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When Revel Casino-Hotel opened in Atlantic City, NJ, last May, I couldn’t conceal my excitement. For good reason, too: As far back as I can remember, the casinos of my native Atlantic County have played a big part in my life. My parents met at a card dealing school, and for the first fifteen years of my life, they both worked in Atlantic City as dealers. Add on to that both of my grandfathers and a handful of my friends’ parents, and it isn’t difficult to see what role the casino played in shaping my childhood.
Even now, I fondly remember accompanying my parents on the car ride to and from the casino as if it were an adventure—definitely one that beat out my Hot Wheels set, though barely edging out the appeal of my Nintendo 64 (I won’t comment on my Beanie Babies). And despite my parents’ admonitions, I couldn’t help but stare out of the car window and marvel at the garish beauty of the billboards and casino lights. I loved the city I hadn’t ever stepped foot in.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I learned about the uglier side of “America’s Playground,” but I couldn’t shake my fond childhood memories. And that’s where Revel came in. Revel was supposed to revitalize the ailing casino town. It was supposed to be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s “catalyst” for a city hit particularly hard by the so-called Great Recession, and at a price tag of $2.4 billion (in part subsidized by the state government), it seemed at least promising. Important for the six-year-old child in me, Revel claimed to offer a more palatable version of the Atlantic City around it; it would be family-friendly—or at least not family-hostile—with an emphasis on its 47-story resort and not on its isolated casino. It would bring tax revenue, jobs, and a more varied economy to the city crippled by the economic crisis. And perhaps most ambitious of all, Revel would not allow smoking anywhere in the casino, in a city where smokers still find refuge in 25 percent of casino floors.
We don’t need to fast forward much to see the outcome: Within a year of opening, Revel filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The ambitious experiment came to a close, and in came the new—or, rather, the old. Over the next two months, Revel restructured and rose from the grave, but the new Revel Casino-Hotel did not look quite the same. It was sleek and clean looking, sure, but it couldn’t shake its resemblance to all those who set up shop in Atlantic City before it. Out with the rhetoric of upscale restaurants and shopping, and in with the gambling deals and slot machine rebates. Out with the family-oriented resort, and in with the casino. And the least surprising of all but the most difficult to swallow: out with the smoking ban, in with the 30,000 square foot contiguous smoking area. And like that, the Revel experiment caved in under the pressure of Atlantic City’s casino machine.
Not that Revel’s experiment was wholly novel. Atlantic City tried once to ban smoking on casino floors before. But in response to pressure from casinos—which had already endured significant losses since 2006—the city backed off of its smoking ban just 12 days after it went into effect. I can’t say whether it was naïveté or ignorance that made me think Revel would pan out differently, but in retrospect, the 12-day ban of 2008 presaged the 12-month lifespan of Revel (now Revel Casino Hotel).
It’s no wonder, of course, why the Revel Resort failed in a city that draws in about $3 billion in casino revenue per year. But it’s shocking—and disheartening—that Atlantic City continues to stymie any improvement of its working conditions against the trend of cities across the country. While the unprofitable and recalcitrant casinos are buoyed by the city’s appeasement, casino workers subjected to secondhand smoke suffer heightened risk of heart attack and sudden cardiac death compared to workers in smoke-free workplaces. And a whole seven years after former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona declared the evidence of secondhand smoke’s harms “indisputable,” it seems preposterous that Atlantic City should allow casinos to continue to subject thousands of casino employees—many of whom are unrepresented by union contracts—to patently unsafe working conditions.
Whether Revel was doomed to fail from its pre-financial crisis conception is unclear, but its experience in Atlantic City has highlighted the fragility of an industry whose survival is predicated in part on Victorian working conditions. Of course, Atlantic City is not alone; Las Vegas casinos, for their part, are marred by the same secondhand smoke conditions. And just this week, The Boston Globe showed that even in Massachusetts, which has a Smoke-Free Workplace Law, blue collar employees face markedly higher exposure to secondhand smoke than do professional workers.
That these are exceptions is itself reassuring, because it means that the trend is moving toward, not away from, safe workplaces for millions. So despite the failure of Revel to bring a healthier—economically and physically—casino to Atlantic City, there’s hope for the future. But for now, I will make sure to heed my parents’ rebukes and, when gazing out the window, not be so entranced by the superficial ostentation of the city that is “Always Turned On.”
Kevin A. Hazlett ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Lowell House.
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