A Painter’s Reflection on Atlantic City
Atlantic City is a coastal town that began thriving in the late 1800s, arguably the progenitor for American resort-style vacationing. The 1960s saw a steep decline into misuse, poverty and crime, but a referendum in 1976 passed successfully to legalize gambling, fueling a tourist boom, though many say the gaming focus only served to intensify the economic imbalance between tourist zones and poor adjacent working-class areas. Donald Trump promoted the entertainment sector through big-name boxing, and by the end of the 1980s the city was flourishing as one of the hottest tourist spots in America. Since the 1990s, Las Vegas’ grip on casino tourism, changing tourist demands, and a failure to diversify away from gaming have caused significant economic challenges for Atlantic City, including the closure of several major casinos, including Trump Plaza (2014) and Trump Taj Mahal (2016). Many residences in the streets closest to the casinos are in disrepair, and low-rent stacks became cites infamous for drug use and prostitution. In the last few years, promising new community initiatives have sprouted, shifting the identity of the city away from gaming, and a string of fresh business has opened in the last few months—Hayday Coffee, MADE Chocolate, Little Water Distillery. These newcomers add modern sway to a culturally diverse constellation of longtime local establishments; Kelsey’s soul food, Tony’s Baltimore Grill, a swathe of the best Vietnamese eateries on the East Coast. And the Atlantic City Arts Foundation are programming an ongoing calendar of events that involve and inspire local residents to integrate art into life—48 Blocks, Arteriors, Chalk about AC. In a world less entranced by the flashy branding of big-bucks enterprise, it is community services like these which will re-establish Atlantic City as a place not simply to visit, but to live.
These portraits are of Zack Katzen, a lifetime resident of South Jersey, who has experienced the ebbs and flows of this area. Zack worked in car sales for two decades but after giving ongoing volunteer efforts as the Program Director of the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, recently decided to uproot his career to find work in the community arts sector. Zack is a pioneering advocate of medical marijuana, and organizer of skateboard and arts infrastructure projects.
Mark Chu is an Australian painter whose work focuses on human faces, employing abstraction and unrealistic use of color. Chu moved to New York City in 2013 where he completed a fiction MFA at Columbia University, and last year, has shown paintings in Shanghai, Melbourne, New York and Amsterdam and Atlantic City. Chu has contributed public art to Atlantic City, will feature in a group show there later in November, and endeavors to continue understanding the area, which he sees as particularly revealing of America’s experiences of globalization.