by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It was an ocean town, where people strolled barefoot on the boardwalk, ate saltwater taffy, and rode the Ferris wheel on a grimy promenade called the Steel Pier. Those who lived there worked in food joints, small hotels, or as jitney drivers. They made seaside wages, which were low, and many older residents did not work at all. It was hardly a boomtown, but it had its charm. Poor charm, perhaps. It became a poor place. A poor place that wanted to be rich.

It turned to casino gambling.

The town was Atlantic City.

We used to go there on hot August days, every summer, until it changed. I still remember the promises that opened the casino doors. Jobs. Money. Better schools. Public parks. By the time they got done, you were convinced that Atlantic City, with casinos, would be this sparkling metropolis by the sea, where retirees walked with gamblers down newly refurbished streets, full of sidewalk cafes and affordable housing.

This never happened, of course. Rich businesses — especially those that sell fantasies — often forget their promises once they get what they want. Atlantic City, the new version, became the same old dirty town stuffed between garish, opulent casinos. Things actually got worse. Crime increased. Taxes increased. Businesses shut down. Visitors who were supposed to boost the local economy came by bus, got dropped at the casino door, ate with casino coupons, attended casino shows, blew their money, got back on the bus and left.

The casinos made a fortune.

The town went to hell. False hopes

Because of this, I have always had a knee-jerk reaction to casino gambling as a savior of cities. It doesn’t work. I have been to more casino towns than I can count, from Las Vegas and Reno to Indian reservations in Minneapolis to small towns on the Utah-Nevada border, dusty places where pickup trucks sit outside, and cheap signs flash “OUR SLOTS PAY MORE!”

And I have formed this observation: The only thing casinos preserve is the casino business.

Which is why I was distressed when Detroit voters last week approved casino gambling for our city, a major league city, not some some desert hole looking to get on the map. This is a place that defined the American dream. Detroit made cars. Detroit sold cars. Now what? We’re in the false hope business?

And that is what this is all about. False hope. Take a look at any casino, anywhere, including across the river in Windsor, this place that makes us so jealous all of a sudden. Take away the occasional high-class visitor, and here is what you’ll see: desperate people, with coins in their cups, looking to make a quick score. People who stand for hours pulling slot machines, chain smoking, staring joylessly at the spinning rollers.

At the risk of stereotyping, it is easy to assemble a typical casino cast. Slick guys with bad haircuts, smelling money. Gum-chewing women in halter tops, waiting for something exciting to happen. Rubes from rural towns, dazzled by the neon as their money disappears. Unemployed men. Disinterested housewives. You know, the usual characters. They share two things: fantasy and boredom.

They have not come to rebuild your city, I promise you that. The money stays put

And isn’t that what we’re interested in? Improving downtown Detroit? How? Casino gamblers come to gamble. There’s a reason more restaurants went out of business in Atlantic City after gambling arrived. People ate in Caesars, or Bally’s. Rule No. 1: Casinos want to keep their customers inside.

So they won’t boost local shops. And they won’t solve crime (if anything, Atlantic City suggests the opposite). Yes, they will provide some jobs, but how many will go to Detroiters and how many to Indian workers, or skilled outsiders who move here from other casino towns? Besides, what kind of career- futures are we offering our citizens: dealing cards, waiting tables, and walking around in tight skirts serving drinks?

Indian-owned casinos — which don’t pay taxes — have been great for Indians, but as urban renewal? Most of the money goes to the Indians. Developers have promised millions for the city and state treasuries and for community projects; developers promised the moon in Atlantic City, too.

Come on. All we’ve done here is look across the river at Windsor and say “Gimme some.”

Spoken like a true gambler.

We are not Windsor, under Canadian rule. We are Detroit, under American rule, and the money and the tax thing work differently here. Besides, this is a major U.S. city, and to turn to gambling seems such a desperate move, an admission that we can’t fix things ourselves, that we’ll take the low-life culture that follows casinos and put it smack downtown, in exchange for a few quick dollars.

Sorry. But I think more of us than that. And if that’s foolish optimism, well, so is the idea that casinos are here to help.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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