Listening from Below and the State Takeover of Atlantic City

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There’s a takeover going on in Atlantic City, and it’s national news.  Trenton is near to approving a bill that would give the state near total authority to run AC for the next five years. If the bill is approved, the state is expected to slash budgets, sell assets, and cancel labor contracts in order to balance the city’s budget. Atlantic City’s balance sheet is due to run out of money on April 8. For the past year, Kevin Lagin, the same emergency manager that took Detroit through its bankruptcy process, has been under contract to assess how to deal with Atlantic City’s $400 million in debt. His solution, in a few words: austerity and privatization.

The media has a lot to say about Atlantic City since 2014’s casino closures, and none of it is good. It’s been called a “dying city” by the Washington Post. These moments of crisis are like gold-rush moments for journalists. As someone who grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania and was interviewing residents about the natural gas industry in 2011, the year “‘fracking’ became a household word,” I’ve seen this race to crisis firsthand. Flashy headlines abound, and everyday voices are seldom heard, unless they can be used as props to bolster divisive narratives perpetuated by people in power. I remember talking to a colleague around that time about job creation in Bradford County. “Well, it looks like the disaster tourism and film industries are doing great up here,” she said snidely.

But the reality is that many people live their lives in Atlantic City, and those are the voices that MMP has sought to lift up. The fact is, Atlantic City’s crisis doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. And that includes most importantly the working families who will bear the brunt of the consequences.

How did we get here? 2014 was an important year, when four casinos shut down in AC, putting around 5,000 people out of work. But this crisis has been much longer in coming. Since 1984 the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), has leveraged gaming revenue for various projects in Atlantic City and throughout the State of New Jersey. The 17 member voting board includes 14 Governor-appointed seats, the State Attorney General, the State Treasurer, and the Mayor of Atlantic City. For decades, the state has been leading the decision-making process when it comes to casino revenue, and whether or not that money is put back into the local community paying for all the negative externalities that come along with casino gambling.

In 2014 and 2015 I worked with Media Mobilizing Project and UNITE HERE Local 54 to tell the story of the casino workers that remained at Trump Taj Mahal and Tropicana after the closings. We produced a short documentary called Building a Sandcastle: A Broken Promise to Atlantic City. I learned about the workers’ fight to hold the industry and billionaire Carl Icahn to its promise of middle class livelihoods for workers, through things like pensions and healthcare. “South Jersey people are a tough group,” said Al Kare, a server at the Taj. “We’ve beaten the casinos before, and we’ll beat them again.” Local 54’s fight with Icahn continues, as Icahn now owns Trump Taj Mahal outright. Meanwhile AC’s public sector workers are now poised to face the same situation.

As part of our work on Building a Sandcastle, we interviewed Rev. John Scotland, the pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Brigantine and a longtime progressive voice in Atlantic City. In a scene that wound up on the cutting room floor, Rev. Scotland predicted the ripple effects of the casino closures: an immediate impact on the industry, followed by small businesses closing, culminating in a gutting of the public sector. Less than a year after that interview, we are seeing just that.

In the same conversation, Rev. Scotland also spoke about the $251 million bond backed by tax-payers’ dollars used to finish the soon-to-reopen Revel casino. Glenn Straub bought the Revel for $80 million– 3% of the total cost to build it. “The people of Atlantic City will never see that money again,” said Rev. Scotland. Right again.

See the clip here: 

As a storyteller who sees making media as a way of organizing and bringing together community members working for social and economic justice, I often ask myself – what is our role in this place and time of crisis? How do the stories we tell not only lift up the struggles people are facing, but also advance tangible visions of vibrant and healthy communities, with good jobs, adequate services, and, to borrow from Raymond Williams, the “breathing space” to live culturally rich lives we have reason to value? In a media landscape where there isn’t much local news, how do we as outsiders collaboratively lift up stories that don’t reinforce the stereotypes of the region or reinforce echo chambers?

These questions guide the work we are doing at NJ Platform. They keep us accountable, and shape the way we work with community members to share unheard stories. Check back often for more voices of AC responding to the takeover and more.