ATLANTIC CITY — Leaders of the city’s NAACP chapter do not care how you vote, they just want to see you at the polls.
They say the right to vote was hard won and is constantly endangered, through gerrymandering or other tactics, and therefore should be used. It represents a buying-in to the community’s future. And ongoing projects to educate and register residents, they say, take on new significance during Black History Month.
“Voting rights and black history … they go hand in hand. They’re in tandem with one another,” said Yolanda Melville, a local attorney and the legal redress chairwoman for the chapter.
Voting is considered one of the primary drivers of change by the NAACP, yet registration among blacks still lags that of their white counterparts, both nationally and in New Jersey, census data show. Black turnout among millennial voters dropped nearly five percentage points, to 50.6 percent, between 2012-16.
Charles Goodman wants to change that, starting at the root. He has been involved with the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP, which has about 200 members and is nonpartisan, since he was in junior high, when he joined the organization’s youth council.
Now 69 and the chapter’s political action chairman, he’s bringing the importance of voting to the city’s young people.
His “Our Vote, Our Voice” registration drives have been held at local high schools for the past few years. They include mock voting on borrowed machines and a reminder that — should they be 18 when the election happens — students can even vote for their school board and have a say in the policies they live under. And this year, for the primary and the general elections, he’ll accompany some students to their polling place.
“It’s obviously different when you go to the actual polls, see other people voting, adults voting,” Goodman said. “You have the same power that other person has who might be 60 years old. You have that power.”
In the 2017 mayoral election, winner Frank Gilliam and then-incumbent Don Guardian combined for a total of 7,044 votes. In a city with about 28,800 residents over the age of 18, according to census data, those results suggest only about a quarter of eligible voters took part in the local election. This largely squares with national trends, according to a study by University of Wisconsin researchers.
The local NAACP chapter wants those numbers higher. They organize reminder calls to eligible voters, door-knocking campaigns, election forums and debates, and registration drives, all in an effort to emphasize to residents that voting gives you a say in the type of community you live in and whether your representatives reflect your beliefs.
“You just have to … encourage people to see the connection between electing people and their daily life,” said Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, the chapter’s president. “Obviously, the data (show) cynicism with government, people turned off, people disillusioned. … The question is will you participate and help the system better reflect what you’re doing.”
There are factors that make it tough for some to participate, they acknowledge. Atlantic City and New Jersey residents are lucky, they say, compared to voters in states like North Carolina that have been criticized as seeking to disenfranchise black communities. Still, tight registration deadlines and midweek elections are fixable roadblocks that keep many from voting, they say. They’re in favor of proposed changes like allowing former inmates to vote and same-day registration.
But for now, they make do with what they have. Among their efforts are old-fashioned, shoe-leather door-knocking campaigns. The chapter gathers eligible voter data from wards in the resort, Goodman said, and uses them to approach residents in an attempt to get them on the voter rolls.
“You might see a household (with) five people, and only one person is registered,” Goodman said. “You might just see a household with three or four people, and nobody’s registered.”
That has implications beyond two or three wasted votes, Goodman said.
“Until we get people out to vote, we’re not going to be taken serious,” he said. “But when we do, and when we effect the change — we have the percentages to effect the change — then we’re taken serious.”
The chapter is partnering with the League of Women Voters and Stockton University’s NAACP chapter to put on a voter education forum at the college’s Atlantic City campus later this month. Melville and Shabazz are among those who will speak in the Fannie Lou Hamer event room, named for the civil rights icon who, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, uttered her most famous words: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Melville feels much the same way. Many of the battles civil rights leaders of the 1960s fought are still underway today, she said. The Stockton forum will focus on redistricting. With the 2020 census not far off, how those data are used to draw district lines that isolate or wash out minority voting blocs will again come to the forefront, she said.
In all of their voting projects, it seems the chapter’s chief nemesis is apathy.
“That’s basically our message: that the system of government works whether you participate or not,” Shabazz said. “And it affects you whether you participate or not.”
Atlantic City has made progress in recent years to diversify its offerings.
But weather may be one of the largest reasons the city lives in Las Vegas’ shadow.
“Atlantic City is a resort with gaming, entertainment, retail and a natural resource. Temperatures restrict that resource for six months of the year,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University. “It’s very apparent that the business of Atlantic City can get dramatically impacted by the changes in weather. If you’re getting a storm tomorrow, the occupancies will dramatically drop.”
While weather and coastal location are one of Atlantic City’s greatest strengths, they also are one of its greatest weaknesses, said Michael Chait, executive vice president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.
According to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, hotel occupancy peaked during the third quarter of 2017 — July, August and September. Atlantic City’s rate was six points higher than Las Vegas’.
“Summer brings the ability to stay outside longer for us,” said Steve Sereditch, 35, of West Chester, Pennsylvania. Sereditch, his wife, Lori, and his two children visit Atlantic City regularly throughout the year.
