Snake Eyes

I Watched a Casino Kill Itself: The Awful Last Nights of Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal

They’re still promising gamblers free rooms at the former crown jewel of Donald Trump’s casino empire. Talk about a sucker’s bet: They’re already shutting the towers there down.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

I am watching the sunrise from the 39th floor of the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It is about to be a frigid, rainy December day—a fact that at any other point in the venue’s 24-year history may have negatively affected customer turnout, but today will likely make no difference at all. Outside my window, seagulls caw loudly and recently shuttered casinos, their neon signs now dark—Trump Plaza, Revel, Showboat, Atlantic Club—rise from the empty streets like headstones.

Atlantic City is a graveyard, and the Taj Mahal—conveniently located a few yards east of a funeral parlor—is next in line to be buried, the fifth Atlantic City casino to close in the last year.

It was already half-dead when I arrived here Thursday evening.

On Monday, Trump Entertainment Resorts announced that ahead of the tentative Dec. 12 date of the assisted suicide, one of two hotel towers, the Chairman’s Tower, had been shut down, and the casino would no longer be issuing credit.

The casino floor was scarcely populated at 10 p.m. The tables were near empty. Vagrants wandered through the forest of slot machines. Elderly women played Triple Double Diamond and Tiki Magic while they chain-smoked.

Tony, a great-grandmother, and Cathy, a walker-bound amputee, told me they had been coming to Atlantic City from their home in Gloucester County since gambling was legalized here in 1976. Well, Tony told me—Cathy’s eyes were glued to the Tiki Magic, which she had been feeding quarters for several hours. She retrieved a cigarette from her purse and lit it without moving her face away from the screen. If she played enough—and she planned to—she would earn them a “free” night in the hotel.

“It’s just terrible what’s happening,” Tony said. “We used to go to Trump Plaza, and then they shut that down, so we started coming here. Now we don’t know where we'll go. Look at that!” Cathy’s screen lit up with flashing flowers. She won $2.

Cathy isn’t the first person to walk away from Atlantic City richer.

“I made a lot of money in Atlantic City,” Donald Trump told me. “I hope you can say in your article that Mr. Trump sold out a long time ago and did well. I made a lot of money.” Trump claims that his feet haven’t touched the soil here in about seven years, and he doesn’t have plans to return soon.

“It’s so sad to see what’s happened,” he said. “I left years ago. I got extremely lucky. My timing was extremely good—through talent or luck, I’m not sure.”

Trump maintains just a 10 percent ownership stake in Trump Entertainment Resorts and is determined to make sure no one thinks he has any involvement at all with the crumbling Taj Mahal.

In August, Trump filed a lawsuit to have his name removed from the casino and from the nearby, since-closed Trump Plaza. When he sold it, he explained, “They wouldn’t have paid so much if I didn’t [leave my name], you know? The smart people understand that.”

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“I won the case, actually. They have to take my name off.” Nevertheless, Trump’s name adorns everything from the outside of the Taj Mahal to the individual ice buckets in each hotel room. His name remains on the Plaza, too.

“I made a lot of money in Atlantic City,” he reiterated, for whose benefit it wasn’t clear. Then he said it again: “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City. I almost feel guilty about it, but I made a lot of money in Atlantic City and I got out.”

As we talked, the sadness in Trump’s voice overpowered the energetic rasp he’s known for.

“It was so vibrant. If I would have had you there 15 years ago, you would have said, ‘This place is hot.’ Of course, you were 2 years old then—but the place was poppin’. You wouldn’t believe it. Every one of those places were packed full. Now you look at it, and it’s very sad what’s happened.”

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

At the time the Taj Mahal opened in 1990, Trump’s publicists beamed that the casino was “the Eighth Wonder of the World!”

At 17 acres, it was the largest gambling house ever constructed, and at a cost of $1.2 billion, it was also the most expensive.

At the inaugural ceremony, Trump addressed the crowd while “standing on a high dias bearing a large Aladdin’s lamp and beaming like a little boy on Christmas morning,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

In attendance was supermodel Elle Macpherson and king of pop Michael Jackson, who also performed. Trump even gave Jackson a personal tour of the venue, with television cameras in tow. “We have Michael at the Taj Mahal,” Trump said at the time. “He’s my friend, he’s a tremendous talent, and it’s really my honor. It’s a big day for me.”

The Taj Mahal was supposed to be a sure thing. When it opened, The New York Times quoted the publisher of Atlantic City Action, a gaming newsletter, as saying, “Will the Taj work? It can’t miss. It’s like spitting and missing the floor.”

Of course, nobody could have foreseen that the floor would begin to crack.

Incorporated in 1894, the boardwalk and the beach were initially Atlantic City’s main attraction, and it became a popular resort town for middle-class families and the sort of place people aspired to retire to.

“When Americans dream of that perfect society which is someday to be, what form does their imagination take? Atlantic City, New Jersey,” wrote Bruce Bliven, a writer for The New Republic, in 1920. “If you would know the best that the American bourgeoisie has thus far been able to dream, then, come to Atlantic City and behold.”

Part of that bourgeois dream involved white people getting to live out their fantasies of having black servants. Dana Rubenstein of The New York Observer wrote that “essential to the experience was segregation.”

