May 24, 2019

The End of Atlantic City

“Atlantic City covers the northern third of Absecon Island, a barrier island made up of an alarming amount of sand. It is a bad town to die in — there are plenty of vacant lots but no cemeteries. In many places, if you dig down more than eight feet you hit water. A couple blocks away from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is built on a submerged wooden foundation for exactly that reason — so long as you keep wood wet and away from oxygen, it won’t rot. “We haven’t tipped yet,” said Buddy Grover, the 91-year-old lighthouse keeper, “but it does sway in the wind sometimes.”

“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.

A little more than two years ago, when I was an intern at a now shuttered website called The Awl, I went out to Atlantic City to cover the Trump Taj Mahal’s last weekend before it closed for good. My first night there I met a woman named Juliana Lykins who told me about Tucker’s Island — New Jersey’s first seaside resort, which had been slowly overtaken by the sea until it disappeared completely. This was a month before the election. The “grab ’em by the pussy” tape had just broken, it was pouring rain, the city was on the verge of defaulting on its debts, and 2,000 casino workers were about to lose their jobs. At the time — my clothes soaking wet, falling asleep in a Super 8 to the sound of Scottie Nell Hughes on CNN — it was hard to understand what Lykins was saying as anything other than a metaphor for the country. I missed the larger menace and focused on the immediate. Trump was elected obviously, but Tucker’s Island wasn’t a figurative threat; it was a very straightforward story about what happens to coastal communities when the water moves in.”

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