The average high temperatures during June, July and August are 75.7, 81.3 and 80.2 degrees, respectively. Summer evenings fall into the 70s, with overnight lows in the mid to upper 60s on average.
In Las Vegas, average high temperatures rise above 90 degrees May 21 and don’t decrease until Sept. 26. The average high temperature in July is 104.2 degrees, with a heat index of 100.
“Summer’s a little slow here because it’s so hot,” said David Schwartz, associate vice provost of faculty affairs at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
The busy convention calendar in Las Vegas helps shield itself from other downturns during the year.
“Visitors to Las Vegas are specifically coming because they plan on being indoors,” Pandit said.
Some visitors who travel to both Atlantic City and Las Vegas agree.
“My experiences tell me that very few people go to Vegas with an idea to go outside at all, other than traveling between casinos and hotels,” said Jeff Behm, 60, of Belle Mead, Somerset County.
When Labor Day passes, temperatures remain warm in South Jersey until October brings the first hints of icy air. November brings the potential for snow, and the sun sets before 5 p.m. The coldest third of the year begins Nov. 24. The Boardwalk thins out as frosty northerly winds become more common along the ocean.
In the fourth quarter — October, November and December — hotel occupancy rates in 2017 were 80 percent in Atlantic City, four points lower than Las Vegas.
Moving forward into the nor’easter season of January, February and March, the disparity only grew in 2017. Atlantic City filled 81 percent of hotel rooms during those months, while Las Vegas filled nearly 88 percent.
According to the 2013 AC Visitor Profile study, 32 percent of people plan their trip to Atlantic City within a week of their visit, when weather forecasts carry a degree of accuracy; 58 percent stay for only one or two days.
Meanwhile, Schwartz said the majority of Las Vegas visitors fly into the city, staying for three or more nights. Weather is not as much of an influencing factor. Las Vegas averages only 88 hours of precipitation per year, less than four times the amount Atlantic City sees.
At the same time, “There’s more to do inside than outside in Las Vegas. You can’t go running on the boardwalk in Vegas,” Schwartz said.
“Las Vegas is specifically for people who are coming because they plan to be indoors. In Atlantic City, you’re forced to be indoors (during the winter),” Pandit said.
As Atlantic City continues to expand its indoor offerings, the goal is for visitors to remain consistent year-round.
“If it was February and in the 70s, we could see an equally dramatic rise in hotel occupancy rates,” Pandit said.
ATLANTIC CITY — The team of city code enforcement officials met up at North New Jersey and Magellan avenues shortly after 10 a.m.
After being briefed on the specific areas of Bungalow Park they each would be responsible for that day, the six inspectors parted ways.
The walk-throughs are part of an effort to update Atlantic City’s 2016 list of more than 500 abandoned properties. The city has 12 compliance officers to cover 11 densely populated square miles.
In the coming months, the city will do a walk-through in every ward.
Armed with a clipboard and a cellphone, code enforcement officer Clint Walden went directly to Connecticut and Melrose avenues, an area with which the city native is all too familiar.
A vacant building on the corner, which was once home to Friendship Outreach Deliverance Ministries, was Walden’s first stop.
From the street, he pointed up through a second-story window toward the structure’s ceiling. Or rather, where the ceiling should have been.
The clear blue sky and its puffy white clouds could easily be seen through a hole in the ceiling.
“The city is going to take them down,” Walden said of the property at 302 N. Connecticut Ave. and the neighboring building at 308. “They’re scheduled for demolition, probably in the next three or four weeks.”
Walden and the team of code enforcement officials were taking part in a regular practice of cataloging the city’s housing stock, looking for vacant or abandoned properties and documenting others with clear violations. The intent is to determine properties for demolition or those that could be rehabilitated or refurbished.
On his clipboard, Walden meticulously worked through an abandoned-property checklist.
He and the other code enforcement officials combing through Bungalow Park that morning were looking for disconnected electric and gas meters, boarded up windows and doors, whether the exterior was in a state of disrepair and other signs of neglect.
During Walden’s walk-through of the neighborhood, several residents — some he knew personally, others strangers — stopped him to offer their observations of properties in need of attention.
“The city has been working diligently to get money for demolitions outside of the Tourism District,” he said. “Bungalow Park is an area and a community that is concerned about blighted conditions.”
Elaine Jones, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, said it was sad to see a once thriving, working-class community being tarnished by blight.
“It’s sad because the homes have history, they have families,” she said. “This neighborhood is still a big family.”
Jones, 59, said the neglected properties “tear down the fabric” of the neighborhood, bringing down property values and contributing to concerns about safety.
But Jones, who several times during an interview on the street corner stopped to say hello to a passerby or wave to a friendly face, said she loves Bungalow Park and refuses to give up on it. She said the civic association was doing the work to restore Bungalow Park to its former glory, with the continued assistance of City Hall.
“This is a great place to be, so we want to keep our neighborhood vibrant. But don’t tell anybody, because we’re not accepting anybody new,” she said with a smile.