ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey — Walk along Oriental Avenue here near the inlet, and there’s a fair chance you’ll hear the sound of classical piano music coming from inside an old brick house that stands alone near the hulking shadow of the now-shuttered Revel casino.
The home, an aging but well-kept relic of Atlantic City’s once-thriving past, is owned by 68-year-old Charlie Birnbaum, who has worked as a piano tuner for local casinos for more than 30 years.
Since 2012, his property has been the target of a state agency that aims to use eminent domain to demolish his three-story property to build a yet-to-be-announced tourism village the state says will revitalize the economically struggling area.
The state has put up $238,500 for the property, but Birnbaum refuses to give it up until a court orders him out. And has been fighting for three years to keep it.
While New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has a general plan for the neighborhood’s revitalization, it has not stated specifically how Birnbaum’s property will be used, a fact on which Birnbaum has made his stand.
“For three years I’ve been asking, if you’re going to take these memories from me, what are you going to put here? And the answer I got is, ‘We don’t know yet,'” Birnbaum told CNN. “That’s not good enough for me.”
The battle raises serious questions about the appropriate use of eminent domain, in which a state or federal government pays to seize property from a private owner for public use, a power that is enshrined — but restricted — in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It comes as the 10th anniversary approaches of the landmark Kelo U.S. Supreme Court decision, in which the court controversially allowed the city of New London, Connecticut, to use eminent domain to tear down an entire neighborhood as part of a plan to provide space to Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company.
Today, the company still has done nothing with the land in New London and all of the homes there have been removed. The decision sparked a wave of eminent domain reform laws that strengthened property owners’ rights in 44 states, but as time passes, advocates worry that memory of Kelo’s impact is slipping away.
“That is absolutely a fear, and it’s something we see happening,” said Robert McNamara, an attorney from the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice, which represents Birnbaum. “In the immediate aftermath of Kelo, you saw a lot of local government officials and developers realize they had been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They realized that suddenly people were watching. Ten years on you are starting to see in a number of states, local government officials and developers start to look at that cookie jar again.”
In 2011, the New Jersey state Legislature passed a law granting the CRDA to clear and build a space that would support the much-anticipated Revel Hotel and Casino, a towering $2.4 billion structure on the north end of the city’s boardwalk that, at the time, represented new hope for the struggling city. The investment didn’t pay off.
By 2014, the Revel and three other major Atlantic City casinos shut down. This year, an investor bought up the property for a fraction of the cost, but the casino’s future still remains uncertain.
The success of the project reflects on Gov. Chris Christie, who supported a set of tax incentives to encourage the Revel’s investors not to give up on construction in 2011.
Christie has not spoken about Birnbaum’s fight with the state, but when asked whether he believed eminent domain could be justified to take property from one private owner and give it to another private owner, he suggested the practice was justified depending on the facts of the case.
“It depends upon the circumstances. That is what eminent domain is all about, that’s why we have the ability for people to go to court and work through that,” Christie said during a recent visit to New Hampshire, where he is building support for a possible future presidential campaign. “I can’t give a generalized answer on that. A generalized answer is just sophomoric and I won’t give one.”
The CRDA declined an interview with CNN, but said in a statement that it is still making development plans for the area.
In November, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the state, saying that the CRDA had authority to seize the property by paying a fair market price. The judge has still not responded to a motion to reconsider the ruling filed by Birnbaum’s attorney, which has allowed him to remain there for the time being.
Birnbaum’s parents were Holocaust survivors who met while hiding in the forests of Poland. Both of their prior spouses had been killed by the Nazis. They fled to an American-controlled part of Germany, where Charlie Birnbaum was born in 1947, and eventually made it to the United States.
The family had a talent for music, so they moved to Pennsylvania to study piano, where Birnbaum, a prodigy, played a concerto in the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 11. When their Philadelphia home was condemned, they moved out of the city, a decision Birnbaum said sparked symptoms of depression for his mother. As an undergraduate, he suffered a breakdown that led to a failed suicide attempt.
Seeking greener pastures, the family moved to the home near the beach in Atlantic City.
“This represented heaven to them. It lifted their spirits,” Birnbaum said, looking toward the ocean from the home’s living room. “This represented ownership in the greatest country in the world.”
Birnbaum used the home as a place to take care of his aging parents.
Charlie’s father died in 1988. Ten years later, his mother and a caretaker were beaten to death by a drug addict inside the home.
“For 10 years, mom lived with a sense of independence,” Birnbaum said. “We were able to create some quality of life. And that’s the memory that far outweighs what happened here in that terrible moment.”
Since that time, Birnbaum, who lives with his wife in nearby Hammonton, has relied on the property as the base of his piano-tuning business to house his tools, and for rest between shifts. (CRDA’s attorney has pointed to the fact that he doesn’t live in the home as partial justification for the eminent domain.) But Birnbaum said that it doesn’t matter whether he lives in it or not.
“People all their life are looking for a special place to be. Well, I have it in this place,” he said. “I may lose it, it may be gone next year, but I’m going to be able to sleep at night saying I didn’t just let them bulldoze it without a fight. And that’s something that’s going to be with me until the day I’m gone.”
Despite Revel’s failure, the CRDA still moved ahead with plans to seize land for the project.
Until then, and until the legal process sorts out, Birnbaum still has access to the house, where he will remain playing his Yamaha baby grand piano.
“I want to see it come up,” Birnbaum said of the city’s revitalization. “I don’t want to be pushed out and then have it come up like a flower. I want to be part of it.”
By Chris Moody
CNN Senior Digital Correspondent