I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a behemoth rising on the south edge of our city. It's been growing for a while, but they're putting its skin on now, and shit is getting real. The arguments for and against putting a giant casino in downtown Baltimore have been made, and they are the same arguments that are always made about casinos. They are basically just collection agencies for taxes on those least able to pay-the working poor, the elderly, and those with addiction issues. They are dens of vice, bringing with them other forms of crime-drugs, violence, sex crimes; you name the crime, it'll get time on the outskirts of the casino. Sure, it might increase tax revenue to the state, but the cost will be high, in both moral and real terms. Should the state really put itself in the role of pusher, all for a few bucks?
Oh, but that tax money! That's what keeps all the states going back for more, to the tune of $33 billion in 2011 alone. Maryland casinos are bringing in over $65 million in revenue a month, and that's before the Horseshoe even opens. That's a lot of coin in the ol' coffers, money that can be used for things we all ostensibly want, like education, health care subsidies, and filling this winter's potholes. And the jobs-the jobs! "Don't Just Work for a Company. Work for a Legend," the Horseshoe Casino's website exclaims. Mayor SRB has argued casino jobs should go to local workers, and the casino's taking its recruitment to the streets of our city, hosting what they call "Horseshoe Baltimore Legendary Academies" at such hiring hotspots as Our Daily Bread Employment Center, several branches of the Enoch Pratt Library, and many others. The casino expects to hire nearly 1,700 workers, and surrounding businesses will surely hire as well. The ripple effects will be huge, they say, and gaming can be managed responsibly (enough) to (somewhat) mitigate potential harms.
Oh, and it'll be fun. Who doesn't want to pop downtown with a little cash and some friends for a spin of the wheel or a roll of the dice after work? It's a stone's throw from M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards-can you imagine a better day than one spent downing a beer and a hot dog while watching Johan Santana pitch his way back to glory, and then rolling down to the casino to push the buttons of a slot machine and become a legend yourself? This is the grand hope of this redevelopment: to knit together South Baltimore, creating an unbroken chain of delights for tourists and, yes, locals, because without the manufacturing industries of yore, all we've got are our pleasure industries. What could go wrong?
We can argue about whether or not we want to pin our economy on other people gambling away their paychecks and savings so some other people can get rich, all the while hoping some of it trickles down to the rest of us, but that ship has sailed, as anyone who has waited to squeeze through the McArtery called Russell Street will tell you. So what can we do while waiting in traffic, waiting for the final downfall of civilization, or waiting to play? May I suggest a trip down to the construction site this weekend to check out the action? Bring the kids-it's gonna be good.
I rode my bike down to the rising monument to capitalism this week, and it was marvelous. The whole place is ringing with action-the buzz of something, the clang of something else, and the scene recalls the busy Doozers of Fraggle Rock (or Dexter's bloody workshop, depending on your perspective). I spent a good 10 minutes just watching a crane lower what looked like a giant pastry bag filled with cement toward two waiting workers who slowly coaxed it onto the landing where it would be squeezed out to make another beam around the steel skeleton. Just around the other side, a guy climbed a ladder between future floors, and I just hoped he'd tied himself on to something.
The casino complex is huge, so don't stop before you've walked around the whole thing. The skywalks are going up between buildings, and there's something special about the sound of their wrappings waving in the wind high above your head. Diggers are digging all over the property, measuring width and depth for pipes and things, and who doesn't want to watch that archeological magic?
And then there's the pleasure of getting to and from the site. On one end is Baltimore's waste-treatment plant, puffing away as trucks line up to feed it our leftovers. There's the passenger-bus terminal, hidden now behind safety cones and fences, far from the trains at Penn Station after its neighbors got all NIMBY on buses and the people who ride them way back in 2001. BARCS is back here too, so pick up a cat or dog before you head back home, across the exposed railroad tracks looking to grab a bike tire, past the old home of Second Chance, Inc., the "Second" missing from its sign-all we've got left is Chance-and through the blighted back streets of South Baltimore. There are great views down here, and you will be left with the reminder that, yes, we can build big things, expensive things, and we can build them fast, if we really, really want to. The question is, what will "we" want to build next?