Atlantic City has a long unspoken history, an underrepresented community, that has been an active part of the changing tides of the city’s economy and racial history. Behind the scenes of Atlantic City tourism are the vibrant community members that have upheld close ties with the various immigrant and longtime resident neighborhoods, all the way through the transition to gaming and entertainment. These groups are an important part of the community, for they existed before the casinos and were affected as the industry found it roots in their city. These residents make up the city that is often defined by its casinos today. Many of these communities became dependent on the jobs provided by the industry. They greatly felt the impact of the failing casinos, changing how Atlantic City residents feel about their city and those who were supposed to protect and govern them.
I spoke with a Stockton professor and proud Atlantic City native Richlyn Goddard, PhD about her experience through the decades of change in Atlantic City. Her perspective is unique, as she wears the hats of both observer and insider, with deep ties to the area that brought her back home after years of schooling. Upon her return, Dr. Goddard applied her education in research and history to document oral histories of Atlantic City. She focuses on what she refers to as the forgotten generations of black folk in the city between 1950 and 1980. These generations are important because they fall between the start of the gaming industry and after the Civil Rights Act, where people of color in the area had an important role. And often, she explains, their stories go untold.
Dr. Goddard has come to know the experience of Atlantic City’s underrepresented communities through her direct engagement, having hosted many programs with Black Muslim groups at the Atlantic City Library, up until very recently. She worked with Atlantic City councilman Kaleem Shabazz, another Atlantic City native that actually went through school with Dr. Goddard’s sister, to organize platforms for other residents to congregate and have a voice. Though she works hard to give a voice to the marginalized and often ignored groups that call Atlantic City home, Dr. Goddard has seen a recent trend that will make her work harder.
Corruption has caused many residents to back away from the opportunity to get involved because this exploitation has led to the disenfranchisement of so many that reside there. There is an overall feeling of loss of power and control.
Dr. Goddard experienced this first hand as she watched her and the director’s role on the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee become nullified with new state leadership. Gov. Christie found the committee to be unworthy of state funds, even though they worked directly with community members to restore culturally significant public works in the city. When the governor dismissed the director of the MLK Committee, Dr. Goddard explains that “he removed personal connection to Atlantic City,” contributing to the bankruptcy of AC. She found that the locals that became part of the city government sooner sold out the city for personal gain, than remain loyal to the residents. A sense of betrayal has grown.
An example is that of local leaders that became New Jersey Senator and Representatives, that allowed for the State Takeover of the city. Many residents believe that one particular Senator cannot be trusted to make the change needed for them to thrive. The State Takeover has created a strong atmosphere of distrust that the local leaders are unable to care for the needs of the communities. Mistrust in city and state government has become a part of the local thread and sentiment.
However, this does not leave Dr. Goddard hopeless. She takes pride in neighborhood and her city, choosing to stay and remain independent in her casino-row apartment. She sees hope in the incoming shops, especially the outlet district that has moved into the city. Bass Pro Shops, in particular, she offers, “uses the natural resources Atlantic City has offer” with its proximity to the Pine Barrens and the beach. Dr. Goddard pointed out the significance in being the host of such a business, as it is the only one in the state. This is a draw for locals and visitors to see value in Atlantic City other than gaming and entertainment.
Our entire conversation revolved around the resiliency of the people and communities that make up Atlantic City. Though the experience of the city may be a “rollercoaster,” Dr. Goddard makes it a point to say there will always be another upswing on this urban ride.