Floating around somewhere in the vast hinterland of forgotten films is a minor classic called “Mondo Cane”, a 1962 effort by some Italian filmakers that created its own genre of offbeat documentaries. It is a movie that leaves oddly vivid memories of strange episodes and scenes from unexpected sites around the world. One such scene came from New Guinea, where in World War II people living with Stone Age technology and little contact with the outside world were exposed to the full rush and roar of modern civilization as American troops pushed back against the Japanese. Tremendous quantities of supplies were airlifted into Port Moresby as the tribesmen watched in awe.
Eventually the War moved on to the Solomon Islands and the Philippines and Japan, leaving the locals with memories of the great silver birds that had once brought food and uniforms and radios and all the goods of America.
When time went by and the great silver birds did not return, some islanders concluded they had come from the gods and, if proper arrangements were made, the gods might bring them back with all their wonderful cargoes. So they built and manned rough wooden structures in the form of the air traffic control towers they had seen, thinking that once the gods saw them do that, the cargo planes would return. The effort, patently useless to our knowledgeable eyes, was an act of blind faith that became known as “the cargo cult.”
The image of those watchers scanning the skies in their impossible hope comes back to me in these days of Atlantic City casino closings. When I first returned home from law school to practice law in Atlantic City the town was full of aging boardwalk hotels trying with plastic palm trees and winter weekend promotions to bring back the glory days Nelson Johnson wrote about in his celebrated book “Boardwalk Empire.” To lure back modern visitors with modern amenites a new Howard Johnson’s hotel and modern motels like the Midtown were built along Pacific Avenue. The gods of tourism did not respond.
In their panic, the politicians turned to legalized gambling. The state constitution was to be amended allowing casinos to be built in New Jersey, but in a crushing defeat the authorizing referendum was lost at the polls. In the confusion that followed, Governor Byrne came to a meeting of our civic leaders, such as they were. Nobody had an answer better than to try again for passage of a casino referendum. Two years later, now confined to the boundaries of Atlantic City, it passed.
For a generation and a half it worked. The aging hotels became young again. The venerable Haddon Hall became Resorts; the Ambassador became the Tropicana, The Marlborough-Blenheim became Bally’s; even Howard Johnson’s morphed into Caesar’s.
But not all the consequences were fully understood. Soon good nurses were leaving hospitals to become blackjack dealers. Teachers looking for better pay became roulette dealers, and the senior classes from our high schools trooped out of their graduations and into casino jobs with no thought of more productive but non-gaming careers.
Local businesses learned the hard way that casinos were tough competition. A lounge on Delilah Road that had built a reputation its owner described as “the best second-rate black entertainment venue on the East Coast” featuring the hottest new performers on the eve of their breakouts went bust when Resorts booked high-voltage black acts of the stature of Diana Ross or Diahann Carroll and papered the house by giving away free tickets to insure a packed audience.
Local restaurants went under as the casinos opened their own to keep their gamblers from wandering off the premises. Men’s clothing stores lost their top end trade to casino stores. Local jewelers could not compete with the casino jewelers. Atlantic Avenue died. It took a long time for the effects to percolate down to the roots of the city, but when nearby states opened their own casinos the final handwriting was on the wall.
Now the talk of the future is how to get it back again. The casino ethos is our local version of the New Guinea cargo cult. It is a stubborn but foolish belief that if we maintain the forms of a casino-centric economy the gods of gambling will smile on us once again and bring back cargoes of blackjack and slot-machine players.
We should, and will, keep what casinos can survive. Casino jobs remain vital to thousands of our friends and families and neighbors, and local businesses have learned how to find their own customers.
But it’s high time to move on from short-sighted leaders who insist on standing forlorn watches hoping for fresh cargoes of tourists that will never come. It’s time to build new foundations, and to encourage new businesses that will offer more durable – and meaningful = jobs to our high school and college graduates. Why put our future hopes into the hands of people like Donald Trump or Carl Icahn? Why be so dependent on casino-ism we let that industry strip our workers of pensions, benefits and opportunity?
© 2014 Joseph T. Wilkins