On Election Day 2016, when the late night returns affirmed a slender Electoral College majority for Donald Trump, I was devastated by the prospect of his presidency and troubled by the sudden realization that many of my assumptions about American society were wrong. Not that I was under any illusions about the existence of deep strains of nativism and racism within the body politic. But clearly, I had underestimated the dimension of those elements and misapprehended as well the nihilistic urge that drove a large segment of the public to vote for someone like Trump.
As an artist and photographer I felt compelled to respond in some meaningful way. Most of my projects over the years have dealt with long-term urban transformation and the investigation of place, but I felt this time I needed to work more urgently—and operate with a more politically engaged agenda, one that would directly address this pivotal moment in history.
Almost immediately I seized on the idea of photographing Atlantic City, the most tangible example of Donald Trump’s business failures. A few days later I rented a car and made the two-hour drive down the shore from New York and began photographing along the boardwalk where four of Atlantic City’s dozen casino hotels stood abandoned. Two of them, the Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal, loomed as bleak totems of the President-Elect’s recent legacy. Surveying the surrounding urban landscape, I encountered a tattered but richly historic city reeling from the disastrous actions of politicians and vulture capitalists like Trump and his friend Carl Icahn.
It did not take much imagination to see Atlantic City with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty as a metaphor for much of what was going on in the country as a whole. The casino hotels tower above row houses and shops like the old steel mills of the nation’s heartland. Where the factories of the past once forged the raw goods that fed the might and power of a great nation, the massive casinos of Atlantic City represent the industrialization of tourism and the exploitation of the shrinking hopes and dreams of the American middle class.
Atlantic City from its inception was a resort city. And early on, this playground-by-the-sea offered family sun and fun as well as more licentious pastimes. Atlantic City flourished during Prohibition with its nightclubs, prostitution, and gambling. The filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said, “During Prohibition, Atlantic City created the idea of the speakeasy, which turned into nightclubs and that extraordinary political complexity and corruption coming out of New Jersey at the time. The long hand that they had—and maybe still do—even had to do with presidential elections.”
It did not take much imagination to see Atlantic City with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty as a metaphor for much of what was going on in the country as a whole.
In the 1950s America became more mobile. Automobiles and freeways spurred the development of the suburbs, and one no longer needed a train to reach Atlantic City or any number of other vacation attractions. When the Democratic Party held its national convention in Atlantic City in 1964 the delegates discovered a city in steep decline, a tawdry resort with street crime and decaying hotels. Casino gambling beckoned as a panacea for Atlantic City’s woes and its promoters conjured a glittering New Jersey version of Monaco. That’s not exactly how it turned out, though for a while Atlantic City prospered as the only gambling destination on the East Coast.
Casinos were the perfect solution for generating cash and for enhancing Donald Trump’s well-cultivated reputation as a playboy billionaire. Somehow, however, Trump could not make money on his casinos—at least not in the conventional sense of turning a profit. He went bankrupt five times in Atlantic City, and the banks stopped loaning him money. Meanwhile, the Trump Taj Mahal became a favorite retreat of Russian oligarchs and the Brighton Beach mob. I was thinking about that fact one moody winter day as I walked with my camera on the beach opposite the now closed Taj. I looked down at my feet and picked up a cigarette pack lying in the sand—it was covered with Cyrillic letters.
Another day, walking along Pennsylvania Avenue, I came across the former Trump human resources office. Images of happy, smiling employees were still plastered on the windows while a dead seagull lay on the pavement beneath. And then, to my astonishment, a group of women came by carrying Make America Great Again signs. Here at the epicenter of Trump’s business dissolution, at the nexus of Russian dirty money and the fleecing of gullible gamblers, there were, apparently, true believers.
As the project developed, I did a great deal of research and began collecting quotes that supported my pictures. I discovered that Trump had tweeted repeatedly about Atlantic City. There are 16 tweets in my book, Atlantic City, the culmination of my project, in which he disavows any responsibility for what happened to his casinos and the city, and he complains incessantly that no one gives him credit for making a fortune and getting out at just the right time. “Did you notice, when I left, it went to hell!”
There is, in the end, something dangerously seductive about Atlantic City. People come to the city for a lot of reasons, but I think it is fair to say that many come to gamble knowing they will lose. They know the odds are with the house, that the game literally is rigged. And yet they play on in the hopes that lightning will strike. I photographed a number of the vast garages that feed cars and gamblers directly into the casinos. People frequently throw themselves off of these parking structures in despair.
Atlantic City’s cover photograph encapsulates the stark reality of this place. Against the backdrop of the Revel Casino’s glass and stone wall, two small houses, vestiges of a bygone Atlantic City, slump precariously in a vacant lot. A tiny American flag flaps in the brisk sea breeze beneath an illusory sky.
