With news coverage about Philadelphia’s maybe-imminent casinos languishing below the fold for a couple years now, one could be forgiven for tuning the issue out.
But don’t. Instead, go to Fishtown and Pennsport, where two casinos are planning to build along the Delaware River. Talking to the neighbors, you learn those casinos are issue No. 1, and if the neighbors’ optimism is any indication, the bright lights are hardly imminent.
“People think it’s futile, it’s a done deal,” says 26-year-old Hilary Regan, born and raised in Northern Liberties. She now lives four and a half blocks from the proposed SugarHouse site in Fishtown. “I think we’re really changing the perception. I think people are really beginning to rethink whether this is the most appropriate location for these casinos, and they’re starting to realize it’s not a done deal and we can have some influence here.”
When Fritz Dietel bought his Pennsport home in 1985, he converted it from an old factory space that over the years made everything from textiles to refrigerators. Needless to say, the neighborhood has changed.
“It’s gotten cleaner, and there’s an influx of new families,” says Dietel, 48, who lives there with his wife Kathy O’Neill and their two rambunctious young daughters. “It’s not rough-and-tumble anymore. It’s warmer.”
He converted the factory space into a modern home, building by hand the many rooms and his studio, where the sculptor and Pew fellow creates larger-than-life figures that grace, among other places, the Kimmel Center stairwell. Dietel estimates he’s devoted about three years of his life to working on the house, which sits three blocks from the proposed Foxwoods site.
But if the casinos have their way, he’s ready to leave it all behind.
“It saddens me that if they do come, I’ve accepted in my own mind that I’m willing to leave,” he says. “Since I’ve lived here so long, I’ve literally connected to the building. But I’ve accepted the fact that if it’s ugly, which it probably will be, I don’t want to live here.”
He’s worried about the traffic and increase in crime, doesn’t think the neighborhood would be conducive to raising a family, and doesn’t buy the governor’s line that casinos will raise their neighbors’ home values.
“Screw Ed Rendell,” says Dietel. “The property prices aren’t going to go up. He can buy my house for today’s price—I’d be happy to sell it when the casinos come, at today’s price, because I know it’s going to go down.”
Even without Foxwoods’ shovels yet in the ground, there are “for sale” signs on a decent number of homes on Dietel’s block, including houses on either side of his.
It’s possible one reason the activists haven’t found as much traction as they’d like is because there are actually two groups working with similar motivations, but ultimately different goals. There’s Casino-Free Philadelphia, whose “CasiNO!” placards have been plastered in house windows around the city. The Philadelphia Neighborhood Alliance (PNA), on the other hand, is a coalition of 27 community groups aiming to keep casinos out of neighborhoods specifically.
“We’re not anti-casino—we’re anti-site,” says the PNA’s Rene Goodwin, whose wide, elegant house sits in the 100 block of Federal Street, just steps from the Foxwoods site. “We think that’s a more achievable, more realistic goal to get them moved so they’re not in anyone’s backyard.”
Though the two groups occasionally differ on strategy, both seem to have attracted a surprising number of residents who’ve never had an activist bone in their bodies.
“This is about the first time I’ve ever gotten involved in something political, so it’s beyond my wildest imagination that I’d be involved,” says Kate McGrann, who lives at Second and Federal. “I think when it hits a chord that’s close to home, you spring into action.”
“I’ve been actively involved to a point that I never would’ve guessed 20 years ago, or even five years ago,” says Fritz Dietel, who oversaw the casino referendum process for Casino-Free Philadelphia. “I’m used to working alone, so having to be overseeing all these people and making sure everything runs smoothly was terrific.”
Those fighting the casino in Fishtown are marked by many of the same traits.
“My neighbors are wonderful people. They all pretty much stick to themselves, but I know for a fact they don’t want the casino,” says Joanne Sherman, who’s lived on the same small block of East Allen Street since 1955, when she was 10 years old. The front stoop of her current house, which she’s lived in for the last 37 years, is less than 500 feet from the proposed SugarHouse site.
“A lot of [the neighbors] don’t want to get involved for various reasons, but I don’t care,” she says, indicating a hesitance among some to rock the boat. “I’ve been on the news, I’ve been on TV, I’ve been in the newspapers, and there’s nothing wrong with voicing your opinion.”
Where residents of Fishtown and Pennsport would never have reason to know the other’s neighborhood issues, the casinos have unified the two river wards in common purpose. Residents of both neighborhoods continually remark how extraordinary it’s been to band together against SugarHouse to the north and Foxwoods to the south.
“It’s been a real lesson in how dirty Philadelphia politics can be—the whole city is experiencing how dirty the whole thing is,” says Shawn Rairigh, a city planner who lives in Fishtown. “For the first time in Philly history you have people from South Philly coming up here for meetings, and Fishtowners going down to South Philadelphia to stand in the middle of Delaware Avenue—people who’ve never been outside of their own neighborhoods, much less a neighborhood a mile away. And these are old-timers and new-timers.”
“The casino-free movement has obviously been great for the direct impact it’s had in keeping the casinos from being put in the neighborhoods,” says Huu Ngo, who lives in South Philly in the 600 block of Annin Street. “But I think it’s also been great in unifying the neighborhoods.”
The unity is visible. The day a reporter and photographer were walking around Pennsport, many of the activists were gathered on a block abutting the Foxwoods site for a neighborhood Groundhog Day party, which included hats, carols and one neighbor dressed as the mayor of Punxsutawny. Residents on this block fear that if Columbus Boulevard needs to be widened to accommodate the casino’s extra traffic, they could lose their homes to eminent domain.
“The one thing about this issue, it’s brought together people from so many different backgrounds—socioeconomic backgrounds, different areas, people who are so committed to this—it’s become a family,” says Rene Goodwin. “It’s so much more than just a group of people fighting.”
And it’s a sentiment echoed up and down the riverfront.
“A lot of neighbors saw the casino issue as something that threatened their community, and through that, they saw the importance of community and how that sort of development can really deteriorate the quality of life,” says Ngo. “It’s made them much more aware of how fragile the sense of community we have is, and how as neighbors we really have to look out for each other. We really have to engage in protecting that.”
Jeffrey Barg is PW’s managing editor. Jacques-Jean Tiziou is a Philadelphia-based freelance photographer whose work can be found at www.jjtiziou.net. Comments on this story can be sent to email@example.com
More stories and voices at www.phillycasinovoices.org