Belief in Atlantic City pays off as local businesses anticipate NAACP convention

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stories of Atlantic City and Front Runner New Jersey are partners in providing restorative narrative stories. SOAC is a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. Stories of Atlantic City is supported by Stockton University with funding from Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the NJ Local News Lab Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. More information about SOAC can be found at https://storiesofatlanticcity.com

Above photo: Richard Smith, 2L, New Jersey State NAACP president; Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, Sr. 3L; Gov. Phil Murphy, C, Atlantic City NAACP President Kaleem Shabazz, FR, join others for celebratory photo after Atlantic City was awarded the NAACP national convention for 2022 on Feb. 15. Photo courtesy Gov. Phil Murphy’s Office.

By Clyde Hughes |AC JosepH Media

NAACP Atlantic City Branch President Kaleem Shabazz sat in a crowded ballroom inside the Marriott Marquis in New York City’s Times Square this past February, waiting for an answer.

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small waited with him for the same answer as well. Even New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy waited with them. They all waited for an answer that could cement Atlantic City’s comeback.

When the votes were tallied, it was unanimous – the national board of the NAACP granted its 2022 convention to Atlantic City. The announcement came with boisterous applause, hugs and handshakes all around. 

Small took to the podium and told his audience, made up of NAACP delegates from around the country, why he loves Atlantic City and why they will love it, too. It was an impressive feat for the historically underrepresented New Jersey resort town, competing against cities more than four times its size. 

Shabazz, who represents the Third Ward on the City of Atlantic City’s city council, and Small, who represented the Second Ward before becoming mayor, are true believers in the town. Shabazz and Small never flinched about stepping in front of the NAACP to make their pitch for the beach and casino resort.

Atlantic City councilman and AC NAACP President Kaleem Shabazz

While Atlantic City attracts its fair share of convention business, the NAACP convention is special. It is a regular speaking stop for U.S. presidents, the nation’s highest-ranking public officials, country’s top business titans and most influential civil rights leaders in the nation. Because of that, the convention – and the host city – often dominates the national news media cycle for the week it is held every summer. A mayor, city councilman or governor couldn’t ask for a brighter spotlight.

Paid for by Thelma Witherspoon 2020

The challenge for Small, Shabazz and Murphy will be which version of Atlantic City will gain the spotlight. Will it be the one that made national headlines for closed casinos and having a sitting mayor (former Mayor Frank Gilliam in 2019) being arrested on federal fraud charges? Or will the Atlantic City that has fought those perceptions, ushered in two new casinos in the past who years with developers targeting it for a major waterpark shine through?

Atlantic City once held the NAACP convention in 1968, but so much has changed since then. In 2014, the casino industry collapsed. The casino graveyard can still be seen in parts of town – The Atlantic Club and Trump Plaza both closing that year. Trump Taj Mahal shut down in 2016. The Showboat closed its casino but kept its hotel running. The Revel, the $2.4 billion bet placed on Atlantic City in 2012, closed two years later.

With the surge of casinos in Philadelphia and others in Pennsylvania, Atlantic City’s gambling revenue <a href=”http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p><a href=”https://www.mvplawoffice.com/atlantic-city-a-crumbling-gambling-empire-with-high-crime-rates/”>Atlantic City – Crumbling Gambling Empire & High Crime | Portella</a></p> took a freefall from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.86 billion in 2013.

The final blow to Atlantic City’s psyche came in 2016 when former Gov. Chris Christie announced a state takeover of the city’s finances as the city teetered on bankruptcy.

At about the same time, Small, a tall, burly man who commands attention whenever he walks into a room, became the council president. Small talked about those tough times with the confidence in his voice that belies a determined basketball coach. Small remained nearby Stockton University men’s basketball all-time leading rebounder during his playing days from 1993-1997.

“When I first became council president, they started talking about the state takeover and negotiations,” Small said. “People said to me, ‘Man, you wanted to be council president. It looks like you’re getting it at the worst time.’ I said I’m getting it at the best time. I love a challenge and I will fight the good fight on behalf of Atlantic City. That’s just my make up.”

