Atlantic City

April 6, 2019

Atlantic City is a place where the real and the projected meet. The beach resort was founded in 1854, the year that the first train arrived from Camden, and a year after the Belloe House, the first commercial hotel, was built. The Lenni-Lenape indigenous people, grand hotels, famed boardwalk, popular entertainment, renowned nightclubs, Miss America, casino gambling, devastating storms, countless mentions in popular culture, and many other moments have all been part of its history. Promises, hopes, uncertainty, and decadence. A place, like many others, where the fate of the earnests is determined by the rigged game controlled by the opportunists.


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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

The 2016 US election prompted photographer Brian Rose to drive to and document a city that he considers a metaphor for the overall state of affairs in the United States. The result is Atlantic City (Circa Press), a book that features over fifty photographs accompanied by his own comments, news headlines, lyrics, and tweets, forwarded by an essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger. A powerful look at the effects of unscrupulous business models and long-term urban planning failures.

Below is a conversation between Iker Gil and Brian Rose accompanied by a selection of photographs and texts from the book.

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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

Iker Gil: What was the origin of the book?

Brian Rose: When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I saw it as an immediate crisis, a threat to our democracy and the freedoms we take for granted. I can’t put it in any other terms.

That’s the origin of the book in a nutshell. I felt an obligation as an artist to address things. And as I looked around, I was disturbed to see a lot of complacency on the part of artists. If you become so cynical about politics that you can normalize Trump, we have a serious problem.

So, within a couple of weeks of the election I rented a car and drove down the Jersey shore to Atlantic City and began photographing. I knew the broad outline of how Trump had operated multiple casinos, had sucked them dry, and left the city bankrupt and worse off than ever. But the visual presence of Atlantic City, an impoverished city dotted with a dozen gigantic casinos was more powerful and shocking than I had imagined.

IG: When was the first time you visited Atlantic City? Was your experience similar or different from the one of your recent trips to work on your book?


I first visited Atlantic City in 1984, just a few years after casino gambling was introduced on the premise that it would radically change the fortunes of a resort city that had been in decline for decades. I was staying at the newly opened Trump Plaza casino, working for a someone who sold poster art. We were attending a trade show at the convention center next door. I was broke, and asked my employer for some cash to play the slots. So, with a $20 limit I began slowly feeding the machine with quarters. All of a sudden, I hit the jackpot, and quarters came cascading out of the machine. About $400 all together. I took the money back to my room, and have always said that I won $400 from Donald Trump.

Like typical visitors to Atlantic City, I spent most of my time in the casino hotel. I couldn’t afford anything but fast food, which was available on the boardwalk, and I did not walk the adjacent city streets, which were scary. That hasn’t changed. The highways feed visitors directly into the parking garages attached to the casinos. There are even bridges across Pacific Avenue so that it isn’t necessary to go down to street level at all. And several of the newest casinos are located on the bayside of the city far from the boardwalk and the tawdrier aspects of the city.

IG: Some of your previous photo series, such as the ones dedicated to NYC’s Lower East Side and the Berlin Wall, focus on an area over a long period time, documenting the drastic transformations of a place. In this case, the book is a snapshot of a place at a very specific time. Can you talk about these different approaches to place?

BR: The Lower East Side and Iron Curtain projects did not start out as extended studies of transformation. In 1980 I spent a year shooting the LES with a view camera, and then in 1985 did two trips along the East/West border—with side excursions to Berlin—and then returned in 1987. It could have all stopped there. But the opening of the wall in 1989 (thirty years ago) provided impetus for adding to the project. After that, I continued going back to Berlin and focused on the former no man’s land where the wall once threaded through the city.

I decided to re-photograph the Lower East Side after 9/11. I wanted to reconnect with the city that is such an important part of my identity, that was staggered by the attack, but began, soon after, almost inexplicably to rebound. The Lower East Side, which I had always perceived as a world apart, no longer seemed as separated from the rest of the city. I did not do before/after photographs. I wanted to rediscover this place that had such historical resonance as well as personal meaning to me.

Atlantic City could turn into a long-term project, but I doubt that it will. It is so much about this particular moment with Trump having just abandoned the city after causing such destruction, and now bringing his TV billionaire act to the whole world. The fact that he was able to parlay abject failure in Atlantic City into a successful campaign for the presidency is mind boggling and deeply troubling. It’s as if facts don’t matter any more. But visual fact-finding is what I do, and I believe on some level, that hard truths still have currency.

IG: The book combines your photographs with text. Sometimes it’s a brief commentary by you but it also includes news headlines, lyrics of songs, quotes, and tweets by Donald Trump. Can you talk about the relationship between text and image?

BR: Text came in quite early. I created a website that served as a flexible book-like format that I could add to. First I put some of my own comments next to the images, and then began finding quotes from the many articles written about Trump and Atlantic City. I spent hours googling, and even dropped in song lyrics from the Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen. I noticed the other day that in one of my image folders I had included a De Chirico surrealist painting, a desolate view of landscape and architecture. It’s not in the book, but some of my pictures were obviously informed by it.

The big discovery was that Donald Trump had tweeted about Atlantic City—16 times. Trump’s voice and his semi-literate writing style are sprinkled throughout the book. Over and over he disavows having anything to do with Atlantic City’s failure, and complains that no one gives him credit for making a lot of money and getting out before things collapsed. The tweets are hilarious, but they also show Trump’s disturbed personality, which is not very funny.

IG: The book opens with a quote from the movie Atlantic City (1980) directed by Louis Malle. It points out the decadence and decline of Atlantic City, a city “once beautiful.” Where does the book fit into the history of the city?


