Philadelphia's new Sugarhouse Casino stands just a stone's throw from the blue-collar neighborhood that I call home— known as Fishtown or Port Richmond, depending on which boundary you reference. It's a predominately working-class area, a patchwork of gentrifiers on the one hand and old homesteaders whose families have lived here since the late 19th Century on the other.
When I moved here from Center City eight years ago— enticed by the prospect of buying my first house— the idea of a casino in my backyard seemed as unlikely as a UFO landing in Penn Treaty Park. When plans for the casino were first announced, I instinctively and vociferously opposed it. I'm not a gambler myself and will probably never spend a dime there. Nevertheless, today I'm a supporter.
My metamorphosis had everything to do with my becoming familiar with the neighborhood.
The truth is, when I moved to Port Richmond from Center City, I felt a little bit the way Columbus must have felt when he first set foot in the New World.
There were the "urban savages" to contend with: hooligan teens, stoop sitters, people who litter or dump trash on random street corners, kids who strip bark or break the branches off your newly planted tree.
Don't misunderstand me: There are lovely houses and people in Port Richmond. But if you asked the local police what are the neighborhood's primary problems, their first response would be "heroin" and "domestic abuse."
For years as a Center City journalist, I routinely perceived people in these neighborhoods as toothless yahoos, redneck teenagers and uncouth construction workers who'd go out of their way to make life miserable for gays and lesbians, not to mention blacks, Hispanics, feminists and Jews. And, indeed, two weeks after I moved here (with the help of friends and relatives, as well as one Jewish friend who led the move-in procession while holding aloft a large crucifix), a neighbor in a corner house up the street announced, via a rooftop megaphone, that "a homosexual has moved on the block!"
The solution to this apparent bigotry, I assumed, was gentrification— specifically, gentrification by enlightened gentry like me. Total gentrification, I believed, would show the indigenous population the error of their ways.
Love affair with lotteries
The new gentrified way would be manifested by a love of recycling, an aversion to litter and an urge to plant flowers and trees. What it could not include was anything having to do with the locals' love affair with lottery tickets.
In Port Richmond, folks stay awake all night dreaming up lottery numbers for next day's processing at the corner store. The purchase of lottery tickets is very much like a religion here. A casino, I assumed, would exacerbate this disease. When Sugarhouse was first proposed, all I could think of was the mess that had been made out of Atlantic City, a once charming town that had morphed into a modern-day Moloch.
Other émigrés from Center City and the suburbs felt similarly. However, as time passed, and as nothing untoward happened to me (aside from a few random "fag" and "homo" notes on my door), the more I came to appreciate local customs and attitudes. Not only did I make friends with my megaphone neighbors, I even discovered gay men and lesbians who had lived here happily for decades.
The locals, I discovered, had a "wait and see" attitude regarding Sugarhouse. Perhaps the casino's presence would increase their property values or provide jobs for their unemployed teens. It might even offer them something new and different to do on a Saturday night.
Prostitutes in stilettos
The gentrifying immigrants, on the other hand, predicted that a casino would drive away small businesses— unmindful of the fact that countless businesses along Richmond Street had already been destroyed when I-95 was constructed years ago. That project transformed Richmond Street from Lehigh to Allegheny Avenue into a ghost town. A casino, the gentrifiers said, would make matters worse; it would attract crime and usher in prostitutes in stilettos.
Like good missionaries, the Casino No people arranged town meetings to show the locals the error of their ways. They brought in academics from Penn with charts illustrating how gambling destroys incomes and breeds broken families.
Among many Power Point presentations and raised glasses of Chardonnay, tales were told of addicted gamblers jumping off the Ben Franklin Bridge or leaping in front of the El, of trouser pockets turned inside out, of hopes crushed like the head of the serpent on all those statues of Our Lady. Local historians reported that Indian artifacts and remnants of an old English fort on the site soon to be desecrated by Sugarhouse.
"'Wait 20 years'
Instead of hastily entrenching a casino and its vast parking lots in the midst of our neighborhood, the experts argued, we'd be better to delay waterfront development for ten or 20 years until a comprehensive plan could be developed.
That's when I changed my mind. The average American moves every five years. In ten or 20 years I could be long gone. Even if I stayed, did I really want decades more of an industrial waste waterfront, a graveyard of rusted appliances, old tires, dead cats and stained mattresses?
As for those buried historical artifacts— in a city as old as Philadelphia, is there a plot of ground anywhere that's free of artifacts? Does the past get a veto over the present and the future? Is this a living city with real inhabitants, or is it Williamsburg?
Granted, the new Sugarhouse Casino will never be confused with the Art Museum. Its all-silver façade with the slots-inspired logo looks like a bowling alley or warehouse. Within five years, I suspect, this nondescript building will begin to look like the rusted factories that used to populate the same waterfront area. In fact, the design has a temporary look, as if the planners envisioned replacing it in the future with a bolder structure.
But that's my point. For years— decades, even— all the experts seemed to do was talk about implementing a plan to reconfigure the waterfront "sometime in the future." Now, at last, something is happening.
Amid the inertia of a big city, sometimes it takes an annoying catalyst— in this case, a casino— to get the ball rolling. Will Sugarhouse lead to the beautification of the waterfront? Or will it flood the neighborhood with gangsters and prostitutes? If you lived in my neighborhood, you'd take that bet, no matter the odds.