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For Atlantic City, Casino Jackpot's Still a Long Shot

August 07, 1989|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — After 38 years watching the boardwalk from a worn Persian carpet in "Madame Edith's Temple of Knowledge," Edith Stevens says she doesn't need her crystal ball or Tarot cards to read this city's future.

"There has to be changes here," she said, gold bracelets jangling on each arm. "This town can't get any worse."

With the dramatic arrests last month of Mayor James L. Usry and 13 political associates on charges of bribery and corruption, one need not be psychic to see fortunes are fading for this famed seaside resort. Eleven years after the first casino opened, gambling has yet to pay off for Atlantic City.

Although the city is the nation's top tourist draw--33.1 million visitors came last year--seven of the 12 casinos lost money and one, the Atlantis, closed its doors forever. Casino revenues so far this year are flat. "I expect next year will be a disaster," said market analyst Marvin B. Roffman. "There probably will be a couple of casinos that will go under."

Behind the casinos, the city is increasingly poor and black. There is still no movie theater or major supermarket. Population has plummeted. Violent crime has tripled. Public assistance rolls have doubled. Block after block still looks bombed out, with dilapidated row houses and boarded-up stores. Money magazine ranks it as the most unlivable city in America.

"You have the ultimate in glitz and luxury in one small part of the city, and abject poverty everywhere else," said Albert A. Marks Jr., a civic leader and longtime director of the Miss America Pageant.

Despite a decade of planning, a new convention center remains unbuilt. The "Atlantic City International Airport" has one dingy terminal and one commercial airline. And relations are so strained between city officials and the casinos that Thomas D. Carver, president of the Casino Assn. of New Jersey, the industry's chief trade group, likens it to war.

"We are like the British Army in Belfast," said Carver. "We are not part of this community. We are like an occupying force."

Worse, by all accounts, this city of 36,000 is so racially polarized that many casino executives, community leaders and state officials say they are helpless to act. Casinos, which pay 62% of the city's $110-million budget, are controlled mostly by whites. City Hall, which spends the money, is controlled mostly by blacks. The two sides rarely talk.

"There's a bitter racial division that affects everything," said Carl Zeitz, who left the New Jersey Casino Control Commission last December after eight years. "No matter what you say or do, no matter what your intention, it finally comes down to whether you're black or white. It's a sorry, sorry place."

Racial Tension

The racial tension was clear after state police arrested Mayor Usry, City Council President Walter Collette, two city councilmen, the zoning board chairman and nine others early on July 27. Usry, 67, is the city's first black mayor and all but one of the eight other city officials are black. Their supporters angrily insist the real conspiracy is racism, not corruption.

"We feel it's an attempt to dismantle our black leadership," said Wilbert Huff Royal, a community leader who organized a three-hour "Save Our Black Community Rally" at St. James A.M.E. Church last Sunday. "It was a slap at blacks in general."

John Whittington, a former city councilman, agrees. "They can't vote Usry out, so they're looking for any way to get him out," he said. "From the moment a black person assumes elected office, he immediately becomes a target."

Usry denied the police charges in an emotional appeal to the packed pews. "I have not betrayed you, I will not betray you," he said. Court papers allege that Usry accepted $6,000 in cash from a police informant in exchange for support for an ordinance allowing electric carts on the boardwalk.

State police deny race was a factor in the eight-month investigation. Citing more than 300 audio and video tapes, court papers allege that Albert Black, a portly private detective who worked undercover for police, paid $60,000 in bribes for zoning variances, rent control waivers, airport concessions, illegal campaign contributions and the electric cart rules. At least a dozen other arrests are likely, police said.

Sticky Problem

Whatever happens in court, political corruption is as sticky a tradition here as saltwater taffy. Back in 1910, supporters of Mayor Louis Kuehnle counted more votes than there were registered voters. His flamboyant protege, Mayor Enoch L. (Nucky) Johnson, ran rackets, brothels and gambling dens during Prohibition. He went to jail in 1941. So have three other mayors in the last two decades.

"Atlantic City was founded on corruption and speculation," explained City Clerk Benjamin Fitzgerald. "This is nothing new here."

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