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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sugar House Casino

Hours before the teeming crowds filled Sugar House, I did an early morning walk around the place. I was there to inspect the Sugar House trolley that would take gamblers to and from Center City (the trolley does not go into Port Richmond). After years of writing about the casino, first as an opponent, then as a supporter, it was good to finally see the building up close.

My first impression wasn’t especially terrific. The all-silver fa├žade with the slots-inspired logo gives the impressive of a bowling alley or warehouse. The silvery exterior, like the sheen on a polished apple, has a mild handsomeness but it’s a cheap handsomeness that won’t age well. It’s my impression that within five years the building will begin to look like the rusted factories that used to populate the waterfront area. In addition, the structure has a temporary look, as if the planners envisioned replacing it in the future with a bolder structure. The present timid design suggests that the architect didn’t want to make too blatant a “gambling” impression.

One local architecture critic complained that Sugar House’s parking lots take up too much space. But given the amount of traffic into the casino, the design is the best that one could expect. The lots, in fact, are more elongated (hence, more graceful) looking that the wider Ikea area shopping mall lots further up Delaware Avenue. Also, given the large numbers of people taking Septa to Sugar House, bus routes like the 43, which currently run on a leisurely schedule, will have to up the ante to accommodate the 40 or more people who pile into the 43 every time it stops at Sugar House.

Last week, the “morality” of Sugar House was also a topic in the news.

This casino, despite the promulgations of Casino Free Philadelphia, is a good thing for Philadelphia. As I walked the new sculpted garden paths behind Sugar House that border the Delaware, I thought: “This is the real beginning of the beautification of the waterfront.” For years, decades even, all the experts seemed to do was talk about implementing a plan “sometime in the future” to reconfigure the waterfront. Sometimes, however, it takes an annoying catalyst (in this case, a casino) to get the ball rolling. If Philadelphia had rejected Sugar House and left all riverfront development to the academic planners, we’d still be waiting for some kind of “action” from “the Ivory Tower.”

When I moved to the area eight years ago, the Sugar House site was a wasteland, an industrial graveyard, a dumping ground for garbage, appliances, tires, trash and even chicken heads from nighttime rituals (yes, I saw these with my own eyes). Chatter about riverfront development droned on like the babble one sometimes encounters at cocktail parties. All the classy seminars with diagrams and cold chardonnay couldn’t do what it took two casino moguls to do: stop talking, and build something.

As expected, there were protests surrounding the opening of Sugar House. Casino-Free Philadelphia held a so called Memorial Service a day or two before the official opening where an Episcopal priest and two Lutheran ministers spoke and prayed about the calamity about to befall Philadelphia. Protestors in the crowd held up signs that read: “6,000 people will attempt suicide,” and “1,600 jobs will be lost every year.” Let me tell you, what the protesters didn’t see, but which I saw as I made my solitary walk around the casino on the morning of the 23rd, were happily employed Sugar House kitchen workers going to work.

At the Memorial Service, white flowers were passed out as a token of Philadelphia’s spiritual depravity.

“Grieve with me for the loss of prayerful vision that marked the founding of our city centuries ago,” the Episcopal priest said. “Grieve with me for the lack of love and care and service that has brought Sugar House to this site and this opening…”
“Gone is the city’s imagination of more life enhancing understanding of development,” the Lutheran minister intoned. “We want jobs, but we want real jobs,” another pastor added.
Try telling Sugar House kitchen employees that their jobs are not real jobs.
Or how about the security guys Sugar House has patrolling the casino on bicycles and go-carts. Can you imagine someone shouting, “Get a real job, dude!”

Symbolic memorial services that mourn tragic events are beautiful when appropriate, but this Memorial Service bordered on the absurd, especially when one considers the real issues that could be better served with such a display.

“Why, I don’t even think that I’ve seen that much public sadness when it comes to protesting abortion-on demand,” a woman friend of mine quipped.

It was over-the-top, alright.

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