Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Brian Rose’s new book uses the deeply troubled New Jersey city as a window into how a developer-turned-president operates.
The day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, photographer Brian Rose went to the place that perhaps best displays the notorious real-estate developer’s true self: not New York, but Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Atlantic City got a promising start as a rail-accessible getaway for nearby New Yorkers and Philadelphians in the late 1800s, a resort town rife with architecturally decorative hotels along a bustling boardwalk. It doubled down on its hedonistic appeal in the Prohibition era, turning a blind eye to bootleggers and becoming a hub for illegal drinking and gambling.
The emergence of commercial air travel after World War II, however, sent the region’s vacationers to Florida and the Caribbean instead of AC for their long weekends. By the 1970s, the town that experienced its glory days under the watch of mobster and political boss Nucky Johnson was desperate for a savior. It thought it found one in Trump.
Trump swooped into Atlantic City when New Jersey legalized gambling in 1976. The self-obsessed developer eventually owned three casino properties in AC: Trump Plaza, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, and Trump Marina. Combined, they employed over 8,000 people at their peak in the 1990s, only to collapse by the 2000s.
Today, after multiple trips to bankruptcy court, the Trump Taj Mahal is now the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, Trump Marina is the Golden Nugget Atlantic City, and Trump Plaza sits abandoned. Plenty of non-Trump casinos have also failed along the way. Revel, which opened in 2012, lasted only two years (a new casino replaced it in 2018); The Atlantic Club closed in 2014; so did the Showboat (now a hotel only).
But in Rose’s new book Atlantic City (Circa Press), the photographer sees Trump’s trail of architectural and financial ruin in the troubled resort town as a warning for the rest of the United States now that he leads its executive branch. Rose’s stark photographs show urban scenes devoid of life, overrun by soul-sucking architecture commissioned with bad money, poor taste, and little regard for the people who live in its shadows. The images are accompanied by relevant news blurbs, song lyrics, movie quotes, and Trump tweets that, combined, offer a picture of a deeply troubled city with little to show for the risks it took.
CityLab recently caught up with Rose to talk about Atlantic City and his latest project.
How long have you been interested in Atlantic City as a place to photograph?
My interest in Atlantic City as subject was almost entirely related to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. I knew a little bit about the city, of course, how it continued to struggle despite the introduction of casino gambling several decades ago. The first time I went there was in 1984, and coincidentally, I stayed at the Trump Plaza. I had a job working for someone who sold poster art, and we were at a trade show in Boardwalk Hall, the convention center next to the Plaza.
I was pretty much broke, and got my employer to advance me $20 to play the slots. I fed quarters into a slot machine, gradually losing my money, when all of a sudden, the machine went crazy and quarters came pouring out. I ended up with about $400, which I took straight to my hotel room. I always tell people I won $400 off of Donald Trump.
I didn’t see much of the city on that trip, but I walked the boardwalk in search of fast food. I could see that things looked sketchy on the city streets, and that’s as true now as it was in 1984. Buses brought daytrippers from New York and Philadelphia directly to the casinos, and others drove the freeway into the vast parking garages attached to the casinos. It was not necessary to ever walk on the street. That hasn’t changed. The casinos have gotten bigger and architecturally more outlandish, and they are surrounded by vacant lots and desolate commercial strips.
Is there a building in AC you keep finding yourself drawn to?
My favorite building in Atlantic City is Boardwalk Hall, an immense, architecturally eclectic, structure opened as a convention center in 1929. It has been home to the Miss America Pageant and hosted the Democratic convention of 1964. Despite the mishmash of styles, the building exudes a stolid dignity, a rebuke to its mostly trivial and garish neighbors.
What made you decide on the written presentation for the story, alternating between news blurbs and Trump tweets?
The quotes came in early in the project. As soon as I had pictures I started posting them on my blog with my own comments. Soon after, I began searching the internet for relevant quotes for hours and hours, and somewhere along the way I discovered that Trump had tweeted about Atlantic City—16 times, in fact. So the tweets became a key part of the book. The comic relief, if you will. He says the same thing over and over, that he made a lot of money in AC, got out before things went bad, that nobody gives him credit for his timing, and things went to hell once he left. It’s funny until you realize—and this was well before the campaign—that you’re dealing with a deeply disturbed individual.
Trump was the biggest player in Atlantic City for years, whether he owned casinos or licensed his name; his presence was dominant. The remarkable thing is that [his companies] went bankrupt several times. None of his properties ever made money in the conventional sense, yet he managed to keep things afloat for years. Where did the money come from? The Trump Taj Mahal, by the way, was fined $10 million by the Treasury Department for money laundering.
It’s clear that Trump, and others in the gaming industry, had little interest in Atlantic City itself. As the casinos got bigger and richer, the city continued to decline. The people I’ve talked to mostly recognize the damage Trump did to their town, though I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reminded that competition from nearby states is to blame as well. In the winter of 2017, with Trump in the White House, I encountered a group of women carrying MAGA signs next to the abandoned Trump Taj Mahal. I was dumbfounded.
What I focused on as a photographer was the way in which all of this manifested itself visually. The most obvious thing was the disconnect between the gargantuan casino structures and the finer-grained historic city. So, you have tiny houses seen against sheer windowless walls, empty parking lots extending for blocks, convenience stores and cash-for-gold shops lining the streets opposite the casinos. In a way, the casinos make me think of how giant factories used to rise up adjacent to workers’ housing in old industrial cities. Now, it’s the industrialization of tourism.
Architecture in Atlantic City is mostly what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown called “decorated sheds.” When the Trump Taj Mahal was taken over by Hard Rock International, it didn’t take long for Trump’s faux Indian/Russian onion domes and minarets to be stripped off and replaced with Hard Rock’s guitar branding. Gaming floors are mostly at ground level—football fields of slot machines and blackjack tables—and the guest rooms tower above. The Ocean Resort Casino (formerly Revel), a glass behemoth on the north end of the boardwalk, is one of the tallest buildings in New Jersey.
Are there specific urban scenes in the city that you found jarring compared to previous visits? Places that gave you hope for its future?
If you see the movie Atlantic City, by Louis Malle, you’ll catch a glimpse of a tattered run-down city at the moment that the casinos began to move in. My book, I think, captures Atlantic City at a similar transitional moment. Trump has taken his [carnival] show on the road and has brought his management style to the entire United States, while Atlantic City now contends with gambling competition from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Two casinos remain empty, the mayor was just caught on video engaged in a 2 a.m. fistfight in the parking garage of one of the casinos, and everyone is excited about sports betting as the new savior.
There are, nevertheless, some positive things happening in AC. There is a nascent art scene centered on the Arts Garage, which is just down the block from White House, a terrific sandwich joint on Arctic Avenue. Stockton University has built a satellite campus on the boardwalk near the old Knife and Fork Inn where political boss Nucky Johnson used to hold court back in Atlantic City’s Prohibition heyday. It’s hoped that younger people will bring new vitality to the city.
Ultimately, the history of Atlantic City is one get-rich scheme after another, with casinos replacing the fantasy hotels of an earlier era. It remains a city of dreamers and dead-enders, with a big-city urban infrastructure perched precariously on a shifting sandbar.