FISHTOWN ACTION isn't waiting until May 15 to say whether a casino would be a good thing for the community.
The newly minted pro-casino group wants to go on record, right here at Holy Name of Jesus Parish Hall, as being thrilled that SugarHouse Casino wants to build in the neighborhood.
In fact, they say, the sooner SugarHouse can bring its 1,100 new jobs to the city, the better. These are jobs offering good salaries, benefits and pensions - and, in many cases, don't require a college degree.
Something not every Fishtowner has, or even wants to acquire.
Fishtowners could actually walk to these jobs - the way they used to, years ago, when the Jack Frost sugar refinery occupied the now-blighted site at Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street that SugarHouse hopes to build on.
"As far as we're concerned, SugarHouse is the first business to invite us to the dance in more than 30 years," says Fishtown resident Tim Booth. "We're ready to boogie, baby!"
As the others whoop in agreement at Monday night's meeting, their enthusiasm almost seems subversive, given how strong the city's anti-casino groups have been since the awarding in December of contracts to both SugarHouse and Foxwoods, which is planning a site in South Philly.
Loudest has been Casino-Free Philadelphia, which has been working to get a referendum question on the May 15 ballot. It would ask voters whether casinos should be prohibited within 1,500 feet of a school, playground, place of worship or residential neighborhood.
Even if the question doesn't make it onto the official ballot, Casino-Free Philadelphia plans to place freestanding ballot boxes at polling places to give voters citywide the chance, symbolically, to let their opinions be heard.
Similarly, the members of Fishtown Action feel their own opinion hasn't been heard the way it deserves to be - because it's the wrong opinion to have.
"For a long time, many people have felt intimidated by the anti-casino people," says Maggie O'Brien, a founding member of both Fishtown Action and the Fishtown Neighbors Association. (She also happens to work in my building, though I didn't know that until I called her.)
The latter group threw its support behind Casino-Free Philadelphia after its members voted 124 to 104 against the SugarHouse site for a casino.
"A lot of the people who voted against the site are newcomers, and college-educated, and they act as if anyone who disagrees with them on this issue is stupid," O'Brien says. "They act like we don't know that casinos can bring traffic, crime and congestion. We know they will. But we also feel like those are issues we can resolve by working really closely with SugarHouse from the very beginning."
It bugs her when anti-casino people say, "Casino jobs aren't
real jobs" because a lot of them aren't white-collar.
"They're really insulting about it," she says.
But casino executives met with Fishtown Action a few weeks ago in O'Brien's home, and told "how many of their people started out as floor people, and worked up the ladder into very big jobs," she says. "A lot of us would be glad if our kids could work their way into jobs like that."
Of course, not every old-time Fishtowner supports casinos, just as not every newcomer is against them.
Still, the chasm between both sides seems so fraught with class friction, it's hard to imagine how a compromise would be fashioned. Especially when the need for jobs is so urgent - and when the long-term impact of casino gambling on Philly won't be known for years to come.
But given what's at stake - for the fabric of a neighborhood and the many lives playing out within it - it's only right that all voices be heard in this debate, not just the best-organized ones.
As for Fishtown Action's Moon Mullen, he's tired of the talk and ready to welcome SugarHouse with open arms. He says the neighborhood has waited long enough for the kinds of jobs and perks the casino will bring.
The best part, he says, is that when SugarHouse comes, "We won't have to stare at that empty lot anymore and wonder when someone is going to do something more than build condos on it."
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