If you grew up in Atlantic City — like I did — you always knew that there’s very little that’s funny about Donald Trump.
Atlantic City is a giant bubble that was blown into existence by the pursed lips of the GOP nominee. Entire communities were convened around his empty promises; the region experienced rampant growth that banked on his assurances. But that bubble has burst, and today, thousands are left jobless and flailing in my hometown. Trump, meanwhile, has moved on.
Six bankruptcies. Three failed casinos, as of next week, when the Trump Taj Mahal will shutter its doors. $69.5 million in defaulted payments to small-business subcontractors. These are the legacy that he left in my home community.
So it’s been baffling to watch Trump rile up millions of American voters on the platform that he’ll use his business acumen to bring economic success to our nation.
I know what Trump’s version of success looks like.
Atlantic City in the 1980s was a service worker’s dream
My parents moved to the Atlantic City area in the early 1980s from Philadelphia. At the time, a few new casinos, hotels, and resorts were opening up on the town’s historic boardwalk. There was a beach. There were jobs. There seemed to be tremendous opportunity for growth. It was a service worker’s dream.
Several of the buildings in the developing city were owned by an upstart real estate mogul, a swoop-haired guy with a monosyllabic name he liked to slap onto everything he finished. TRUMP, said the towers you saw as you drove past the shoddy rowhomes up to the beachfront strip. TRUMP, said the buckets you were issued to store your poker chips. Everywhere: TRUMP.
For many years, my parents worked steadily. My father was, and is, a piano player. Moving from small Philly nightclubs to short-order residencies in casino lounges, sometimes performing six nights a week, was a big step up. My mother, then a waitress, was keen on the idea of escaping the standard restaurant service and serving cocktails on the mazy new casino floors.
It must have felt like a weird fever dream to watch the area build itself up so quickly. The suburbs of Atlantic City, where my parents were able to purchase their first home, are woodsy, and can often feel remote — but within a few years of their move, while the Trump Castle and the Trump Plaza enjoyed their early prosperity, they noticed forestry being razed for new housing developments.
My own elementary school was brand new, built hastily to accommodate the influx of people to the area. By middle school, we had to hold class in trailers because there were too many students to fit in the building. It felt like every single one of my classmates had at least one parent who worked in or for the casinos.
And Trump, for his part, must have felt bulletproof. He had his yacht in the harbor and his name in lights on two of the tallest towers in America’s Playground. Why not make a bid for the Taj Mahal, a casino that would be the largest in Atlantic City?
In 1988, Trump testified before the New Jersey Casino Control Commission — then on the verge of revoking the license for the yet-to-be-built Taj, due to concerns about rapidly escalating construction costs and diminishing viability — that he would be able to finance it with outright loans from banking institutions. Nobody else was able to secure these loans. Donald Trump believed he could do it, based solely on the value of his name.
“I’m talking about banking institutions, not these junk bonds,” he told the commission. “I mean, the banks call me all the time. It’s easier to finance if Donald Trump owns it.”
The commission believed him. Trump got the bid.
We had not yet been trained to recognize Trump’s hyperbole as constant, indiscriminate, and meaningless.
“This is fucking crazy, and I can’t believe everybody’s swallowing this up”
About 500 new cocktail waitresses were hired to staff the Taj. Each was assigned a number to indicate seniority. My mother, having worked in another Atlantic City casino for years, put her name in early to be considered for the new project — and came in at number 13. She and the others were selected not only on the basis of serving experience but on beauty. (I can still remember my great-grandmother bragging about this to her bingo group.)
There were runway walks organized for the new waitresses to get them used to flaunting their I Dream of Jeannie–inspired harem-chic uniforms; there were poise lessons, makeovers, nail checks. The dress code required each woman to wear gold high heels of at least three inches. And through it all, the management reminded them: They had been hand-picked to represent the Donald. Thousands had applied for the open positions, but they were the best and most beautiful women in the world.
“I remember looking around and thinking, ‘This is fucking crazy, and I can’t believe everybody’s swallowing this up,’” my mother remembers now. “But it’s hard to fight the sensation that somebody is making you special.”
To the entire sleepy township, it did feel like Trump was coming in to make us special. The launch of the Taj in April 1990 was truly something to behold. Michael Jackson was there. Trump walked onstage to “Eye of the Tiger.” There were minarets, onion domes, royal purple carpets, and enough huge faux ivory elephants to be absolutely captivating to a 5-year-old like me. My mom had been chosen. She worked in the most magical place in the world.
As it turned out, it wasn’t magic. It was magical thinking.
Trump defaulted on his loans to open the Taj within six months of its opening
Barring some intervention, next week, the Trump Taj Mahal — our GOP candidate’s last great hope in my hometown — will close for good. The closure will affect nearly 3,000 blue-collar and middle-class workers and will represent the final failure of the last Atlantic City casino to which Donald Trump attached his name.