Mayor Marty Small. Photo courtesy of Marty Small campaign

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is Atlantic City. While some focus on past political corruption and the city’s crime rate, one of the highest in the state, others continue to see hope and the beauty of the city beneath its scars. For them, they see Atlantic City’s resilience, its elasticity and its stubborn ability to remake itself against the odds.

Changing One Haircut at a Time

Barber Dooney Nellom knows all too well about makeovers, a sense that comes from more than cutting hair as one of Atlantic City’s most popular hairstylists. Nellom, fondly nicknamed “The Surgeon” by clients, never lost faith in Atlantic City – or himself, even through some of the darkest times. 

Barber Dooney Nellom with customer at his Atlantic Avenue barbershop. Photo by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

When Atlantic City’s gambling problems started in the early 2000s, Nellom was a street hustler who found himself on the wrong side of the law. After four years in state prison, he was determined to turn his life around.

With hair clippers he purchased off the streets, he perfected his hair cutting craft while doing time. Today, his Just Cuttin Up Barber Shop and Salon is one of the go-to stops for young Atlantic City men with six other barbers on staff. Things are so busy he opens seven days a week to keep servicing his clientele.

The beats of his own story, one of determination and strength, echoes the story of the city.

“If I can do it, anybody can do it,” said Nellom, cutting hair on a recent Sunday at his job. An NFL game blared on a big-screen television at the far end of the barbershop. “I’ve been out of jail for 11 years. I’m not planning on going back. There are a lot of obstacles for people who are getting out.

“No lawyer, no judge can tell you how hard it is until you’ve lived it,” said Nellom, admitting that he had experienced his own struggles and relapses since being out. “You have to be strong mentally to overcome your obstacles, to make a better path for you and your family.”

Nellom said he has seen his hometown at its lowest and how the people of Atlantic City have fought to keep it going.

“I’m telling you, Atlantic City is up and coming,” Nellom said. “There’s money here. We’re trying to build it back up. The only thing is that they need to build more things for the people who live here and not just for the people coming from out-of-town.

“They’re trying to get Atlantic City to back to where it was, but it’s going to hard. There are a lot of people not working right now. A lot of construction workers are out of the job. People have to be patient and take it one day at a time.”

He said that, in 2022, the NAACP will see a city led by African Americans working to bring the city back to life. But the NAACP  needs to reach into the community and make sure they are a part of the convention so everyone can benefit, Nellom added. 

Something for ‘Us’

Kelsey Jackson’s dream was to open up a restaurant not just for casino-loving tourists, but the community as well. Jackson and his wife Kimberly are the co-owners of Kelsey’s on Pacific Avenue, a block away from the Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk, and Kelsey and Kim’s Southern Café on Melrose Avenue.

Kelsey Jackson at the Pacific Avenue restaurant he owns with his wife, a block away from Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk.

Jackson’s mother worked for years as a coat checker at the Resorts Hotel and Casino, not far from where his signature Kelsey’s sits now. Her memory is what drives his ambition to do something special in his hometown. On one Saturday night in September, despite the coronavirus restrictions, patrons formed a line nearly a block long to order some of Jackson’s soul food. 

Jackson, who talks fondly of the once historic Kentucky Avenue entertainment district Black citizens once dominated before being torn down, said he wanted his restaurant to be a signature place for those living and coming to visit Atlantic City.

The Food Network’s popular “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” helped that dream become a reality in 2015 when celebrity chef Guy Fieri bounced into town to feature Kelsey’s on the nationally televised show.

“People from around the country still come in and want to take pictures with me because of that,” said Jackson, now a local celebrity chef. “It’s all been a blessing. Some people think it’s all about the money, but it’s also about putting a smile on people’s faces. I want to make people feel good about coming here.

