Good, bad & ugly: Trump's Atlantic City
A local historian's museum and "bipartisan" tours focus on the impact the now-president had on the casino scene -- warts and all
Like it or not, one man who’s left an indelible mark on Atlantic City is Donald Trump
From his time operating Trump’s World’s Fair, to Harrah’s at Trump Plaza (eventually becoming Trump Plaza before 1984’s end) to Trump Taj Mahal, to Trump Castle, to Trump Marina Hotel Casino (now, the Golden Nugget), he’s been a part of AC’s firmament nearly since gambling began there. “Atlantic City fueled a lot of growth for me,” Trump told The New York Times in 2016. “The money I took out of there was incredible.”
Along with bankrupting his casinos (yet earning big bucks), Trump reportedly screwed over countless contractors and subcontractors. He fought with Vera Coking over trying to use eminent domain to buy her South Columbia Place homestead for limousine parking. Good times, right?
Skeletons aside, Trump also left behind some good bones. “This building not only had great bones but its two towers — from hotel rooms to the way the arena’s front opens onto the casino floor — was extraordinarily designed; a truly contemporary feel, even now,” said President of Hard Rock AC Matt Harkness, who helped open the Taj in 1990, and bought it 2017 for his new gig.
One man who’s captured the Trump zeitgeist is Levi Fox, with his Donald Trump Gambling Heritage Tour, and, as of Aug. 5, the Pop-Up Trump Museum in front of what used to be Trump Plaza.
As part of an ongoing historical and sociological study of all-things-Donald, Fox’s “bipartisan, rather than nonpartisan” look at our president is seeking additional artifacts and stories about Trump and his casinos from anyone part of that go-go quarter-century (those who wish to donate can visit trumpmuseum.org). Along with the pop-up, Fox is seeking a permanent home or a regular space for his towering Trump totems.
“I was impressed by the number of people who were interested and receptive to the information, and to its ultimate goals,” said Fox, in relation to last week’s test run of the Trump Museum.
Having run his Trump tours since 2016, Fox got his start giving tours of AC attractions such as Lucy the Elephant and candy factory tours at the James production facility.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. “Had he only chosen Chris Christie as his running mate, that tour would’ve written itself,” he said.
Fox first tried to define a space for conversation and observation about the then-president-elect’s Atlantic City era. “What we could learn from that time in AC would be important to the rest of the world now,” said Fox.
Fox knew some would find a Trump Museum to be a shrine and others would see it as a slam palace. It is neither; Fox says that like all museums, it is history and documentation that comes before all: This is the story of casino Atlantic City, warts and all.
“That’s why I made up a two-sided sign, where one says ‘The Pop-Up Trump Museum’ while the other says the ‘Anti-Trump Museum.’ Objects found in the museum are evidence in which to tell different stories. Some items are not flattering, especially considering that locals had negative interaction with Trump or the Trump Organization.”
That Jersey Shore story — “small business owners who didn’t get paid fully for work completed” as well as “those who remember that Trump moment positively, especially the 1990s” — takes the Trump story beyond the glitz others throughout the U.S. associate with the businessman-turned-television-star-turned-president: “My museum is a way of rebalancing the narrative.”
Along with a tactile element to his museum (“in an era of fake news, the tangibility of permanent tags and stamps is crucial”), Fox has found so many of the objects in his exhibit — donated or purchased by Fox via eBay or auctions — were produced outside the country. Whether from Latin America, China or India, that gives his collection deeper context when considering the Trump’s trade and tariff battles.
“That’s useful for people to understand,” said Fox. He recently found Trump hats made in Bangladesh, and unpacked a new exhibit: a Trump casino T-shirt made in El Salvador. "Where local history intersects with national policy is what makes the Pop-Up Museum a living, breathing, interactive exhibition. Anything that gets to the heart of current issues, but allows us to use the material culture and the local history to shed light on — those objects matter to me. It’s your history as much as Trump’s.”
Here is just a sampling some of the items to be found at Levi Fox’s Pop Up Trump Museum
* a bathrobe from the Trump Taj Mahal
* a purple Trump Marina duffle bag (“Handy for me to tote other museum items in”) made in Sri Lanka
* a shirt from Trump’s birthday bash at the Taj
* a promotional camera from Trump Castle
*a Trump Taj canvas bag “proudly made in the U.S.A. by union labor… to be fair.”
* a painting from a local AC woman that captures the vista of the Trump Castle and the Marina and other Trump architecture. “It’s all in that one image. She actually tried to give t to Trump, but he wasn’t there, they never heard back, and she was disappointed. It is an honest local reflection on that era – an Atlantic City native’s personal narrative.”