Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Readers Respond on Urbanism and Gambling

One of the great aspects of writing this blog is the quality of feedback.  There are a number of folks who offer thoughtful responses, some in the comments and even more by email.

My most recent post, on urbanism and gambling, offers an example.  I concluded with the tentative conclusion that urban settings and gambling were fundamentally incompatible, but acknowledged a level of uncertainty in the conclusion, asking for others to respond.

I received two particularly thoughtful responses, which went in different directions.

One was from regular reader and Urban Chat participant Dan Lyke.

“I've visited Las Vegas a couple of times, and were my tastes a little more mainstream American and rooted in the spectacle of artifice, I could have gotten along entirely without the car.  Walking down the strip, even walking a few blocks off the strip to get to the affordable hotels (yes, I'm a super cheap person), is totally doable.  Would I be okay with the spectacle of the Bellagio in a downtown, fountains and light shows on the hour?  Maybe, but then I thought a bit.

“The point of a casino is to create a fantasy.  I don't understand it, nothing about dark weirdly lit cavernous rooms smelling of cigarette smoke, and filled with that weird set of jangly electronic music sounds, says "I'm going to be the special one who defies the odds" to me, but it apparently does to some people.

“And given that need to create a fantasy world, it seems like there must be a barrier to entry.  Especially if you aren't used to walking as your primary mode of transportation, you can't cross the threshold to that sort of fantasy world by stepping out your front door and continuing on foot.  There has to be a journey of some sort, otherwise it's just like scratchers at the corner bodega.”

Shortly after, I received an email from someone with whom I’ve often discussed urbanism.  Unfortunately, he didn’t respond to my request to use his name, so I’m forced to call him Anonymous.

“Your latest blog got me thinking.  With Native American casino gambling creeping into urban settings, it seems silly to be able to gamble at Graton, but not on the other side of the freeway.

“When Native American casinos were in remote settings, we could rest somewhat assured that the gambling wouldn't directly affect mainstream society with its potential for crime, drunken drivers, and the like.

“Now, it's a little hard to argue that we have kept gambling at arm’s length with a casino right in the middle of Rohnert Park.

“Perhaps legalizing gambling and issuing permits to qualified restaurants and pubs in urban settings would keep the gambling revenue stream local.  Revenue from three or four maximum allowable machines per business could be split between the business and the state.

“Fewer car trips to suburban casinos, another revenue stream for urban businesses, another activity centered on population centers.  I'm sure the gambling companies would fight this tooth and nail.  But like it or not (I don’t) gambling is here to stay.  I think we would be wise to figure out how to make lemonade out of these lemons before it's too late.”

Two readers, two thoughtful responses, two different directions, two alternative futures to ponder.

Let’s first look at the wider distribution of gambling.

When I was young, my family took vacations that required early morning departures with breakfast stops in Las Vegas.  I was fascinated by the gambling around me.  To sit in a diner, eating chocolate chip pancakes, watching the keno board, and listening to the bells of slot machines seemed an early hint of adulthood.

Of course, I was only nine at the time.  I also thought that cigarettes and jazz were exciting symbols of maturity.  Luckily, only jazz retained its patina by my 18th birthday.

Today, I shudder at the thought of walking into a neighborhood diner and hearing slot machine noises.  Even more, I fear that the friends and neighborhoods with whom I might wish to talk would instead be focused on spinning wheels and flashing lights.

I grant Anonymous the truth of his assertions about casinos gaining a foothold, however unfortunate, nearer to the core of our communities and the desirability of a new revenue stream, but I can’t swallow the idea of every Denny’s and McDonalds having slot machines in the corner.

Which brings us back to Lyke’s comments about gambling as fantasy.  He’s right.  And it’s not only the chances of beating the house at the tables, it’s the showgirls, the freely available alcohol, and the sense of elsewhere compared to our everyday lives.  All of those factors contribute to the fantasy.

And Lyke is correct that a “threshold” is an essential element of a fantasy.  But is there an alternative to the car trip that constitutes the threshold for most casinos?

Perhaps there is.  What if every casino was required by law to charge admission, moving casinos from a possible everyday attraction to an occasional special event?  What if every person was required to stay at the casino hotel or to pay perhaps $30 to gamble?

Instead of casinos being places that can be visited several times a week or on whims, they would become long scheduled events.   They would become Disneyland for adults instead of upper end, to use Lyke’s great phrase, “scratchers at the corner bodega”.

Nor need an admission fee preclude most segments of the population from visiting casinos.  Perhaps the more affluent would visit monthly while the more financially-challenged would save for a year before a visit, but nearly everyone could gamble once in awhile, just as nearly everyone can find a way to afford an occasional visit to Disneyland.

And I even find the idea of casino in urban settings more palatable with admission charges.  If nothing else, the casinos would likely move from storefront locations attempting to induce casual pedestrians inside to more discreet upstairs locations suitable for the occasional fantasy outing.  I doubt that I’d be a regular visitor, but the concept seems more acceptable.

I‘m not suggesting it will be easy to convert to having casinos charge admission.  If nothing else, there is a casino in Rohnert Park that will fight to preserve its business model to recapture its $800 million construction cost.  But if we don’t have a vision of a better future, even if long-term, how will we ever get there?

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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