“When people talk about Atlantic City’s great restaurants, they talk about the White House sub shop, Dock’s Oyster House, the Knife and Fork. My dream one day was, and continues to be, to have them talk about Kelsey’s in the same breath,” he said.

Jackson’s ride to success, much like the city’s, has been a bumpy one. One of Jackson’s popular restaurants in Pleasantville burned to the ground. His wife urged Jackson to close Kelsey’s during Atlantic City’s great casino downturn, but he said he just had a gut feeling Atlantic City would make it way back.

Then, the numbers started to return and the Ocean Casino Resort and the Hard Rock opened in 2018, and things appeared on the rise again.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit this year.

“I thought we had just overcome the city’s big shutdown with the casinos but now we got this,” Jackson said of his restaurants, which were closed for months before reopening this summer. Kelsey and Kim’s, for the time being, offers just takeout and live music has not yet returned at Kelsey’s.

Yet, the traffic at both locations has been steady, if not downright heavy at times. Kelsey’s is closed on Tuesday, but there is plenty going on. Employees are cooking, cutting and creating soul food that keeps the popular restaurant running like clockwork when the doors open again on Wednesday.

Jackson said he hopes the NAACP convention will dispel some of the preconceived notions about Atlantic City to the point that it raises its tourism profile again.

“There’s so much negativity about Atlantic City,” Jackson bemoaned. “There’s no more crime in Atlantic City than anywhere else. To me, it’s safe to come to Atlantic City. You don’t fear for your life walking down Pacific Avenue or the Boardwalk or Atlantic Avenue. It’s not that serious.”

He said Kelsey’s and Atlantic City will be ready to roll out the red carpet when the NAACP arrives and show a different side of the city than what has made headlines.

Jamez King El has long worried about the image of Atlantic City. He and his wife run the Internet radio station and media platform VIBE 609. He and his wife, Aura Bey, are at the grassroots level of Atlantic City neighborhoods and communities. King El said it is his passion to tell the story of the good things happening in Atlantic City block-by-block.

Jamez King El (L) of Vibe 609 Radio with Clyde Hughes, of Front Runner New Jersey.com, Eric Muhammad and King Salaam.

“The idea for the radio station came from looking at the media. Every story I saw about Atlantic City surrounded something negative going on and nothing but negativity about its people – our people. I’m on these streets every day and I knew there were a lot of good stories out there. By being independent, we knew we could make sure those positive stories got covered.”

King El was born in Philadelphia but said he’s the next best thing to being a native, moving to Atlantic City with his family while in elementary school and never leaving. He initially stayed to care for his mother, who worked for Bally’s Park Place, now Bally’s, for years. 

King El helped form Black Men United, which feeds the homeless in the city. He started to notice most of the people Black Men United were helping were from locations other than Atlantic City.

“From what I can see, a lot of the problems in Atlantic City have been thrust upon us,” King El said. “I know just about everyone here, but I kept seeing faces I had never seen before. We still feed them because they are people, too, of course, but it seems that a lot of these problems have been forced upon us.”

When it comes to the NAACP convention, King El said it is up to the people to demand they be a part of the gathering instead of waiting to be invited. He said the convention should be a boon for everyone in the city, regardless of their job and what end of town they live in. 

“We can’t keep complaining about what’s going on,” King El said. “We have to do something about it. The NAACP should be more like the [Anti-Defamation League] and stand up for its people. We have to clean up our house first. For me, I know I will be lighting a fire to make them do the right thing to us involved.”

The NAACP convention has the opportunity to affect Atlantic City at its very roots: the individuals like taxicab and Jitney drivers, clerks, waitresses and shopkeepers, all of whom keep the city running. Manny Mathioudakis, president of the Atlantic City Jitney Association, said he is excited to hear about the NAACP national convention coming to town.

“We’re still struggling to make a living out here, but we’re trying hard,” Mathioudakis said. “We were really hit hard when the casinos closed [in 2014]. We were not serving just tourists, but employees as well. Three or four casinos closing took away about 15,000 people a day from us.

