There are some truly awful places in the world. You’re not supposed to say that about tourist destinations, you’re supposed to marvel in them or at least find what’s special about them. But Atlantic City’s and New Jersey’s political class have done such terrible things to the place that I find it impossible to do that. As they say, ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ And here, they seem to be repeating the same sort of cronyism that’s just taken from local residents and given to big businesses without doing a thing to improve the community.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. This is the whole GOP governing model: Destroy as much of the government as possible to drive down taxes and prove it doesn’t work, wringing every dollar out of it for yourself and cronies all the way.

    Granted it isn’t only one party involved, but it’s only one party that exists to destroy its own government by whatever means necessary, after stripping it bare. Then they point to the rubes and say “Look government doesn’t work!”

    The rest of the world is on to this scam after Bush, teaching it in their schools. When does the US catch on? When Brittny gets involved?

  2. @Greg, aren’t you really making the arguments for your opponents here? It is precisely the problem that government should not be able to seize this man’s house by eminent domain to give it to a casino. Government is too big and powerful. Your arguments against those who would limit government would work better on another topic.

  3. @Greg – Another blog falls vicitum to a political party bashing troll. I read boarding area blogs for entertainment and informational purposes. I laugh at the grammer police that troll the comment sections, but I had yet to see political bashing until today. Please regulate your political ideology to the comment section on CNN.com. Also get your facts straight. In the last 20+ years, Atlantic City has had 1 republican mayor and he just took office this year.

  4. @Greg: Spain has a huge nanny state government, but wallows in 25% unemployment, for years and years, but be reassured, their government is big enough to fix it there…and don’t even start to look at Greece, the queen of all nanny states, unemployment is so high it’s often just stated at above 30%… However, states like Virginia, under control of Republican leadership, passed extremely rigid anti-eminent domain laws in 2010. You obviously didn’t understand the basis of the article, because it’s the government trying to take his property, and rest assured, government in NJ is controlled with a tight leash by democrats.

  5. This action is by government of corporate cronies which besides bigotry and the filthiest racism is the GOP brand. And the world is watching. My Australian surfing student expounds for our class on what he learned in his high school about the dirtiest political party on earth, agitating the most unhinged lunatics loose on the planet. How much more do you want from working people, so you can become 300…500…700 pounds?

  6. And if you think NJ is controlled by Democrats right now Christie’s gotta bridge he’d like to unload on you.

  7. No one can take these posts by Gary seriously since everyone knows he’s a political hack. The republicans have systematically distorted this country piece by piece. Greg is absolutely right. If you think democrats run the state, you need today more attention.

  8. @ Greg and Haldami:
    Not to get too far afield here, but NJ’s State Senate and House are decidedly Democrat majorities. Both US Senators are democrats. US House is split. Other than Christie’s administration, state government is dominated by Democrats. Local governments also tend to be strongly Democrat. AC, for instance, last had a Republican mayor from 1986-1990 before a string of Democrat mayors for a quarter century until this most recent election.

  9. The place is a dump and they are taking people’s homes. Why the hell did this devolve into political diarreah of the blogs?

  10. @Haldami you can dismiss Gary for his politics, whatever they are, but do you think it’s actually right that the government should take this man’s home for the benefit of a casino?

  11. I guess I’ll be the first one to say that I genuinely enjoy Atlantic City. There’s not much to do in Jersey to begin with as far as nightlife, and AC is a fun place to get my gambling fix once in a while, have girls nights, and even date nights.

  12. This is a sad story and eminent domain is an interesting and controversial issue but despite the fact that the story transpires in a town with a substantial tourist industry I fail to see how it has even a tangential relationship to travel.
    .
    The United service to Atlantic City scandal, mentioned as an aside in this post, actually _is_ related to the subject of the blog and I’d certainly be interested in hearing more about that.

  13. @LarryInNYC regarding United’s service to Atlantic City in exchange for public transit funds to make their Newark flights more accessible, see http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304243904579198462560809046

    “The Wall Street Journal reported in September that a Port Authority executive had offered a deal to United in which the authority would fund an extension of the PATH rapid transit line to Newark Liberty International Airport in exchange for a commitment to serve Atlantic City.

    An authority official said Thursday that Mr. Christie’s representatives within the authority have been “absolutely insistent” that hundreds of millions of dollars be included in the next capital plan to begin work on the PATH project.

    The full project could cost from $2 billion to $4 billion, the official said, and some within the authority question the use of the funds on a connection to the Newark airport.”

    United of course denies — they’re shocked that anyone would think! — being offered a nine-figure subsidy for their Newark hub has anything to do with providing regional feed into ACY.

  14. It’s amazing how the conservative derangement folks have to turn everything into a Republican bashing event

    It’s pretty obvious from his post that the corruption and cronyism he is calling out in this post is not tied to any one specific political party, and explicitly calls out Christie for the AC airport kickbacks to United

    conservative derangement folks conclusion: Gary is a Republican hack

  15. Can we turn the comments back to aviation for a minute, and talk about how the aforementioned ACY-IAH service on United is the longest RJ route in their network, at 1345 miles and blocked (westbound) at a mind-numbing 3:49 minutes, all in an ERJ-135!!!

