New Jersey is deceptively vast. Geographically, of course, it’s not. But in terms of the number of disagreeable, hyper-verbose human beings crammed into those square miles, it is frankly yooge. And, of course, it’s more diverse than it gets credit for — New Jersey residents elect forward-thinking former physics professors to Congress and nightmare animate pork roasts to the governorship, and generally live in the long shadows of a thousand weird contradictions, some notably less charming than others. I don’t live there anymore, and the four days I spent in the state over the holiday marked the longest time in-state in I don’t know how long. This is a long way of saying that I probably shouldn’t be making great big statements about New Jersey does and doesn’t like. But if New Jersey doesn’t love a good ruin, it sure has a funny way of showing it.
The state where I grew up often seems to be half ruin, from the gap-toothed factories and sludgy post-industrial inertia of the cities to the weirdly chipper empty storefronts lining the main street of my ultra-bourgeois hometown. I don’t know too much about South Jersey, honestly, and my impression of Atlantic City is based entirely on two drunken nights of not-so-productive gambling there — my only really positive memory of the place was GBV’s “A Salty Salute” coming on someone’s shuffled iPod as we crossed the causeway into town, a moment which suggested a promise that evaporated once we finally made it onto the ruined streets and into the glitzily bummerific casino. I did come out like $60 up on that trip, but Atlantic City struck me as no kind of place for a decent person to spend time. Mostly, though, Atlantic City is just a gambling-enhanced (?) version of Jersey’s other big cities — crumbling under the weight of generations-long corruption and misgovernance and disregard, as well as just plain crumbling. A.C. was also like Jersey’s other Bartertown-y burgs in that it had an entry in the independent Atlantic League — the Atlantic City Surf, winners of the Atlantic League’s first title back in 1998, and hosts of the league’s first All-Star Game .
Operative word there being “had.” Where Newark and (freaking) Camden have managed to keep their Atlantic League teams alive, the Atlantic City Surf finally went out of business a month before the 2009 season, after leaving the AL for the even more down-market Can-Am League. Like all Atlantic League teams, the Surf extended the careers of a host of tri-state baseball washouts — The 1999 Surf featured both Rey and Luis Quinones, but the Surf also employed Mitch Williams, Chuck Carr, and a pre-comeback Ruben Sierra, as well as endearingly weird Atlantic League vagabond-masher types like Juan “The Large Human” Thomas, who I used to love writing about during my first job, at AOL’s DigitalCity listings site. (I kind of took the initiative on the Atlantic League beat, there; here’s more on The Large Human)
That the Surf were unable to stay in business while the Newark Bears and Camden Riversharks have — while the ultra-blighted city of Bridgeport, CT, which is surely one of the crappiest places I’ve ever been, has managed to keep the Bluefish in operation for over a decade — is a testament, primarily, to how tough it is to get people to do things other than gamble in a town whose entire economy (and arguably very existence) is based on gambling.
But what has happened to Atlantic City’s Bernie Robbins Stadium (above) in the year-plus period of its desertion is a testament to… well, why you should weatherize buildings, for one thing, but also to New Jersey’s weird knack with ruins. The perennially, perpetually cash-strapped city — which owns the stadium — did virtually nothing to secure, weatherize or otherwise keep-up the place. As a result, Atlantic City has an insta-ruin on its hands, just blocks from the casinos, complete with interiors that have been stripped in pursuit of copper wire, graffiti-tagged outfield walls, piles of uncollected garbage all over the freaking place, and saplings growing in the infield. Dan Good and Michael Clark’s piece on the deserted stadium in the Press of Atlantic City is full of weird malapropery — is it really “a monument to a gone moment?” — and some dubious newspaper-y stylistics, but it’s also kind of gripping because of the myriad interlocking derelictions it describes.
Yes, this looks familiar. This is the view fans used to see when entering the stadium, with the Atlantic City skyline in the background.
But the playing field is faded and dull. Ducks graze in what used to be right field. The infield, covered in crabgrass, in need of a groundskeeper, resembles one of the city™s dozens of barren lots. A half foot of water pools in the dugouts, where cleats used to rest. Empty cans of Goya coconut juice are in the dugout corners, near the bat racks.
Branches poke through the outfield walls ” the sections of the wall that haven™t disappeared or that have been covered with graffiti sprayings of male genitals. Graffiti also covers the stadium™s bricks, the doors, the walls ” any vertical surface, really. Some entranceways are boarded-up. In the stands where fans used to sit, caution tape winds across exposed, crumbling brick. Upstairs, 12-year-old concrete is filled with fault lines.
And those are the stadium™s nicer parts.
In a decade, maybe all this will be profound — something for humpo literarily-inclined expats like myself to muse on, something that hints at the tragedy or pride or strange strength of our blighted, beloved home state. For now, though, it’s just a bummer. This sort of collapse isn’t supposed to happen so quickly.