ATLANTIC CITY — Shirley Everett, 79, is shopping. Just plain old shopping for a couple of folding carts and, as things develop, a new shower curtain. These days, out on Atlantic Avenue, that can be a dicey act.
Across Tennessee Avenue, out in front of EZ Super Mart store, a 51-year-old homeless man recently out of jail and a teen who says he’s a heroin addict are waiting for their chance at a few bucks — most likely, they each said separately, by acting as low-level go-betweens for drug dealers waiting on the other major shopping done these days on Atlantic Avenue: weed, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy.
It’s around noon on a Tuesday. Business as usual.
“I just do what I have to do and keep moving,” Everett said, browsing fabrics with her daughter Nan Moore inside Lots Corner store, one of many generic discount and convenience stores along an avenue once home to stores like Lit Bros. and Boston Shoes.
The facade reads “LOTS CORN R” on Atlantic; from Tennessee Avenue, the sign is down to “LOTS COR R."
It did not used to be this way on Atlantic Avenue.
“You had a lot of little stores where you could shop and sit at a counter,” Moore recalled. “We’re talking about years ago when Atlantic City was Atlantic City. I don’t know what happened.”
City Council President Marty Small calls the state of Atlantic Avenue, two blocks from casinos and the Boardwalk, “Night of the Living Dead” and “Zombie City.” Store owners say drug dealers intimidate employees and customers as they ply their trade, and the homeless and the resort’s many alcoholics urinate or even defecate in their doorways.
Others say shopkeepers are enablers, looking the other way as dealers camp in their doorways or duck inside to finish transactions behind glass store fronts covered with posters.
Robert Rynkiewicz, director of the Free Library, itself a welcoming haven for homeless and others, says employees face a gantlet of corner drug and loitering activity to even cross Atlantic at Tennessee Avenue, where another block down, the new hipster coffee shop and beer hall stand ready.
Prospects look better elsewhere in town, such as around Stockton University’s campus, where big names like ex-Eagle LeSean McCoy and DJ Envy are scouting investments.
But the worn tale of two cities narrative stubbornly remains, nowhere more blatant than Atlantic Avenue, in the heart of this casino town’s fledgling downtown. It’s a place where casino levies pay for fancy facades and signage for 24-hour adult stores.
“My thing is this, that’s our downtown,” says Small. “For us to really be a next-level city we have to pay attention to it. ... You have zombies walking up and down the street. It’s not acceptable in other cities. Why is that acceptable in Atlantic City?”
For the last month, a brigade of a dozen people — led by AtlantiCare case manager Vinnie Kirkland, City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, and outreach foot soldiers drawn from city and transit police, Volunteers of America, and Jewish Family Services — have left their offices to walk the troubled stretch of Atlantic Avenue between 1 and 3 p.m., five days a week.
“Every day I see some of the same people,” says Kirkland, who works in the Healthplex at 1401 Atlantic. “I say good morning to them. And I say good night to them. Once in a while they’ll come inside.”
Spend time on Atlantic Avenue and it becomes clear that those pegged as the problem — the so-called zombies themselves — know better than most that they, and the place, need help.
Just ask the people the outreach brigade encounters. Vaughn Blakeley, 45, helps a friend, Jessica Santiago, with her grocery bags for a few dollars. He’s looking for Dasha Brown of Volunteers of America, to help with housing; he’s been on a waiting list for a year.
"It’s a shame, " says Santiago. “You can’t bring your kids. I don’t want them seeing this type of stuff.”
David Appenzeller, 44, was once an alcoholic fixture outside the liquor store in Renaissance Plaza, a dismal shopping center with a Save-A-Lot considered so inadequate the state paid a consultant $157,000 to plan a supermarket from scratch in another part of town.
Wearing a cheery pink jacket and blue hood over long blond hair and bangs, Appenzeller greets Kirkland near the bus station.
“Uh oh,” says Vinnie, “I was looking for you.”
"I"m not going to lie. I drank this morning," Appenzeller concedes.
Through Kirkland, Appenzeller entered a partial day program, got health insurance and a place over on Massachusetts Avenue. He “wholeheartedly” appreciates the help.
“He was a hard nut to crack,” Kirkland says, “but he’s actually doing better. He does show up for all his appointments, which is really good for what we’re trying to do out here.”
