At home in Casinoville

Life in Atlantic City, especially with children, is just not the same as life in places without slot machines and fancy showrooms.

ATLANTIC CITY - There was a moment recently, as I watched my daughter's middle school chorus perform in the lobby of the Trump Taj Mahal, the slot machines jangling just to our left, the seniors on motor scooters passing by the stage like ducks in a carnival game, when I realized I might have a thing or two to say about life in a casino town.

Not life in the casinos. Not life working for the casinos. But just regular life for people who just happen to live within spitting distance of these things, people trying to raise children without necessarily having to walk them through a smoky casino floor in tutus on their way to a kiddie dance recital.

True story.

For years, we went to Encore Dance Studio, located outside Atlantic City in Absecon, but which for obscure reasons had a deal with Tropicana to hold its annual show in the Tropicana theater. A little cool, a little weird.

The first year, you thought, this is why it's a good thing to live here, where else would your kid be performing in such a professional setting? By year three, as you schlep them through the parking garage, over the walkway, up the escalators that pass by the slot machines, you think, wouldn't a nice school auditorium be enough? But a very impressive venue, it must be said. And it's sort of interesting to see your kids in the same venue where you saw Bob Dylan, not to mention the Rat Pack Live.

In any case, people of the river wards who fear the impact of SugarHouse and Foxwoods on your everyday life, it's pretty much a comme ci comme ça kind of thing, a little of this, a little of that.

Suddenly, there are lots of people coming in buses to your neighborhood. You can explain to your kids cool things like the fact that most of those people on the soup-kitchen line outside the Taj Mahal are actually tourists from New York's Chinatown who are just trying to get a free lunch, not truly needy, and will return to the roulette wheel in the afternoon.

See? Complex moral-relativity lessons right there at your fingertips.

Taking kids to entertainment at a casino teaches them things like, why can't we sit in those empty seats even though it's all supposed to be general admission? Why are there two lines to get in, one for people with something called a Rewards card, one for the rest of us schlubs? Is our family really a family that has to wait in the schlub line? What is this thing called a maitre d' and why does that person hold so much power? A wee bit awkward.

Anyway, concepts like "high roller" are introduced perhaps a tad prematurely. High rollers, you tell them, are people who lose so much money doing this really stupid thing called gambling that the casino feels bad and gives them free tickets so they can sit in better seats than you, even though your mommy and daddy actually paid for your tickets.

But hey, life isn't fair, and they may as well get used to it.

Your kids also learn what cocktail waitresses and blackjack dealers do, because that's what their friends' parents do for work, and they learn that some jobs require you to work difficult hours and go on strike. But others let you meet Ringo Starr. So far, they haven't encountered any pit bosses.

True, you do find yourself having the occasional unfortunate conversation about the prostitutes in the news, whose bodies happened to be dumped across the Black Horse Pike from the place where you all play indoor tennis. But that could happen in any town.

Couldn't it?

The casinos did bring lots of new stores to Atlantic City, some good music, and an Imax theater, which is geared toward family shows. The water show at the end of the new Pier at Caesars is hugely impressive for kids and adults, liquid fireworks, but should you leave your teens to walk around that mall, make sure they know that the second story will lead directly onto a casino floor if they're not careful. They learn to be.

Living near Atlantic City has made the question of "where to hold your daughter's bat mitzvah" especially challenging. Can a party celebrating a joyous and sacred religious rite of passage really be held later that day at Caesars? Would your extended family from out of town want it any other way?

Some locals say bring it on. Some stay as far away as possible.

The casinos can throw some money around, and community funds are available from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, but there's not as much as you might hope. A playground fund-raising project a few years back struck out completely on the casino front. They are handy for organizing fireworks displays, though.

Casino development can bring a lot of heartache to nearby neighborhoods, and still leave them without viable supermarkets. At the same time, new middle-class neighborhoods have been created with casino reinvestment funds, and property values have soared, though that may have more to do with the generally rosy real estate picture at the Jersey Shore than with casino development.

In Atlantic City, a full block of homes in a neighborhood known as the Westside was bulldozed to make way for a tunnel project designed to lure new casino development. The residents who lived there, including some of the city's prominent African American families, moved elsewhere.

The neighborhood wasn't done in, but it was changed. The place where the homes were is now a sterile park, and massive white windmills have been built nearby as an alternative energy source, a little more noble a project perhaps than a tunnel for a casino, but an in-your-face annoyance to neighbors in this same area of Atlantic City nonetheless.

At least in Philadelphia, the casinos are not being brought in with the specific promise of urban revitalization. There will perhaps be less hypocrisy as a result.

The casinos and all their employees have turned nearby places like Egg Harbor Township into overcrowded, overdeveloped suburbs. There are a lot of people down here who graduated from high school in Philly in 1978, right after the first casino opened, came down that summer to work at Resorts, and never left. The schools cannot keep pace with the development, much of it fueled by casino employees moving out of Atlantic City.

Still, the job opportunities in Atlantic City have led to an unusual ethnic diversity in town, with lots of upwardly mobile first-generation immigrants. In Ventnor, the neighboring Shore town, my kids go to school with kids from Bangleadesh, Colombia, Albania, Poland and Las Vegas.

And, you know, it wasn't really that bad having the concert in the lobby of the Taj Mahal, at the request of the MAPS foundation for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It was festive enough, though not quite as memorable as the year the elementary school choir sang at the Atlantic City rescue mission, which was an eye-opener of a different sort.

The acoustics in the hotel lobby were, after all, excellent.


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.