There’s something disproportionately sad about an abandoned work of industry. It’s more than the decay and disrepair. It’s more than the esthetic blight. Seeing it evokes a strong emotional reaction, if you’re prone to those sorts of things. They’re monuments to the mortality of enterprise. Something was once a buzz of activity but is now silent.
It once represented someone’s work in action. It was a machine of human industry. It supplied value to shareholders and opportunity to the community in harmony. It was, in life, an organism of mankind’s effort to sustain and progress. Until it died. The ruin is the death you see. It’s the death you feel. Someone somewhere had hopes beyond this end. Those hopes died too. Someone had to be the loser in the game of investment. That’s how it works. It’s a cycle. Beyond the lost profits though, there’s a community that shoulders the fallout. There are those who didn’t invest yet still lost. Industry is more than the balance sheet. It’s people. And towns. And the lives that live through them. What you feel is the absence.
I don’t get back to Atlantic City very often. I grew up there. But there’s 2,800 miles between there and my life now. And years. It’s more the years than the distance that separates me from it now. When I do go back, like I did this past weekend, I make it a point to go back to those places where I spent my youth, right in the teeth of the beast.
Atlantic City is its own place; a unique combination of resort glitz and urban grit that you can only find there especially at the north end. Where it’s really old. And really tough.
I grew up with the homeless, mentally ill and addicted that lived under the boardwalk. My dad was a lifeguard on the beach. He used to keep me around the station to run errands for the other guards. Far too young to do it, I’d wander up the boardwalk, with their lunch orders in hand. I’d talk to the familiar burnt out occupants of the unique skid row I wandered through daily. Those were my earliest memories. And though they don’t sound like good ones, they are. If for no other reasons than they remind me of home. Home is our first memories. And the human condition craves it.
So when I parked my rental car and set off on foot with a cheese steak sub under my arm, I wandered up to my old beach, the one that I got to work when I was finally old enough to be a guard myself. I wanted to sit and watch it. The way I used to. The way that it was.
A lot of it is the same. And a lot of it isn’t.
I lost myself walking through the remains of the towering Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino on my way to the boardwalk. 25 years ago, when I worked that beach on Georgia Avenue, its shadow loomed over the surf. Life giving music blared from the deck above the casino all day. It was menacing. And active. It was alive once.
The shadow is still there. But the activity is gone. The Plaza is dead. It closed two years ago, destroying itself, thousands of jobs and millions of tax dollars with it. Three other casinos have also closed since. Thousands more jobs, millions more tax dollars went with them. The city is bankrupt. The local economy is shot. And the people are just trying to get through.
I was walking through failure’s art.
I could feel it in my gut when I walked through the old valet parking entrance, past the once bustling lobby and up onto the empty boardwalk, with the cold wind blowing hard from the north end and the storm clouds moving quickly over the top of me. It felt apocalyptic.
The easy thing to do would be to draw a straight line from the failure of that building to the man whose name used to grace it. You can still clearly see the outlines of the letters on the decaying facades.
This was all his. ￼
Blame does little in the face of such crippling destitution though. After all, this was business. And business has a cycle and a purpose. And though others have taken up the task of chronicling Trump’s path along this journey that ended in the bones of his casino laying bare in wind and the rain, I’ll leave that to them. Instead I’ll deliver a very simple message of contrast. And ask you to do the rest for yourself.
As I shook off the dark feeling of failure, walking under the walkway from the garage that had no cars to the hotel that had no guests, I walked a few hundred yards south and sat down on a bench to eat and let Atlantic City sink a little deeper back into me.
The view was different a stones throw from the plaza. A titan stood in front of me. A massive relic from the days when men built things of steel and stone; Boardwalk Hall. It’s a 100 year old marvel of architecture.
Carved into the limestone facade facing the Atlantic Ocean was something I never noticed before. I worked the beach in front of it eight hours a day, six days a week for two years. And I never noticed it. Maybe it was the abandoned lot to the south of it, another one of Trump’s old hotels torn down years ago. Or the abandoned Plaza to the north that made me notice it; Letters as tall as a man across 300-foot face.
“A permanent monument conceived as a tribute to the ideals of Atlantic City, built by its citizens and dedicated to recreation, social progress and industrial achievements.”
On the north tower are the words. “education, science, conventions, art, industry”.
On the south, “festivities, music, pageantry, drama, athletics”
My high school graduation was in that building. So was my brother’s and thousands of others. My dad played football there. The 1964 Democratic National Convention was held there, less than a year after JFK was shot. LBJ was nominated. The Beatles played there in 1964. The Stones came later. Mike Tyson knocked out Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks there. The list is long and storied but I’ll stop there to make my point.
That building has made good on the promise of its inscription. And here’s the contrast and the lesson in that three blocks of boardwalk. Business and profits alone are not what a society is built on. They’re a means to an end. An important one. But not the goal. A society is built on sustainment. On education, science, art, industry…festivities and all that ties humans together. A society is its citizens, its ideals, its industrial achievement…the things carved into that permanent structure, flanked by the failure of quick profit and personal gain.
Those words represent the heart and soul of a people. And they endured.
If you’re going to raise your hand and lay claim to the responsibility of serving and leading them, the distinction between the roles of personal gain and societal progress should be clear to you. And if they’re not, then I’d ask you to take a stroll down a few hundred yards of boardwalk in my home town. The difference is crisp. And the lesson is clear.
A society doesn’t win. It lives. And progresses. Together. And it’s leaders serve a greater good.
They leave what’s left in tact. Not in ruins. For the value isn’t in the leader. It’s in those led. And what’s left behind when the leading is done.