Monday, December 16, 2013

Urbanism and Gambling

The recently opened Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park set me to musing about urbanism and gambling.

I’m not a prude about gambling.  I have fond memories of a standing poker game during the years before I moved to the North Bay.  (It was small stakes.  Win $50 one month, lose it the next, and have fun the entire time.)

Put me in a casino and I might play a little video poker, maybe watch a craps table for a couple of throws, and then head to the sports room where I can put $20 on a college basketball game and watch the game over a burger.  I don’t help cover the lighting bill for Las Vegas.

But I understand that others choose to make gambling a bigger part of their lives.  (I also understand that gambling addiction is a real problem, but will set aside that issue for this discussion.)

Also, I’m fairly libertarian in my attitudes toward personal behaviors.  I’ll go along with Oscar Wild’s comment about “not scaring the horses”.  I know that Wild wasn’t talking about gambling, but the standard still seems apt.  Gambling doesn’t scare the horses, so I favor few restrictions on it.

But does it belong in an urban setting?

Clearly the Graton facility doesn’t.  With its 5,700 parking spaces, it’s the antithesis of an urban amenity.  But are there alternative configurations that might work in an urban setting?

I can offer three possible models.  There is the Virginia Street district of Reno, a dense area of casinos interspersed with related enterprises such as motels, restaurants, liquor stores, and pawnshops.  The sidewalks are largely dead, both because the casinos focus inward, with few if any windows, and because the few pedestrians are among the lower echelon of the gamblers, exuding an air of desperation.  I generally find the sidewalks of downtown Reno to be depressing.

Alternatively, there are the exclusive and upper end casinos in sophisticated cities elsewhere in the world.  Monte Carlo and Macau come to mind.  And, although I didn’t visit it, I recall a similar casino in Venice.  These casinos are often smaller and more discreet affairs that don’t affect the urban life around them in the way that the Reno casinos do.  But they serve only a very limited portion of the demographic, which isn’t a good urbanist function.

Also, there are the off-track betting parlors in places such as Britain.  Relatively small and without the demographic restrictions of Monte Carlo, but still with an air of disrepute.

And that’s it.  I can’t offer a single model of a gambling establishment that I’d want to see in downtown Napa, Healdsburg, or Sonoma.

I’ll acknowledge that I edge close to an inconsistency here.  I’ve often written of pubs as logical and reasonable additions to urban settings, providing a place for neighborhood interaction and convivial conversation.  I’ll admit that alcohol, like gambling, can sometimes lead to undesirable social outcomes.  But it seems that pubs offer more upside than do casinos, so I can argue for urban pubs, but not urban casinos.  What may seem inconsistent on an objective level feels acceptable on a subjective level.

So if we must have casinos in the North Bay, which I’m not necessarily accepting but which goes beyond the topic of urbanism, it seems that the Graton Casino is the model that makes sense.  Although I’d argue for a smaller parking lot and more transit options.

I’ll admit that I’m not completely easy with this tentative conclusion.  If you wish to argue toward a different end, please give it your best shot.

Meanwhile, I’ve yet to set foot in the Graton Resort & Casino and doubt I ever will.

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


  1. 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.

    Having said that, it's probably worth a half an hour of breathing tobacco smoke to take a lap around the Graton casino, just to see how far humanity can fall. But have something uplifting scheduled for afterwards, it's pretty depressing.

    Meanwhile, we'll continue to just head out to Sebastopol and catch Cabaret de Caliente at Hopmonk for our fix of dancing showgirls.

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