    Also, Gary – you talk about NYC as a population center that’s in close proximity – but Philadelphia is twice as close as NYC, only an hour away vs. at least two for NYC.

  16. @Andrew nearly a decade ago Continental introduced the country’s first one-stop RJ transcon, RIC-IAH-PSP! Guess I’m just numb to the implications of it after all these years.

  17. Everyone be careful, lest you say something too critical about Mr Christie here and your next flight to EWR is suddenly diverted – to ACY – because of a secret ‘airway / runway traffic study’… that Mr Christie of course will deny knowledge of.

  18. You could make the argument just as well that a seriously ill senior citizen should not be forced to live forever in the slum and indeed in the very house where his own mother was murdered. Most mentally healthy people capable of making good decisions would love to be bought out of that situation so they could go somewhere else, you know? So I feel like I’m getting one side of the story. If he makes too much fuss, the bloated casino industry could indeed decide they don’t need him after all and buy out someone else’s property. Or even nobody’s property. There are, as you point out yourself, a LOT of parking lots in Atlantic City.

  19. @andrew Philadelphia has its own casinos now. Part of the reason why Atlantic City will never fully come back.

  20. @peachfront by all accounts he is quite mentally competent. He isn’t living in the home, he is using it to repair pianos. He would like to keep the home, and the casino project is not even specific as to what they will do with the home if they take it.

  21. @Andrew and my point about NYC rather than Philadelphia is proximity to the financial capital of the world, though the point is actually stronger than i made it because in many ways the financial world capital actually *IS* New Jersey with all of the co-located servers inside of stock exchanges located there..!

  22. AC is a lousy place to go unless you strictly want to gamble and don’t live more than 90 mins from it. The boardwalk is crap the beach is lousy and the locals are sketchy. There are so many other options near Philly, NYC, and CT that are cleaner, the same travel time, and all they are missing is the crappy beach. Not to mention hotels in AC stink too. So many are beat up and run down but want to charge $300 a night on Friday and Saturday. Save your dough and gamble elsewhere.

  23. I can tell you where AC lost me. I’d go to Vegas, spin the slots a few times and walk down the street with the beer I got while playing. In AC, that beer was serviced in a small Dixie cup! I don’t even get 8 ounces for putting dollar after dollar in the machine? Every casino charges for parking. Really? I’m spending money and you want another $5? 500 feet from any casino there is a good chance I’m going to get murdered, so there is no walking around at night! No thanks….I’ll stick to Vegas for the nightlife and another destination for the beach. AC is a cesspool…..

  24. For those attempting to blame the GOP in New Jersey, should think again. Wynn and Adelson who have successful casinos in Macau (plus 1st Class CX to get there), think Obama is a crook.

    I agree with that. Thanks.

  25. Stepping aside from the political argument…just curious where on Long Island you grew up. Charlie

  26. I love AC. Close to NY, great hotels, nice boardwalk, fantastic restaurants. Sure it has some rough edges, but all such places do.

    For those who want to try something special dining wise I highly recommend Knife & Fork (best happy hour I have had anywhere) and Amada (top 1 or 2 tasting menus I have experienced, including Per Se, et al)

    Revel is as good a ‘big’ hotel as you will find anywhere in the US IMO, though I personally tend to stay at the Waterclub as they look after me better.

  27. This is one of the better Gary’s articles I’ve read. Not everything has to be about miles and points for Christ’s sake!

    The problem with AC has always been that… it’s AC. It has shot itself in the foot under all and every administration. Don’t make it about dems or reps, ’cause it’s not about that. In any case, though, I have been coming there for close to 20 years, and it has gotten better for what it’s worth.

    I’ve seen the house in question, and I heard that a very reasonable settlement had been offered to the gentleman in question, which he rejected. I have no idea what it was and if that’s even true, but I thought I’d mention it to put some things in prospective.

    And listen, AC is not that bad. Extremely tacky, yes, but the boardwalk and the beach are actually alright, as Jersey Shore goes. Hotels maintanence/housekeeping is another story. It’s like they just stopped trying at one point.

    Oh, and at AC’s INTERNATIONAL Airport (LOL), Spirit is the king. Just so you know.

  28. @gary I don’t doubt he’s legally competent, almost everybody is, even when it’s crystal clear that they’re doing stupid stuff. That’s an extremely low bar. What I’m saying is this: Perhaps it isn’t so smart to lean on the “my mother was murdered here” story. All they’re gonna give him is fair market value, never sentimental value, no matter how much he squawks, and this particular squawk actually reduces the fair market value of the home.

    He may think he’s being smart playing the emotional card to extract more cash but I clearly don’t agree that it’s an intelligent move. The buyer has no real plan and no real need, so I think there’s a real risk he ends up stuck with the place and gets nothing.

    I admit it’s not believable to me that he truly has a sentimental attachment to the place where his mother was murdered. My gut is whispering that it’s about the money.

  29. Sorry I can barely write, I’m laughing so hard at the guy who said that New Jersey had been controlled by the Democrats.

    Have you ever lived there? ROFL … Jersey? Controlled by the Dem’s?

    That’s Comedy Gold Right there.

  30. Oh and btw this is the same story “over” and over again. I remember this story when Trump Plaza was being built , umpteen Donald Bankruptcies ago.

    Sooner or later, you just have to close the cover of the book.

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