Atlantic City | Photographs by Brian Rose
Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size:
Atlantic City. Donald Trump’s failed casinos and the devastation connected to those failures. A state and city that sold its soul to criminal interests under the pretense of urban revitalization. A Disney theme park with street crime, the money-laundering schemes of billionaires, and those abandoned to homelessness and unemployment. – Brian Rose
The closure of the sprawling Boardwalk casino, with its soaring domes, minarets and towers built to mimic the famed Indian historic site, cost nearly 3,000 workers their jobs, bringing the total jobs lost by Atlantic City casino closings to 11,000 since 2014. – Wayne Parry, Associated Press, October 10, 2016
In May, Trump told The New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: ‘The money I took out of there was incredible.’ It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed hometown. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America — he’s not coming back for us. – Arielle Brousse, The Washington Post, October 6, 2016
Atlantic City is a dramatic symbol of American excess and decline. Once the most popular family vacation destination in the United States, the city has slid into a dystopian version of its former self, with beachfront property plummeting amid vacant lots and deserted high-rise hotels garishly positioned against the coastal backdrop. – Nowness, March 7, 2017
As for [Michael] MacLeod, the sculptor of the elephants outside the Taj, he says his anger over the episode has faded, and he can joke now about how he once got stiffed by a famous billionaire. Giving a slide presentation of his work to an architectural firm two days after Trump swept the New York Republican primary in April, he slipped in two photos—one showing one of the elephants, the other showing Trump’s name on the casino marquee in red lights. “This guy never paid me,” MacLeod deadpanned. Everyone laughed. – Bernard Condon, Associated Press, June 28, 2016
It was Monday around noon, almost 60 degrees at the end of November, and a scattering of people strolled the Boardwalk. As I stepped down to the beach across from the Trump Taj Mahal, I encountered a half dozen stray cats lounging about as if they owned the place. And in a sense they did. The Boardwalk Cats Project feeds and tends the 150 or so spayed and neutered cats. Atlantic City may be bankrupt along with many of its casinos, but the cats are doing fine. – Brian Rose
Revel, the failed $2.4 billion casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, built as a high-end playground for Wall Street bankers, sold for $200 million to a Colorado developer who plans to reopen it under the name Ocean Resort Casino. The Revel opened in 2012 as the tallest building in the seashore town with Beyoncé as its headliner. – Christopher Palmeri, Bloomberg, January 8, 2018
I walked out on the beach opposite Caesars and Playground Pier (originally the Million Dollar Pier), and took several pictures of its huge wall of signs. At my feet in the sand I picked up a cigarette carton with Russian lettering on it. I thought reflexively, ‘The Russians are coming!’ But the Russians are already here. – Brian Rose
(Philipp) Kirkorov, who represented Russia at Eurovision in 1995, first met Trump in 1994 when Kirkorov and his now ex-wife and Russia’s 1997 Eurovision singer Alla Pugacheva performed at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. – Robyn Gallagher, wiwibloggs.com, September 7, 2016
In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should “pick up a mop” to help with flooding—a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue “is not a crisis.” – Michael Edison Hayden, National Geographic, May 4, 2016
The neighborhood of Ducktown remains largely intact with densely packed blocks of row houses. On one corner is White House Subs, which was probably not Donald Trump’s inspiration to run for the presidency. It is, however, a wonderfully funky and happening sub shop, which was packed with a diverse mélange of people at lunchtime. – Brian Rose
On my many walks down the Boardwalk, I often found myself staring at a vast empty lot directly next to the monumental Boardwalk Hall. Along the south-facing wall were pastel-colored murals of beach scenes painted on what was otherwise a blank expanse of stucco. It was only later I discovered that this was the site of the former Trump World’s Fair casino. Like all of Trump’s other casinos, it failed—torn down in 1999. Trump said at the time: “Clearing away the World’s Fair will give us the flexibility to develop the kind of world-class signature property that has made the Trump Organization the dominant developer in New York.” – Brian Rose
[Reuben] Kramer shows us the shuttered Trump Plaza, which will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic City’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the Trump Plaza facade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains. – Matt Katz WNYC News August 26, 2015
The Trump Taj Mahal has been stripped of its faux Indian/Arabian/Russian motifs, and new owner Hard Rock International is in the process of installing its characteristic rock/guitar/burgers theme. Hard Rock, which was founded in 1971 in London by a couple of Americans, is now owned by the Seminole Indian Tribe and is headquartered in Orlando, Florida. Trump, of course, parlayed his casino bankruptcies and reality TV show into a gig as President of the United States. It all makes sense in Atlantic City. – Brian Rose
When word gets out that a city is on the skids, people seem eager to imagine post-apocalyptic desolation, a rusting ruin at Ozymandian remove from the glory days. But American cities don’t seem to die that way. They keep sopping up tax dollars and risk capital, thwarting big ideas and emergency relief, chewing up opportunists and champions. – Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker, September 7, 2015
Now baby everything dies baby that’s a fact But maybe everything that dies someday comes back Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty And meet me tonight in Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City” 1982
Down at the Boardwalk’s terminus, by Oriental Avenue, by night, the seagulls keep flying into the Revel and dying. Or they flap and limp around a bit before dying. You never see or hear the impact, you just get what happens after. Immense white gulls, flapping, limping, expiring. They fly into the Revel’s giant vacant tower of panes and break their necks, because without any lights on, the glass is indistinguishable from the sky. – Joshua Cohen, n+1, Winter 2017
About the Artist
Brian Rose attended Cooper Union in New York City where he studied with Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography. In 1980, Rose and fellow Cooper graduate Edward Fausty photographed the Lower East Side of Manhattan over the course of a year. They worked with a 4×5 view camera, and that project established Rose’s approach to photographing the urban landscape. In 1985 Rose began documenting the Iron Curtain border and the Berlin Wall, making several trips across Europe. In 1989 he returned to Berlin shortly after the opening of the Wall, and he has continued to photograph the former border zone in Berlin up to the present. His book, The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2004.
Rose lived in Amsterdam in the Netherlands for 15 years while maintaining a studio in New York. He returned full-time to New York in 2008, and has since produced a trilogy of books that chronicle the passage of time in Lower Manhattan. And in 2016, in response to the election of Donald Trump, he began photographing the urban landscape of Atlantic City where Trump’s abandoned casinos hovered over a struggling city. Atlantic City was published in 2019 by Circa Press and was selected for a Jurors Award in the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s first annual Photo Book Competition. Rose has published seven books, and his images have been collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.