Most cities exist as a consequence of commercial or strategic utility. Atlantic City is more of a proposition and a ploy. The town fathers of Cape May, the first American seaside resort, weren’t interested in a railway, or perhaps the class of people who’d ride in on one—the well-to-do arrived from Philadelphia by boat—so a group of investors built, in 1854, what became known as a “railroad to nowhere,” to a spot a little way up the coast that was more or less the shortest possible distance from Philadelphia to the sea. Over the decades, and with the industrial-era advent of leisure time and disposable income, this forsaken wedge of salt marsh and sand became “the world’s playground”—a crucible of conspicuous consumption and a stage for the aspirations and masquerades of visitors and entrepreneurs. In some respects, Atlantic City was where America learned how to turn idle entertainment into big business. For a while, it was home to some of the world’s grandest hotels (the Marlborough-Blenheim was the largest reinforced-concrete building in the world, and was later imploded in the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”), as well as some of its more ardent iniquities and diversions. The night clubs were as often as not fronts for backroom gambling halls, intermittently tolerated by the authorities. ... Legalized gambling was supposed to rescue the city from its obsolescence as a resort and convention town ... When word gets out that a city is on the skids, people seem eager to imagine post-apocalyptic desolation, a rusting ruin at Ozymandian remove from the glory days. But American cities don’t seem to die that way. They keep sopping up tax dollars and risk capital, thwarting big ideas and emergency relief, chewing up opportunists and champions. ... “We will keep it in litigation for years. No one will get Revel.”
Although wildfires in the American West dominate headlines, the single most destructive fire in U.S. history could occur in the Northeast. New Jersey's Pinelands (also known as the Pine Barrens) is the lone island of contiguous forest in the 45-million-person megacity that comprises the Eastern Seaboard from Richmond, Virginia, to Boston — the densest population cluster in the country. Whereas regular fires used to thin out the Pinelands, large swaths have remained relatively untouched for decades due to strict preservation laws. The result is a giant tinderbox of untended woods that's surrounded by 100,000-person suburbs. A Wildfire Risk Assessment published by New Jersey compared the Pinelands to "an inch of gasoline covering all of south and central New Jersey." ... In wildland firefighting, success does not breed success. Stopping fires in their infancy allows forests to grow thicker and more at risk of bad blazes. Before the Forest Service started fighting fires, around 1910, lightning strikes and native peoples used to burn around 50 million Western acres each year. Today, some 30,000 wildland firefighters and their equipment — smokejumpers, fire engines, air tankers — check that number at around 11 million. If that sounds impressive, it's worth noting that 50 years ago about a third as many firefighters kept the annual acreage burned to roughly half what it is today. The flames have become that much harder to control.
Before the American Dream was the American Dream, it was Xanadu. When ground broke on the site in 2004, hundreds of guests attended a million-dollar party, with martinis in one tent and artificial snow in another. Xanadu’s developer, Mills Corp., completed most of the main building before running out of money in 2006. A second developer ran aground in the Great Recession. The Trump Organization, among others, decided against taking on Xanadu, which sat vacant and ridiculed, having already cost developers $2 billion. ... The Ghermezian family story, the one they don’t often talk about, begins in Central Asia in the early 20th century. Jacob Ghermezian, Don’s grandfather, operated a large bazaar in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, until the Russian Revolution abolished private property. He moved to Tehran and built a real estate fortune whose centerpiece was a complex with shopping, entertainment, apartments, and offices ... In the 1950s, amid political and economic uncertainty, Jacob, his wife, Miriam, and their four sons—Nader, Raphael, Bahman, and Eskandar, who is Don’s father—left Iran for North America. ... Like most real estate developers, the Ghermezians depend on other people’s money to build. The larger the project, the riskier it is to investors, because the steep initial cost comes far in advance of the revenue.