Timothy Roberts: Atlantic City

I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Atlantic City was an idea as much as a place. Thoughts of Atlantic City tend to be associated with vivid memories — of childhood summers, the senior class get-away before high school graduation, vacations as an adult — memories that tend to shape the way we see the world. Atlantic City looms large in the imagination of those who have spent any time there.

When I was a teenager I sold photographs to the local suburban newspapers. When I got to college I got sidetracked onto journalism. I earned my living as a newspaper reporter for thirty years. Sometimes my pictures accompanied my reporting. I worked for a small-town daily in Indiana, the great Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., and the Business Journal in San Jose, CA., where I covered the politics of Silicon Valley in the 2000s.

My last reporting post was in El Paso, Texas, where I reported on the drug war across the border in Juárez, México. I was awarded the Sigma Delta Chi award for my reporting by the Society of Professional Journalists. My next stop was in Santa Fe, N.M., where I worked as a free-lance photographer, took classes at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and worked on a project about people living in a remote part of Northern New Mexico.

At some point I realized that a lot of my reporting was about people cut off from their roots. I decided to return to mine. A friend in Santa Fe, a New Jersey native,  suggested I take my camera to Atlantic City. I followed his suggestion.

Atlantic City is an international attraction, but it began life as the vacation destination for sweaty Philadelphians. The northern end of Absecon Island just off the coast of New Jersey was incorporated as Atlantic City in 1854, the year that the Camden and Atlantic Railroad began service there. Soon developers got to work transforming the coastal wilderness into a city of boarding houses.

The city evolved into a 19th-Century health retreat and then, over the years, into a place to have a good time during Prohibition, a mid-century nightclub hub and then an East Coast gambling Mecca. The near-depression of the late 2000s and increasing competition from the spread of gambling across the country upended many schemes of casino impresarios. Many blocks of the city that had been leveled for casino developments remained vacant. Four casinos closed.

Unemployment rose. The rate of defaults on home loans was the highest in the nation for a time. At the lowest point of the financial crisis the State of New Jersey took over the city’s finances. Now it seems the tables have begun to turn.

There are two sides to the city: the boardwalk and behind it. In the old days people would parade on the boards to see and be seen. Things are much less formal these days, and it provides a fine opportunity to see people from every walk of life, people like  John and Lois, who said they were missionaries to the boardwalk. They wanted to know if I were saved.

They found my Episcopalian connection a little dodgy, and so they prayed for me. I met Frankie when he warned me that I was about to lose my cheesesteak to a peckish  seagull. Frankie had come to Atlantic City, looking for work in the building trades. He thought I should see his Eagle’s tattoo.

Christian and Nelson, boyfriends from Puerto Rico, were very out in their matching outfits and were pleased to pose for me. I also witnessed the beginnings of the last Miss America Pageant to be held in Atlantic City. There was a week of activities leading up to the big show in Boardwalk Hall. The fifty women were introduced to the public at the beginning of the week. They gathered in the sun, projecting poise and confidence in a way that Atlantic City had not been able to do in some time. It was a blisteringly hot August afternoon in 2018. Greenhead flies were biting every exposed arm or leg. A stiff breeze off the ocean was the only relief. 

Behind the boardwalk are the streets where people live. Some of the names are familiar from the board game Monopoly. Names like Atlantic Avenue, Kentucky Avenue and Park Place. Atlantic Avenue runs the length of the city. Kentucky Avenue was where the famous Club Harlem once stood in the heart of a thriving African-American community.  There is still a Park Place park in front of the the 1930s-era Claridge Hotel.

Many of the people behind the Boardwalk are recent immigrants. There are still signs of the Irish and Italian migration of an earlier era in the Italian restaurants in the Ducktown neighborhood and in the famous Irish Pub. Now you see more Asian and South Asian immigrants. An Atlantic City casino is place where one can get a start in America without extensive language skills — and make good money. 

As a photographer I’m especially drawn to people who are struggling to make a go of life, and there are many in Atlantic City. The sea, the sun and the attractions on the boardwalk mask a lot of distress. Of course the sight and sound of the sea and the smell of the salt air can raise one’s spirits at any time of year. The highs and lows of Atlantic City are like the tides. They come in waves, and sometimes they are destructive.

The people who stay and those who come back again and again are people who don’t give up. There was a Vietnam Veteran who I would see frequently in his wheelchair. He greeted people and accepted donations from passersby. He was always stationed in front of the closed down Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, a symbol of all that has gone wrong with Atlantic City. The last time I saw him, I said, “Hang in there!”

“With both hands,” he replied.

Timothy Roberts

Timothy Roberts is a photographer based in Philadelphia. He spent many years as a newspaper reporter working in the South and the West. Now a documentary photographer, Roberts looks for stories about places in transition or people who are struggling with the changes and chances of life.