Last Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board made an announcement of unparalleled inevitability: Upon its completion in September, Fishtown’s SugarHouse Casino will offer table games. In addition to cliched rows of blue-haired slot-junkies, the Delaware Avenue gambling hall will feature, according to the Inquirer, “blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat and three types of poker.” A veritable wonderland.
In recent years, nearly every development in the saga of Philadelphia’s one-and-a-half casinos—the backroom deals, the Foxwoods implosion, and on and on—has been the source of scrupulous coverage and fiery debate. No detail, from the plight of native turtles to Steve Wynn’s rubbery face, managed to escape commentary. Which is why the reaction to last week’s announcement—a major one, to be sure—was surprising: For the most part, there was none.
When SugarHouse opens its doors, there will be 40 tables available for “gaming” (with, one assumes, more to follow); 300 of the parlor’s 800 employees will deal cards, spin wheels and toss dice. This represents a huge expansion of gambling on the Delaware before the gambling has even begun—yet our collective response was a tired shrug. Maybe we were distracted by the heat or our efforts to get all “Flyered up.” Or maybe we’d taken one too many blows in a fight that was rigged from the outset.
Mayor Nutter, if you recall, was once a vocal member of the city’s anti-casino faction, with his opposition peaking, unsurprisingly, during his 2007 mayoral run. In September of that year, his campaign manager wrote: “Michael … does not support gambling as an economic development tool. There is highly controversial evidence about whether the benefits are sustainable over time and whether those benefits exceed the substantial costs of gambling, addition, traffic, public safety and the impact on future economic development.”
The stance was refreshing, and seemed like a mark of leadership— until he took office and quietly wrote casino money into an early budget. So much for that. Nowadays, he rarely discusses casinos—and when he does, it’s in a notably positive manner. In April, after Las Vegas mogul Wynn left Foxwoods in the lurch, a “stunned” Nutter said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before … I’ve never seen someone more enthusiastic about a project.” The mayor had gone from opposing the building of riverside slots parlors to lamenting that they weren’t rising quickly enough. He must be pleased that SugarHouse, at least, will soon take our money in eight exciting ways.
To stand back and gaze out over the whole episode—from the 2006 bidding to last week’s announcement—is to see a case study in government opacity. It shows the inexorability of what happens when politicians—along with their dead-eyed industry “friends”—want to act against constituents’ better interests. At the start, Harrisburg’s gaming board knelt and asked us, “Would you like casinos on your waterfront?” We frowned and said, “No, we really don’t.” The board grinned, patted our heads, and promptly gave us two. Outraged, we wrote, protested and held mock votes; some grabbed bullhorns; a few were arrested. We cared deeply about this. But none of it mattered.
I’ve long ago given up expecting to be impressed by government, whether it be local, state or national. Not because I especially dislike politicians, or because I like one party less than another. The trouble is that the business of government is kept so intentionally out of our reach. This is no secret, and my saying so will surprise no one. Yet what is surprising is that each day, against all reason, we strive to close the gap. We read the news, think about the issues, debate with friends and foes. If we’re fortunate, these simple acts of citizenship help us feel that the gap has, if not disappeared, at least narrowed. We think we’re a part of the show; that our representatives are actually that. Far too often, though, something emerges—a Hans Blix report, a statehouse scandal, a PGCB vote—that dispels the whole illusion. We see that our desires were never their concern. Of course they weren’t.
As to the casino affair, I understand that budgets need to be balanced, and that money must come from somewhere. If it has to come from our pockets on a crummy SugarHouse Saturday, then I suppose that that’s where it will come from. We have no other choice, that much has been made clear. And if we can keep cops on the street and libraries open, maybe our guilt over what’s happening to those slot-bound pensioners—and the working folks getting killed at the craps tables—can be massaged toward justification.