For a large fee, you could be pushed down the boardwalk on a rolling wicker chair by a black worker. This, historian Bryant Simon wrote in his book Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, became a “fad” that drew tourists to the area: “Atlantic City’s ability to stage this public performance of racial dominance, conspicuous consumption, class leveling, and social climbing turned the resort into one of the single most popular tourist destinations in America between 1915 and 1965.”

As the rest of the country changed, Atlantic City seemed to be stuck in the past, and tourism eventually died off. There is no one definitive reason for the city’s first decline: It was the age of the automobile and then plane, since most traveled to the boardwalk by train; or it was air conditioning, which made going to the beach less of a necessity for people in cities like Philadelphia; or it was the out-of-date hotels, which so embarrassed the city during the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

Whatever the reason, Atlantic City would not look up again until Gov. Brendan Byrne legalized gambling in 1976, ushering in a second boom so great that when the Taj Mahal opened, casinos were bringing in profits of $3 billion a year.

But the boom was uneven, at best. The area surrounding the casinos was largely forgotten. Notoriously, Atlantic City did not get its first supermarket until 1996. Politicians, Simon wrote in Boardwalk of Dreams, “repeatedly reassigned ‘Mickey Mouse cops,’ police who had, one journalist observed, ‘misbehaved’ in other parts of town, to the neighborhood” in the south side of town. Atlantic City was plagued by prostitution, crime, and, of course, addiction. Despite its waterfront location, it never developed a family-friendly alternative to gambling like Las Vegas had, nor did it manage to achieve the same glamorous sheen: Vegas had Sinatra and high-end escorts, A.C. had Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and crack whores.

Maybe that’s because Vegas was largely a blank canvas before the Rat Pack and the mobsters rolled in. Atlantic City was Skid Row by the Sea.

Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that when neighboring states like Connecticut legalized gambling, Atlantic City regulars were eager to flee.

Pennsylvania followed suit in 2004, and that was when Trump said he knew it was all over: “When they approved gambling in Pennsylvania, I said, it’s time to get out!

Atlantic City’s steep decline began just two years later with the closing of Sands, which had been open since 1980.

For the past few months, the Atlantic City Expressway has been littered with billboards advertising events at venues that no longer exist, like at Revel Casino. If Atlantic City exists as a shrine to the antiquated aspirational tastes of the 1970s’ working class, Revel Casino was going to be the thing that ushered in its grand return to relevance.

When construction on the project stopped because of a lack of funds, Gov. Chris Christie swooped in with $260 million from the state coffers.

“I personally, and this administration, have a lot invested here, and we’re going to start seeing the fruits of that investment all over Atlantic City,” Christie said at a press conference ahead of Revel’s completion.

“Make no mistake about it, Atlantic City is extraordinarily important not just to this region’s future, but to our state’s future, and we are going to make the type of investment both in terms of dollars and in terms of our manpower and support to make sure we bring this city to a new renaissance.”

Christie’s goal, he said, was to bring “this city back to where it feels, once again, like the preeminent entertainment resort on the East Coast. I think we’re going to get there and this project, Revel, is going to help us get there.”

Much like the Taj Mahal, Revel opened in classically gaudy Atlantic City style in April 2012—with a sunrise Champagne toast. Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, was in attendance.

Not even a year later, Revel filed for bankruptcy. It officially turned off the lights in September 2014.

Christie has a lot riding on fulfilling his promise of shepherding Atlantic City into a third boom era. Since Revel’s collapse, he has staged a series of “Summits on the Future of Atlantic City” to try to come up with ideas—any ideas—that could stop the decline.

“The governor’s trying very hard,” Trump said of Christie. “It’s a tough situation, but he’s trying very hard.”

Simon was not as kind. “Christie is still wedded to an idea of trickle-down economics, both for the state and for Atlantic City. He went all in at Revel when it was pretty clear that it was a bad idea.”

“All Christie did was double down on a bet that hadn’t paid off.”

It’s before midnight, and I am staring at the ceiling of my room on the 39th floor. It’s splattered with some type of dark substance that I am hoping is not blood. The carpet is stained from the door to the window with red wine. The sheets on the bed are torn. The minibar is empty. The bottom right corner of the room-service menu is missing, as if someone decided that it was more appetizing than any of the items it was offering: crabmeat cocktail, surf and turf, the New Jersey classic pork roll egg and cheese.

So as not to die, in lieu of any of these offerings, I decide to go searching for coffee. The Taj Mahal boasts of its “fine dining” and suggests you “tempt yourself” with its many offerings, among them a few supposed 5-star restaurants and chains like the Hard Rock Cafe.

The hallways of the hotel are mirrored, floor to ceiling. Every conference room or ballroom is called something like Diamond Room, Tiara Room, or Chairmans Room. I finally come across the only thing open tonight at the Taj: a deli called GO, the sort of place you might find in Penn Station.

As I reach over the counter to retrieve my coffee from the barista who smiles and says she doesn’t believe the Taj Mahal would really close on Dec. 12th, a brown-haired, goateed man runs in, wearing a brown leather jacket and shouting manically about his “brother” who is “coming to find me.”

He orders a toasted bagel and asks to charge it to a room he is certainly not staying in.

He tosses a fistful of dollars on the counter and smiles madly before screaming, “I’m a man of my word!” His brother, he warns, might come by here to look for him later. Of course, the brother never comes.