The once beautiful city was always a mirage. The idea was that the white middle class could go to Atlantic City with its fantasy architecture, dress in their finest clothes, eat in grand restaurants, and ride the wicker rolling chairs on the boardwalk. Behind the scenes, however, African Americans who had come to Atlantic City as part of the Great Migration did the serving and chair pushing. And behind the veneer of wholesomeness there was gambling, prostitution, and political corruption.

After World War II, Americans gained more mobility, bought cars, and moved to the suburbs. Atlantic City lost its unique hold on vacationers, and the city entered a long period of decline. You can see the seediness in the movie Atlantic City, which was shot on location just as casino gambling was brought in. My book was made at a similar inflection point—the twilight of Trump dominance and the increasing competition from casinos in other states and cities.

IG: In one of your initial texts, you ask, “is Atlantic City emblematic of what is happening to the country as whole?” It is interesting that, while focusing on a specific place, the book deals with larger topics familiar to cities across the US. What is the takeaway of this tale of broken promises and unfilled dreams?

BR: I worried a bit while making Atlantic City that I was indulging in a familiar photographic trope known as ruin porn. I think it’s too easy to do hit jobs on decaying rustbelt cities and hollowed out farm communities. What exactly is the point of that. Atlantic City, however with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, bloated casinos with streams of cars entering and exiting, drifting sand and drifting drug addicts, is a twisted paradigm of the American dream. People come to Atlantic City with hopes of striking it rich, not by working hard and getting ahead, but by doubling down on a losing hand. In the same way, they elected Donald Trump even though anyone with a pulse knew that he was the latest in a long line of snake oil salesmen.

Atlantic City still has the ocean, though it is fighting a losing battle with the waves. People hope for a resurgence of the city, but they can’t think beyond gambling, over-the-hill entertainers, and endless waves of nostalgia. As Lou Pascale said in the movie Atlantic City: “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

There is a lot of reason to hope that the reintroduction of two or even three casinos to Atlantic City may be a net positive for the resort’ said Rummy Pandit, a gambling and tourism expert at New Jersey’s Stockton University. That is not to say that Atlantic City won’t experience some growing pains in the process. The pizza analogy is an accurate way of describing the situation facing Atlantic City: No matter how you slice it, if you don’t grow the pie, someone will go hungry.”
– Wayne Parry, “At 40, are Atlantic City casinos healing or courting danger?,” Associated Press (May 11, 2018)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

In May, Trump told the New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: The money I took out of there was incredible. It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed home town. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America—he’s not coming back for us.
– Arielle Brousse, “Donald Trump’s greed helped ruin Atlantic City. Is the rest of the country next?,” The Washington Post (October 6, 2016)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do, he [Trump] said in a recent interview. Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”
– Russ Buettner and Charles V Bagli, “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions,” The New York Times (June 11, 2016)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

I would absolutely consider investing in Atlantic City again, great and hard working people, but much would have to change-taxes, regs., etc
Donald Trump, Twitter (October 26, 2014 at 1:55 pm)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he [Trump] said in a recent interview. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”
– Christopher Palmeri, “Atlantic City’s Failed Revel Casino Sells for $200 Million,” Bloomberg (January 8, 2018)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

I walked out on the beach opposite Caesars and Playground Pier (originally the Million Dollar Pier), and took several pictures of its huge wall signs. At my feet in the sand I picked up a cigarette carton with Russian lettering on it. I thought reflexively, “The Russians are coming!” But the Russians are already here.
– Brian Rose
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should “pick up a mop” to help with flooding—a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue “is not a crisis.”
– Michael Edison Hayden, “Atlantic City Gambles on Rising Seas,” National Geographic (May 4, 2016)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

Atlantic City is a dramatic symbol of American excess and decline. Once the most popular family vacation destination in the United States, the city has slid into a dystopian version of its former self, with beachfront property plummeting amid vacant lots and deserted high rise hotels garishly positioned against the coastal backdrop.
– Ben Carey and Billy Linker, “Portrait of a Place: Atlantic City,” Nowness (March 7, 2017)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

When word gets out that a city is on the skids, people seem eager to imagine post-apocalyptic desolation, a rusting ruin at Ozymandian remove from the glory days. But American cities don’t seem to die that way. They keep sopping up tax dollars and risk capital, thwarting big ideas and emergency relief, chewing up opportunists and champions.
– Nick Paumgarten, “The Death and Life of Atlantic City,” New Yorker (August 31, 2015)

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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

Now baby everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
– Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

Standing on the Boardwalk looking inland-if you leave things vacant long enough in Atlantic City it will revert back to the sandbar that it naturally is. I assume that this block-long party wall was meant to abut another casino hotel. But this being Atlantic City, windowless casino walls become virtually permanent features of the urban landscape.
– Brian Rose
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

[Reuben] Kramer shows us the shuttered Trump Plaza, which will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic City’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the Trump Plaza facade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains.
– Matt Katz, “Trump Is Gone From Atlantic City But Not Forgotten,” WNYC News (August 26, 2015)
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Atlantic City, 2019. © Brian Rose.

As for [Michael] MacLeod, the sculptor of the elephants outside the Taj, he says his anger over the episode has faded, and he can joke now about how he once got stiffed by a famous billionaire.
Giving a slide presentation of his work to an architectural firm two days after Trump swept the New York Republican primary in April, he slipped in two photos—one showing one of the elephants, the other showing Trump’s name on the casino marquee in red lights.
“This guy never paid me,” MacLeod deadpanned. Everyone laughed.
– Bernard Condon, “‘Little guy’ contractors still angry at Trump Taj bankruptcy,” Associated Press (June 28, 2016)