The problems with the Taj began as soon as the commission approved Trump’s bid. He was unable to secure the loans he was so sure about, but he was stuck in a position of needing to save face for his investors and his own ego. So he financed the construction with nearly $700 million in junk bonds — which carried interest rates of 14 percent. He would have to come up with $95 million a year in interest payments alone.
Trump defaulted on his loans to open the Taj within six months of its opening. His father, Fred Trump, sent a lawyer down to AC to try to bail out the resort with a cash infusion. The New Jersey Casino Control Commission caught wind of this illegal loan and came down on Trump with a punitive fine.
By July 1991, just over a year after its launch, the Taj declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The next year, in 1992, the Castle and the Plaza followed suit. (The Plaza Hotel, 130 miles away, also filed for bankruptcy — the same year as Trump’s cutesy cameo in Home Alone 2.)
No matter. Trump merely restructured the debt, putting it under the control of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, a new publicly traded company that oversaw his three Atlantic City casinos.
In 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts also filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with a staggering $1.87 billion in debt.
Like a rat abandoning a sinking ship, Trump pulled out his interests in Atlantic City little by little. In 2011, the Trump Marina (formerly Trump Castle) was sold for about a tenth of what it was originally worth, and now operates steadily under new management as the Golden Nugget. In 2009, Trump Entertainment Resorts (formerly Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts) filed, again, for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2014, the Trump Plaza announced its closure, and Trump — having slunk away from the city in which he had once so gleefully speculated — sued to have the sign bearing his name removed from the tower.
Trump has said time and again that the present-day failures in Atlantic City have nothing to do with him, merely because he’s gone now. But it was his gamble that blew up the region to this degree in the first place. It was his promises that attracted thousands of workers and their families to my hometown, building developments, shopping malls, and schools to accommodate the new community that was to serve Trump’s personal seaside empire. We’re still by the boardwalk, but we’re now treading water.
Thousands of people have lost their jobs due to the ripple effects of his early mismanagement. Another 2,848 will join their ranks next week when the Taj finally closes, and the city’s unemployment rate — already among the highest in the nation — will skyrocket.
What does Trump have to say about the people who helped build his name, the people he so spectacularly failed? What words of inspiration does our would-be leader offer the broken city he left behind?
He tells us: He’s smart to have gotten out when he did.
Atlantic City today: boarded-up homes, boarded-up casinos
I grew up being aware of Trump — not as a cartoon character but as a boss, an ego, a money monster. My friends and neighbors were beholden to him, manipulated by him, played as cogs in his machine.
To see him on a national stage — to see people believe he’s the fiscally responsible savior we need — is more than a joke to me. It’s a real and present danger.
If you think of Las Vegas, you’re more likely to think of the photos you frantically deleted the morning after than you are to think of the thousands of servers, bartenders, dealers, housekeeping staff, performers, and subcontractors who made your wild night possible. It’s the same with Atlantic City. No one ever talks to me about it in any other terms than their last vacation. But the city means more to me than that; it’s where we made our lives.
Going home to visit is a disorienting experience these days. It’s always been necessary to drive past rundown bungalows and housing projects to get to the boardwalk. There used to be a kind of promise that the casino industry would provide opportunities that would trickle down and reinvigorate those communities; they never did. Now you go past boarded-up single-family homes to arrive at once opulent, equally shuttered casino towers and a boardwalk as sparse and silent as the streets.
I remember the enchanting, brightly colored boardwalk of my childhood; I remember the cotton candy vendors, the rickshaws, the buskers. I remember the rides at Steel Pier, and giggling as I slurped the maraschino cherries out of my Shirley Temples while my dad made funny faces at me from the piano bench when some shoobie requested “My Way” for the hundredth time. There was nothing but hope.
My father no longer plays in casino lounges; there isn’t any money in it. My mother left waitressing in 1998 to become a social worker, and the vulnerability of her clients is a reflection of the city’s creeping, insidious poverty. (Her gold-and-purple uniform still hangs in some dank corner of our basement.)
The members of the labor union she belonged to, Local 54 UNITE HERE, stand to lose their pensions when the Taj shuts its doors next week. Many of my friends’ parents were forced into early retirement, or had their health benefits suddenly rescinded.
As many as 13,000 workers have fled the region in a bid to find viable work. Some, whose homes are underwater, don’t have the luxury of going anywhere else.
For those who remain, there’s a bitter reminder of the past hope that brought them there. The letters might have been taken down, but ghosted on the side of the abandoned tower in the middle of the strip, you can still make out the name: TRUMP.
This article was originally published in October 2016.
Arielle Brousse was born in Atlantic City and currently works as a nonprofit development and communications specialist in Philadelphia. She is the creator of the Sensible Nonsense Project, a blog and storytelling series encouraging adults to consider their favorite children’s books and why those books mattered. Her heart still flutters at the sight of a boardwalk.