Just about every morning when the weather is nice, Don Guardian rides his bike along the boardwalk and digs into the beach sand. “They’re supposed to clean the top six inches of sand,” he explains. “And I check to make sure that they actually do it. . . . That’s what I’m here for: the small stuff.”
Guardian, the tall, 61-year-old, bow-tied, balding, gray-haired Republican mayor of Atlantic City, N.J., is a political oddity. He describes himself as an admirer of Republican budget priorities who is “economically to the far right.” In office just over a year in this majority-nonwhite city of about 40,000, he already has cut the size of his city’s workforce by about a third, trimmed its budget sharply, and fought with labor unions. He’s a first-time politician but a skilled political operator, talking with ease to blue-collar city workers and visiting drag queens.
He also has loads of praise for President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” mentoring program; has overseen sharp increases in municipal property-tax rates; and says he’s “to the far, far left” on social issues. He won election in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans nine-to-one—partly on the strength of his popularity in the city’s large African-American community. He also is the first openly gay Republican to head a significant American city.
In the roughly three years left in his term, Guardian will face one of the toughest challenges of any prominent mayor in the country: the reinvention of a city that has squandered a fortune. If he succeeds, Atlantic City could emerge as an example of how a genuinely smaller, more efficient government benefits a diverse and troubled city. If he fails, there’s a real chance this famous resort town could disappear from the map. The ultimate outcome will depend not on executing grandiose plans, but on getting the small things right.
Atlantic City long has held deep cultural significance. From 1921 through 2004, it hosted the Miss America Pageant, which returned to Boardwalk Hall last September after a decade away. It is home to the first boardwalk, the birthplace of saltwater taffy, and the source of the street names in Monopoly. With the 1964 Democratic National Convention, it became the smallest American city to host a major-party political convention in modern times. It’s also the place where gambling began its transformation from the disreputable refuge of gangsters to a mainstream form of entertainment.
Most important, though, Atlantic City offers a uniquely American story of invention, innovation, and reinvention. Perched on coast-hugging barrier islands, the city offers excellent beaches and perfectly flat land for building. But it’s basically an overgrown sandbar, and nature, left to its own devices, will almost certainly wash it away in time. (Indeed, since the 1980s, federal policy has prohibited subsidies for new development of many such coastal areas.) Before legalized gambling arrived in 1978, the city progressed through a series of identities: a health resort, before modern medicine; a hub of railroad hotels, before the advent of the automobile; a “free zone” where Prohibition went unenforced, until Prohibition was repealed; and the home of one of the nation’s first true convention centers, before larger, better-appointed palaces began to draw business away.
Over time, such reinventions have proven more difficult to pull off. The city has lost population fairly consistently since the end of World War II. In 1976, New Jersey voters legalized casinos in the city, hoping to create a cash cow for the state that would also stimulate local development and keep out organized crime. Licenses were doled out sparingly, with the state Casino Control Commission requiring prospective developers to put up massive resort hotels. Current city planning director Elizabeth Terenik says commission officials of the time “knew quality and understood it.”
For a while, it seemed to work. The Taj Mahal became the first heavily themed casino outside of Las Vegas, and the Borgata became the first big casino in the country to combine a gaming resort with boutique hotel ambiance. The city’s casinos were launched and financed by legitimate businesses. Money was raised on Wall Street, rather than from the mob, so crucial to Las Vegas’s earliest growth. As the only sizable gambling mecca east of the Mississippi, Atlantic City’s casinos thrived through the 1990s and early 2000s. Just three years after the first legal bets were placed, gaming revenues topped $1 billion. They continued to rise each year for the next quarter-century.