“Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy” by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart

Some coincidences are really strange. Consider, for example, the timing of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident – March 28, 1979. That was just twelve days after Jane Fonda’s antinuclear movie The China Syndrome was released. (The expression refers to the fact that, in theory, an out-of-control nuclear core meltdown might progress indefinitely.) That was the public weirdness.

The private weirdness, for me, was that in March of 1979 I was teaching a college course on Environmental Issues! Nuclear power was among the “issues” on the agenda, and news reports superseded my teaching plans for weeks. (Younger readers may not realize how frightening the TMI accident was. Many people had their “escape” routes planned, in case a large region had to be evacuated.) I learned so much about radiation that I think I could have passed a licensing exam for Radiation Safety Officer. The timing was one of the strangest coincidences in my life.

And now… I have been reading Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart, and what happens? The casino industry implodes. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. The bold and (somewhat) controversial plan by Stockton University to establish a campus in the former Showboat Casino has been torpedoed by a casino industry mogul. The Press of Atlantic City has all the dirty details. A project that might have been a cornerstone of redevelopment for suffering Atlantic City has been delayed. Time is money, and the plan may be dropped entirely. Stockton University is in shock.

Mutari and Figart released their book Just One More Hand about six weeks ago. It focuses on the workers in the casino industry, featuring details about the lives of several dozen casino employees. The authors interviewed these people in their homes or on neutral territory, and protected their identities through the use of pseudonyms. This is really a book about the nature of work, and the impact of work on quality of life. It is both well documented and highly readable. I hope it reaches a wide audience.

Consider what the “casino industry” represents! An illegal activity considered a serious social problem has (over about 40 years) been

  • legalized
  • organized
  • regulated
  • cultivated
  • nurtured…

and transformed into an “industry”; a branch, in fact, of the “entertainment industry”. Early on, intense efforts were made to ensure that organized crime didn’t follow gambling into AC when the first casino opened in 1978.

I am well of an age to remember when gambling was illegal. A vice. A crime. I still question its morality. Is it okay to get something for nothing? Advocates point out that participation is voluntary. I choose not to gamble.

Mutari and Figart don’t delve into the question of what came along for the ride as Atlantic City rushed down the path to being a one industry, gambling town. I wonder about drugs. About fifteen years ago, I attended meetings of the “Family Life Committee” at my son’s public school. We dealt with issues like sex education, the level of racial tension, domestic violence, and DRUGS. All the fun stuff. One parent casually referred to gambling as Atlantic City’s number two industry. He was convinced more money was changing hands over drugs than through the legal channels of the gambling industry in Atlantic City. Is this true?

I found Mutari and Figart’s chapter on public investment and risk very interesting, especially the information about Revel, the immense casino that now stands dark and empty, next to the former Showboat which Stockton so optimistically tried to repurpose. Every day the news brings an update on Revel. Is there a buyer? What will happen to the tenants? And whoever thought the mega luxury resort was a good idea?? It’s quite clear that the casino industry, shiny and new in 1978, has matured, spread, and, in fact, reached a saturation point. There was no market for Revel. A shocking amount of tax money was sucked into that black hole. Some experts refer to this as a case of “economic predation”. The money is gone. Little benefit accrued to the taxpayers.

The future of Atlantic City is a mystery. You can understand it somewhat better if you read Mutari and Figart’s excellent book, but really, all we can do is wait and see.

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