Atlantic Avenue, like David Appenzeller, may be improving.
In a recent sting, undercover police arrested nine people for selling or possessing drugs in the usual spots, such as outside Popeyes. They could probably do that every day between Ohio and South Carolina Avenues. There are two crane-like “eye in the sky” surveillance cameras trained on Atlantic Avenue.
Sgt. Brian Shapiro, whose family once owned Boston Shoes on Atlantic Avenue, patrols as part of the Tourism District. On this afternoon, he said, “I don’t see any individuals breaking the law in front of me right now.”
In a resort city where casinos come and go, where sea level rises as property values decline, where sturdy neighborhoods grapple with fallout from decisions in which they have no say, that may count as progress on Atlantic Avenue, especially relative to its problematic sister one block closer to the Boardwalk, Pacific Avenue, home to the prostitution trade, where shifts wrap up around dawn.
Kirkland admits it’s a bit like Hamsterdam, the police-tolerated drug market from HBO’s The Wire. One evening, an officer with a clipboard could be seen talking to a man stationed outside Popeyes, an encounter that led not to an arrest but to a friendly handshake.
Some on Atlantic, like Joey Amaro, say they used to congregate in Hamsterdam-like Brown’s Park, on the town’s outskirts. Reclaimed with playground equipment, landscaping, and orders banning nuisance violators, Brown’s Park now seems a respectable city square. Which may be contributing to Atlantic Avenue’s problems.
“At least we knew where they were and they weren’t out here,” says Kirkland. Brown’s Park is now free for children to play , for weddings, concerts and movies in the summer. But no doubt the problem has shifted.
It’s one person at a time anteing up faith and practical help, Shabazz says. Police will issue citations leading to banning people from the corridor, as was done in Brown’s Park. The city will direct stores to remove posters blocking views inside.
“Many of us live here, we go to the stores,” says Sandra Festa, director of Atlanticare’s Healthplex, which, among other services, runs a lobby fruit and vegetable pantry. “We’re a little bit tired of it not being safe for our employees. And it’s not healthy.”
Officer Jose Gonzalez keeps donated socks, jackets, shoes, and blankets in his police SUV, making him a popular figure among the city’s homeless and addicted. He takes a long-term approach.
“In theory, this should be a business district,” he says. “There’s a lot of people loitering. Most people are stubborn, where the first interaction is not going to work. You have to be somewhat sincere with them.”
Help can be a security deposit, a spot in rehab, a trip to a day center like Turning Point, programs offering job training or free college.
A Volunteers of America van finds John Fego, 40, outside the library, courtesy of a bus ticket received upon leaving Ocean County jail after serving a shoplifting sentence. VOA is funded to return ex-offenders to home counties. Fego ends up in intake on Pennsylvania Avenue. A computer lab and a library of donated books awaits.
Nearby, Kirkland sees Nasheema Thornton pushing a stroller with two toddlers. She’s also looking to circle back with Dasha Brown, to help close one frustrating security deposit gap.
“It’s needed out here and it helps,” said Heiko Fehr, 45, a former landscaper struggling with addiction who met Kirkland while in the hospital with a leg infection. “It changed my life, I’ll tell you that.
“I’m coming in tomorrow,” he says to Kirkland.
“I’ll be there,” Kirkland says.
Muhammad Zia, owner of Food 4 Less, knows dealers basically use his store as an office. Running for City Council, Zia has turned over use of his cameras to police, signed multiple complaints for trespassing, says his cashier has been beaten.
“I banned the people from the store, but after a few hours, they come back again,” Zia said.
Inside Casino City Barber Shop, Eric Younger, 45, gets his beard trimmed by Jackson Poul. Up early for work, Younger sees “a lot of stuff” on Atlantic Avenue. “A lot of people should take what they’re offering," he says.
But Atlantic Avenue still tempts entrepreneurs, as it has since the time of Mr. Peanut, and sure enough, Lorrayne Peters and Eric Coursey are working on the former beauty shop they rented for $1,000 a month for a takeout place with Peters’ home cooking.
She seems unconcerned with problems on Atlantic Avenue, maybe just unaware, and brims with the optimism of those about to realize their dreams. Even on Atlantic Avenue, in the heart of enigmatic Atlantic City, it’s still possible.