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Philly's Chinatown seeks to keep out casinos

The battle-hardened community is staging protests, crowding City Council chambers and organizing a petition drive to keep out a 3,000-slot-machine casino.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Many who live and work in the city's small but vibrant Chinatown were dismayed and angered, but not surprised, when state and city officials backed a proposal to move a planned slot machine parlor to their doorstep.

The now-eight-block neighborhood has battled mega-projects for decades, but this one has some leaders worried the most. They fear it could change the character of their community, hurt business and, even worse, feed an already serious problem with compulsive gambling.

Over the past 50 years, Chinatown lost 25 percent of its land as a result of public projects, from the creation of Independence Mall just blocks away to the building of an expressway and convention center. It has kept out a baseball stadium and a prison.

Now, the battle-hardened community is staging protests, crowding City Council chambers and organizing a petition drive to keep out a 3,000-slot-machine casino. An estimated 600 people marched from Chinatown to City Hall for a hearing last month.

"We're just tired of having to fight these battles over and over again," said Deborah Wei, principal of a 400-student charter school built on land where the stadium would have risen. "We are a small community that's been disproportionately hit by these projects."

The cards appear to be stacked against them this time.

License to build
Slot machine gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2004 to help raise money to cut taxes. Partly to ensure communities didn't thwart those plans, the state took charge of licensing, leaving cities the power only to assure zoning compliance.

The developers of Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia already have a license to build a slots parlor on the Delaware River waterfront in south Philadelphia. But because of fierce opposition, they have agreed to consider moving it to a dingy 1970s-era mall in a struggling downtown retail corridor a half-block south of Chinatown.

The move has the backing of Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor Michael Nutter, and the Philadelphia City Council was scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to designate the mall an entertainment district, a key step in allowing a casino to be built on the site.

Supporters say the location has the advantage of being close to subway and regional rail lines, would revitalize a commercial district with many empty buildings, and would help, not hurt, business in Chinatown.

Foxwoods is a venture of the Mashantucket Pequot Indians, who own the giant Foxwoods casino in southeastern Connecticut, and local investors including Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers.

Foxwoods in Connecticut is a major destination for Asian-American gamblers. In 2006, it estimated that at least one-third of its 40,000 daily customers were Asian. Its nearby rival, Mohegan Sun, has estimated that a fifth of its business comes from Asian spending.

Figures like those have the community here worried.

'A lot of debts'
At Chinatown's new charter elementary school, where about 65 percent of the students are Asian, the principal said it's not difficult to find children whose families have been hurt by gambling. She assembled a group of them who had permission to tell their stories.

Maitrivia Liem, 14, said her uncle became a compulsive gambler after arriving in America to find work. "They keep saying how a casino helps the city, but it's going to hurt a lot of families in Chinatown," said Liem, whose family is ethnic Chinese from Indonesia.

Li Ting Zou, 13, said her father had a gambling problem.

"We had a lot of debts. We didn't have enough food to eat. Then my mom got sick so he stopped," she said. "I don't want other kids to experience this. It's too much to go through at a young age."

If Foxwoods shifts the project to the site near Chinatown, spokeswoman Maureen Garrity said the casino will do everything it can to address addiction in the community. She said Foxwoods has a program to promote responsible gambling among all customers and is working with the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.

"While addiction is certainly not limited to any one race or ethnic group, we recognize the concerns of the Chinatown community," she said.

Protecting a community
Wei said she worries about the industry's record of aggressive marketing to Asians. Besides enticements like free bus transportation, many casinos offer popular Asian table games such as Pai Gow, Sic Bo and baccarat.

Pennsylvania's casinos are authorized to offer only slot-machine gambling. But many state legislators say they believe table games eventually will be legalized, particularly given growing cross-border competition for the gambling dollar.

Only last week, voters authorized slot-machine gambling in neighboring Maryland. Casino owners have even told Pennsylvania regulators that their facilities were planned with space in mind for table games.

Despite decades of encroachment, Philadelphia's Chinatown still serves as a gateway and home for Chinese immigrants. The population and number of businesses have continued to rise, spreading past the concrete canyon of the downtown expressway on its northern border.

The neighborhood and its residents have proven to be resilient, but they are not indestructible, Wei said.

Community organizer Helen Gym of Asian Americans United said the new charter school is a reminder that Chinatown is a neighborhood of homes, corner stores and family-owned restaurants, "not the dumping ground for what no one else wants."