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Learning from Atlantic City's gamble on casinos

Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon admittedly doesn’t know much about Bethlehem, but he does know what happens when casinos come to town. Simon, a history professor at Temple University, has documented Atlantic City’s rise, near death, and reincarnation for his book Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.

Although what Bethlehem can learn from Atlantic City is yet to be determined, Simon outlined the issues and challenges that faced the once-booming seaside New Jersey city when gambling proponents touted casinos as a “unique tool of urban renewal.”

Simon spoke last Tuesday at a lecture entitled “Learning from Atlantic City: Architecture, Gambling, and the Disappearance of Urban Space in 20th Century America,” and allowed an audience of faculty, staff, students and city officials and residents to draw their own imperfect parallels.

Attendees were invited to reconvene on Wednesday for a lunchtime discussion where Simon helped spark conversation stemming from the written summary of the first public meeting on the City of Bethlehem’s Comprehensive Plan.

“Everyone in the city of Bethlehem—including our elected officials—wants to prevent a scenario in which casino development leads to the collapse of local restaurants and businesses and the erosion of healthy neighborhoods,” said Seth Moglen, associate professor of English and co-director of the South Side Initiative, which jointly sponsored the event with the Humanities Center.

Atlantic City welcomed its first casino in 1978 when the masses flocked to Bally’s and provided the casino with $134 million in its first year. So far, Atlantic City casinos have brought in $60 billion in earnings, employ 60,000 people and generate 68 percent of the city’s tax revenues.

But despite becoming one of the nation’s biggest resorts, the influx of money has not changed the city, says Simon, adding that it “suffered a cruel fate.” Architecture failed to reflect the urban fabric of the city. Parking lots and bridges prevented people from patronizing local businesses. Residents moved to the suburbs. “People use the city as a conveyor belt to get from one casino to another,” said Simon. “What these visitors don’t do is engage with Atlantic City as a place.”

“A community stuck between two worlds”

Within 10 years of the casinos’ arrival, Atlantic City’s population declined and many businesses shut their doors. Crime, infant mortality, unemployment and heroin use all spiked. Today the city is still evolving, and its 11 casinos are attracting 35 million visitors a year. “The city now has a Starbucks, marker of all growth,” jokes Simon.

But Atlantic City itself still lacks some critical pieces that comprise any residential community—there’s no movie theater and the sole grocery store closed two years ago. “It’s a community stuck between two worlds,” says Simon.

Simon says that Atlantic City isn’t alone in trying to salvage its town by creating a destination spot. Aquariums, convention centers, and baseball stadiums have also been tapped to boost a city’s economic activity. “These lure middle-class outsiders who might drop some crumbs around town,” says Simon.

Simon acknowledges that Atlantic City and Bethlehem present two very different cases, but says that Atlantic City’s tale offers valuable lessons on mistakes to avoid. “Rather than attack fiscal policy head on, we want a quick fix,” says Simon. “It’s hard to find urban places where casinos have created good trickle down.”

“Bryant’s book and his lecture make clear that casinos have had very destructive effects in Atlantic City. There are, of course, crucial differences between Bethlehem and Atlantic City—and differences between the kind of casino development pursued there and the kind currently proposed for our city,” said Moglen, adding that cities with casinos have struggled to prevent the destructive dynamics that undermined the core of Atlantic City.

As casino plans unfold in Bethlehem, Simon encourages people to continue asking the tough questions: Do you want the casino to use comps? Where do you want parking lots? Does the architecture fit into the urban fabric? Which way will store fronts face?

“All of us in the city will need to think carefully and creatively in the months and years ahead about how to implement effective public policy to ensure that casino development leads to jobs with good wages and benefits for people who live in Bethlehem, that local businesses will thrive, that we have vibrant public spaces in which the people of the city can gather, and that the history of the Steel site and of Bethlehem more broadly is preserved and interpreted in compelling ways,” adds Moglen.

“At this stage, it’s a love affair. You’re in the honeymoon period,” says Simon. But once the casino is built, “the fight, the struggle, the conversation isn’t over. The casinos know that, but does the community know that?”

--Tricia Long

Posted on Monday, December 10, 2007

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