A Boardwalk Homecoming

Well now, 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”

Sand in your shoes.

That’s a South Jerseyism for someone who’s become a local. There’s no equivalent expression for a local who’s moved away, because, presumably, the attractions of the shore are such that, no matter how hard you hose down your feet, you never quite wash that fine silicate out. I’ve just arrived in Atlantic City after nearly two years without a visit. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my hometown.

The Las Vegas I moved to in 2001 took pride in booming population figures, soaring gaming revenues and the inexorable growth of the beltway. The frontier was creeping up on the Spring Mountains. It might end, some thought, with a metropolis stretching from Primm to Pahrump. The city refused to look back. Sure, there was some nostalgia about the Rat Pack days, but that was more marketing than regret. The future wasn’t a dream or a scheme; it was really happening to us.

The Atlantic City I left was on the other side of history: a city left for dead, one that maybe, someday, might come back. Like Las Vegas, it blew up its past; some of my earliest memories were the implosions of the grand Boardwalk hotels. But this wasn’t replacing the Dunes with Bellagio. Old Atlantic City—the Traymore, the Marlborough-Blenheim, Million Dollar Pier—hadn’t been improved upon; gold had been replaced with concrete and red neon, when anything was built at all. Unlike Las Vegas, you never could shake the sense that you were one or two generations from the golden age.

For me it’s biography, not history. My grandfather was a metal worker who’d helped build Convention (now Boardwalk) Hall and smaller motels around the city. Not the big hotels; they’d all gone up before he’d gotten his union card in the 1930s. By the time I got to know him he’d retired, but I heard the stories about how, in the late 1960s, he’d leave the house at 3 a.m. to be at a jobsite in Delaware by 7. The local work was gone.

When I was too young to know any better, my father, a local journalist, was helping rebuild the city. An early proponent of casino legalization, he’d been active in putting together the coalition that won the second gaming referendum in 1976. Casinos delivered the jobs and money promised, but it wasn’t enough.

So where does that leave me, coming back to the city I’ve never fully left? After 11 years, I’m a Vegas guy: This is where I’ve made a name for myself; this is where I’m raising my kids. But there’s something in the cries of the seagulls, the smell of the salt air, that says this is still home.

It’s a city that’s on the ropes, but that’s nothing new. It was on the ropes when my grandfather first came to town, even if nobody knew it. By the time the city hosted the 1964 Democratic National Convention, everybody knew it. My father’s generation thought they’d bought the future with a few casino markers; a generation later, we’re still waiting to be reborn. Stretches of the city that were leveled for urban redevelopment before I was born still await construction; beachfront buildings remain boarded up.

Even progress isn’t what it used to be: Three new casinos have opened since I was last here, but two of them are just renamed, revamped versions of places that failed. The “new” new place, Revel, hasn’t performed well so far.

But the sand in our shoes tells us that five and a half years of declining revenues and growing casino competition from Aqueduct to Baltimore don’t mean anything. We might be on the ropes again, but this time we’re going to come back. It’s only a summer away. Maybe two. After a while, you get used to taking more punches than you land. Just answering the bell becomes a little victory.

I’ve always thought Atlantic City needs to learn more from Vegas, but now I see that Vegas can learn something from Atlantic City: the art of living on the ropes.