“Some things are getting better. We’re starting to see more businesses and more employees. I didn’t know about the NAACP convention but I’m very excited to hear about it coming. It’s the right thing to do and it’s going to be good for Atlantic City. It’s going to be good for everyone.”

Along the Boardwalk, Frederick Isaac, 57, who has been working along the strip since he was 14, starting with heavy porter work, expressed his love for the city. For the past six years, he has been a driver for Boardwalk Tram Service.

Atlantic City Tram Driver Frederick Isaac said he has seen it all. Photo courtesy of Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

“Atlantic City is my heart. That’s why I keep coming back,” Isaac said in front of the Tropicana Atlantic City, his last stop on his Boardwalk trolley route, or his first, depending on the passenger’s perspective.

The way Isaac saw it, Atlantic City was just fine until gambling facilities spread to New York and Pennsylvania. He also has noticed the city’s resilience and some people leaving those New York and Pennsylvania casinos to come back to Atlantic City.

“It had died down a little bit, but it’s been good,” Isaac said. “I still get people who get onto my tram who say there’s a casino 15 to 20 minutes away from them, but they would rather come here. That helps out a whole lot.”

Looking over the weekend Boardwalk crowd, Isaac pointed to spots where artists used to set up shop along with other vendors.

“They need to bring some of those things back,” Isaac said. “Back in the day, you used to be able to get your portrait or caricatures. It was more of a family atmosphere on the Boardwalk. I think people would enjoy that if they brought it back.”

Isaac said he thinks NAACP convention attendees will find it surprising how much they like Atlantic City once they arrive.

“Image-wise, I think it will help out a lot,” Isaac said as he prepared to take his next round of socially distanced passengers north up the Boardwalk. “Everything is going well, and the NAACP will be more than welcome here. Just tell them to come to my tram.”

If Atlantic City and NAACP plan to make the most of the 2022, they will have to strike a chord with young people like Arabia Crawford. The 22-year-old native is a sophomore at Atlantic Cape Community College and plans to get her degree in human services.

Arabia Crawford, R, is one of the talented young Atlantic City natives the city hopes to keep. Photo provided by Arabia Crawford

She is also participating in the NAACP’s NextGen program. NextGen is a selective yearlong national leadership program for individuals ages 21 to 40, providing participants with comprehensive leadership and advocacy training to become tomorrow’s next civil rights leaders.

Crawford said she stayed in Atlantic City because of her grandmother, who is in declining health. She grew up with a single mother who struggled to raise her, at times depending upon the unreliable welfare system. Crawford said she has come to appreciate the positive people and diverse vibrance of Atlantic City. 

“You can find any individual face of any particular race within Atlantic City,” Crawford said. “The fact that we have numerous restaurants and community centers dedicated to all the people who live in this town allows tourists and citizens to be open to a mindset of cultural pluralism, which by definition is the celebrating of different cultures instead of focusing only on their own cultural background.”

Crawford readily admits that Atlantic City faces its challenges. As a young African American woman, she found living in the city difficult at times, as she was often surrounded by extreme poverty and people struggling with mental health issues on the streets while living in the Marina District. 

“It sometimes would leave me feeling scared and upset to have to see people struggling to receive the proper services that they need,” Crawford said. “Sometimes I would see violent acts towards my classmates and other people who were around my age and sometimes I was even the victim of violence in my area.” 

Despite the challenges, Crawford said she was thrilled to see Atlantic City win such a momentous achievement from the national committee to host its convention.

“It solidifies Atlantic City’s name and its importance to civil right movements, both past and present,” Crawford said. “We are not all just about casinos. We have a voice to contribute, we’re engaged with civil rights and politics as well. Most citizens of Atlantic City are already advocating for the city by participating in town halls and city council meetings. In those meetings, they share their opinions on what we can do to make our town better for our citizens.”

