Situated in New Jersey, Atlantic City is part of one of the original 13 states in the Union. That’s only the beginning of the two cities’ many distinctions.
It’s unfair to compare two cities and say one is better than the other. Residents of the supposed better city may not appreciate unrealistic expectations and residents of the supposed worse city may feel slighted.
It’s also about perspective. All the shark tanks in Nevada won’t give you an oceanside resort experience the way Atlantic City can.
I’ll look at some of the negative experiences for both cities below but both cities have their strengths. And both cities have interesting unique histories.
1 – New Jersey Is Nothing Like Nevada
The most obvious difference everyone mentions when comparing these two cities is the environment. Nevada is mostly desert and New Jersey sits on the north Atlantic coast. One environment is wet and the other is dry.
But there are other differences.
New Jersey is not surrounded by other states the way Nevada is. In fact, New Jersey sits off a major route (Interstate 95) whereas Nevada is the nexus of major routes. In the east most travelers bypass New Jersey but in the west a lot of people must pass through Nevada.
Although tourism is important to Atlantic City it’s not the state’s main industry. Nevada, on the other hand, thrives on tourism and more specifically, the casinos in Las Vegas are widely recognized by many. Ironically Atlantic City was established for tourism but Las Vegas was established for other reasons.
Two states could not be more dissimilar than New Jersey and Nevada. And yet both states are famous for being gambling or tourist destinations.
2 – Atlantic City Has Only 9 Casinos
Gamblers can easily find dozens of casinos in the northeastern United States but there are only 10 casinos left in Atlantic City. There were never very many to begin with but some spectacular failures have left Atlantic City’s gambling and tourism industries in decline.
Las Vegas has nearly 30 casinos within its city limits and there are dozens more in nearby cities.
3 – Most “Las Vegas Casinos” are in Paradise
Travelers don’t care but most of them don’t realize that Paradise is a separate city from Las Vegas. The two cities abut each other.
Paradise is the smaller city by population but it’s still several times larger than Atlantic City. And unlike Las Vegas Atlantic City doesn’t have a close gambling neighbor city.
If there is a gambler’s paradise it is almost certainly Paradise, NV.
4 – Atlantic City Has Reinvented Itself Several Times
Las Vegas’ history is full of changes but the city has thrived because it was built in an important location. The name is Spanish for “the meadows” and several attempts were made to establish a community in the area during the 1800s.
Once Las Vegas was fully established the city grew steadily over time. It helped a great deal when the government built Hoover Dam and created Lake Mead.
By contrast Atlantic City was built on old farmland and originally envisioned as a health resort. But the town languished for many years. A rail line running east from Philadelphia helped Atlantic City establish itself as a tourist destination but the great storms of the Atlantic Ocean wreaked havoc with the Boardwalk.
And unfortunately for Atlantic City the entertainment industry never recovered after the First World War.
Las Vegas was luckier. When the U.S. government chose southeast Nevada to build Hoover dam thousands of workers descended upon Las Vegas. Although the government decided to construct a small city closer to the dam site it would be several years before Boulder City was in full operation. Las Vegas benefited from the influx.
Atlantic City struggled economically for several decades until the 1970s. When it became apparent that real money gambling would spread across the nation via Native American reservations Atlantic City residents lobbied for their own gambling industry.
The casinos helped the center enter a new era of development but they were unable to create a Mecca-like reputation for New Jersey the way casinos had for Nevada. When the Great Recession hit the gambling industry was hit hard across the country and Atlantic City went into decline again.
In recent years Atlantic City has sought to attract new industries, investing in a massive healthcare complex. If people won’t flock to the city for fun maybe they will come for their health.
5 – Both Cities Provide Access to Other Entertainment
Las Vegas is located close to the Grand Canyon. Tourists enjoy many different types of daytrips outside the Las Vegas-Paradise metro area. The desert itself attracts many visitors.
Because Atlantic City sits on an island off the Jersey coast it has easy access to the sea. Visitors can rent charter boats and board cruise ships. Dolphin watching is popular among visitors to Atlantic.
Las Vegas may have one advantage over Atlantic City and that is the weather. Atlantic City tourism is a summer industry because the oceanfront is very cold during the winter. Las Vegas also experiences a peak season in the summer but people visit there all year round.
6 – Atlantic City Struggles with a Negative Visitor Perception
It may not be an entirely unearned negative reputation. Any city that loses a significant portion of its economy loses tax revenue. That means maintenance and urban improvement suffer. Atlantic City has worked hard to overcome these setbacks.
Even so some tourists complain that Atlantic City looks dirtier and more rundown than Las Vegas. Eastern cities in general have struggled with a stereotype that paints them as slum-laden, crime-infested reputation. The movies play up to that stereotype.
Maybe the reason why Atlantic City is viewed more negatively is that you’re most likely to hear complaints about Las Vegas from its residents, whereas Atlantic City is usually rated poorly by visitors. Two different perspectives are responsible for the reputations of these cities.
But Las Vegas residents often talk about alternatives to spending time on the Strip.
They’re just two very different cities. Some tourists compare Atlantic City to Vegas without looking at the other things people can do in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Vegas residents take the gambling for granted and Atlantic City visitors don’t look beyond the city limits for what else is nearby.
There is clearly more money available to the Las Vegas economy and that inflow of capital gives the community and advantage in development and services.
7 – Both Cities Have Histories of Mob Activity
Las Vegas celebrates its history with organized crime. Atlantic City is not quite so proud of what went down before.
You may not realize this, but Atlantic City is where America’s first national crime syndicate was formed. Gang leaders from across the country convened for four days in May 1929 to settle their differences and work out the rules for how they would run the country’s illegal businesses.
Prohibition was coming to an end and the gangs would soon be put out of the beer business by licensed breweries. They realized they needed to change their business models, and they were tired of fighting with each other.
Of course anyone who has studied crime history knows that some of the mob began investing in gambling operations and eventually a lot of that money poured into Las Vegas.
What may be of greater interest to crime historians is that Atlantic City’s casinos were never owned by the mob. Las Vegas was infamous for its mob-casino connections until Howard Hughes arrived in the 1960s and began buying up real estate.
Gambling is now big business in both cities and it’s held accountable by publicly traded corporations operating within the law.
Atlantic City and Las Vegas may not be official sister cities but they could be. They share similar economic and historical patterns. And like it or not they are connected through their historical connections with organized crime.
Las Vegas may have won the casino wars but Atlantic City will always have a place in the annals of gambling history. And hopefully it will have a bright, interesting future in whatever industries it attracts.