The SugarHouse casino debate taxes neighborly relations in Fishtown.
In Fishtown the battle between pro- SugarHouse casino and anti-SugarHouse casino neighbors was ugly from the start. Anti-casino retired trucker Ed Verrall's black eye and swollen face, allegedly delivered courtesy the knuckles of a few pro-casino guys, established the tone early on in a neighborhood feud that's tearing the community apart--with each side claiming to represent the majority.
The hotly contested casino is supposed to go up on the site of the old Jack Frost sugar refinery on the Delaware Avenue riverfront. If built, SugarHouse will be a mere 192 feet from residential homes--one of the closest any gambling den in the country has been to residences. Fireworks over SugarHouse prompted a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal to warn, "Shouldering into Philadelphia may prove to be the American casino industry's Waterloo."
The community battle over the casino has ballooned into accusations of secret alliances, online name-hurling, point-by-point chesslike sparring matches and even reports of physical intimidation.
In the last few years, Williamsburg-style gentrification has taken hold of Fishtown and brought with it hipster coffee shops, DIY art galleries, higher housing costs and young residents. Tattooed art kids share the blocks with third-generation retirees. The recent revitalization makes it easy to frame the casino feud as new vs. old.
"There's a split in Fishtown," says anti-casino resident Morgan Jones. "Old timers vs. newcomers. We're the newcomers, if you haven't figured that out yet," adds the 34-year-old jeans-wearing, motorcycle-riding IT consultant, who purchased his home 10 years ago.
"In our group, the majority of people are longtime residents, but not 100 percent," says Maggie O'Brien, leader of the pro-casino movement. "I think people get insulted on both sides of that coin."
University of the Arts professor Jeremy Beaudry, two years deep into Fishtown living, thinks new-vs.-old is a superficial way to look at the battle over SugarHouse. Beaudry says it's that Fishtown newcomers tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of change through activism. He admires the so-called old-timers because they've held on to their identity through circumstances like white flight and the collapse of urban industry.
"Fishtowners kind of hunkered in and were able to maintain a sense of community," he says. "But those who have lived here for generations, what they've seen repeatedly is a city and city government which ignores their needs ... there's a kind of deep-seated pessimism."
Jones, along with Chuck Valentine and Scott Seiber, all own homes within blocks of the would-be SugarHouse site. They say that living within yards of a 500-seat slot parlor is not just undesirable--it's unacceptable.
The trio meets every two weeks or so to discuss SugarHouse developments. Their conversation makes it abundantly clear that fighting SugarHouse isn't a peacock parade of hipster civics, as some jaded Fishtowners claim. From the vantage point of the three men, they're running full-throttle defense against an attack orchestrated by greedy casino execs, approved by Gov. Ed Rendell and championed by their shortsighted pro-casino neighbors.
Seiber, a 46-year-old father of four, moved to Fishtown from Northern Liberties five years ago. His steady voice and glasses offset a bouncer's body, which looks like it can still go a few rounds in a fight. Valentine's a talkative, stocky, gray-haired 50-year-old dad.
Of the three men, Valentine's been a Fishtowner the longest, having moved here from South Philly in second grade. But as Seiber points out, many in the community still consider Valentine an outsider because he lacks deep roots here.
A recent evening at the M Room on Girard Avenue, the three men swap casino shop over beers. Asked what they'll do if they fail to block construction, Valentine gets visibly upset. "I'll leave if the casino comes here. I don't want my kids around that," he says. He pauses. "I'll watch market trends," he adds.
If it doesn't come, Valentine hopes to be buried in historic Palmer Burial Ground down the street (in the far future).
Seiber isn't sure whether he'd move out of the neighborhood if SugarHouse were built. "But it isn't out of the question," he says.
Jones takes a long swig of his pint and says, "I intend to stay and shut them down."
Both sides are making progress. Casino- Free Philadelphia, led by Fishtown resident Jethro Heiko, is kicking off a six-month campaign next week that's designed to secure the endorsement of a Pennsylvania politician. In November the pro-casino camp and SugarHouse signed a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a legally binding deal between a corporation and a neighborhood that's intended to demonstrate the corporation's community goodwill by providing funds and services to offset the impact of their presence.
O'Brien, who negotiated directly with SugarHouse lawyers on the CBA, says the highlights of the agreement include an annual neighborhood allowance of "up to" $1.5 million and an internship program reserved for neighborhood kids. She says cash points earned on a Fishtown resident's player club card--those loyalty cards you slide into slot machines to earn comps--will be redeemable at neighborhood restaurants and shops.