While the convention will shine a glaring light on Atlantic City in 2022, Crawford said she wants the local African American community to look just as hard at the NAACP, its history and what it continues to mean to people around the country and world.

“What I hope African Americans in Atlantic City will get from the upcoming convention is an inspiration to do better in their lives and to be able to see that success is achievable,” Crawford said. “I hope it puts Atlantic City on the map and showcases its strength, the endurance it has to survive strong against the negative judgment that people have against Atlantic City. I see my city as resilient. I have seen this city overcome major hurdles both financially and politically.”

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small has been part of helping the city overcome its latest challenges, which are numerous. Small took over as mayor last October when Gilliam, a man he narrowly lost to in the Democratic primary the election before, was forced to resign. 

He then had to usher Atlantic City through the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, leaving casinos in the dark. Then, with civil rights protests popping up around the country, the city suffered an embarrassing riot that damaged retail stores at the high-traffic tourist destination The Walk. Small called it, at the time, “Atlantic City at its worst.” All of this happened in the middle of an election campaign to win the mayoral seat for the rest of Gilliam’s term.

Instead of spending time pointing fingers, Small quickly gathered some 300 volunteers together the next day to sweep up broken glass and repair any damage in an effort to help the city move forward. He said the swift response to the riot is part of his commitment to making things right.

“People have long counted us out,” Small said. “Now we stand today as a fiscally sound city. Our finances are strong despite of COVID-19. We had a tax decrease this year and we’re projecting right now three straight years of tax decreases. People can argue about it, but we are a comeback story. We always reinvent ourselves. When people count us out, we come back stronger.”

Even when things strike him personally, Small said he always tries to see what he can do to improve the situation. One of Small’s best friends, Demond Tally, was shot and killed while walking home in 2019, shortly after leaving the mayor’s home. Tally had lost his 21-year-old son to gun violence in Atlantic City in 2016.

The death affected Small personally.

“I’ll never forget that night,” Small said. “It’s been hurtful not to have one of my best friends here, but he was one of my chief political allies. It reminds me every day we have to be proactive when it comes to crime in the city. We’re not going to shy away from keeping people safe and doing what we need to do – and we will do what we have to. It won’t be easy but we’re going to get to the heart of the problem here.”

Small said despite the negative perception of the city and its crime rates, NAACP delegates will find a safe city when they fan out through Atlantic City in 2022.

Shabazz said he is committed and determined to put Atlantic City on the civil rights map again. It was at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 when Fannie Lou Hamer and the multiracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party courageously tried to be seated as official delegates, capturing the turbulent racial mood of the nation. It paved the way for Hamer to make history four years later at the Chicago Democratic Convention as the first African American to be seated as an official delegate at a national party convention since Reconstruction.

“I was in high school then, a young activist standing outside with a group of young people in unison with Fannie Lou Hamer,” Shabazz said.

Atlantic City is in rare company in hosting the NAACP convention. Charlotte, North Carolina, which boasts a population of 872,000, will host the convention in 2021. It was slated to be held in Boston, Massachusetts (pop. 694,000) this year. In 2019, it was held in Detroit, Michigan (pop. 672,000). Atlantic City has a population of 37,800.

Shabazz said with support for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and other stakeholders in Atlantic City, other competing cities “didn’t stand a chance.”

“It was a great sign of confidence in us,” Shabazz said of winning the NAACP convention bid. Shabazz said the real goal of the local branch and city goes beyond 2022. He wants to introduce Atlantic City to an audience who will think differently about the city beyond what they have seen in movies like “Boardwalk Empire.”

The convention will come near the time a new 100,000-square-foot indoor waterpark would be slated to open next to the Showboat Hotel.

“This is going to have an impact on Atlantic City and our communities long after the convention is over,” Shabazz said. “People will come here who have never been here before. This includes influencers and leaders from around the country. We believe they will become ambassadors for Atlantic City once the convention is over.”

That would be music to the ears of Kelsey Jackson, Dooney Nellom and other business owners who never lost faith in Atlantic City.

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