New Orleans Rolls the Dice
As the Louisiana city builds the world's largest casino, many question gaming's long-term benefits
WHEN the New Orleans city council in April approved construction of the Grand Palais - this city's first casino and designed to be the world's largest - gambling supporters promised that the decision would usher in an era of new prosperity and help make New Orleans a world-class city.Skip to next paragraph
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"This is a historic day, we have created a project we can all be proud of," said Mayor Sidney Barthelemy (D), who earlier said the city would get up to $45 million in property payments for the land used by the casino, money it can use any way it likes. Casino developer Christopher Hemmeter said the casino will probably generate $700 million a year in revenues, and Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) - perhaps the most important gambling supporter in Louisiana - said the influx of tourists, jobs, and economic developm ent will mean good times for all: "Nobody within a 200-mile area is going to be without a job if he or she wants to work."
Although the lure of casino riches has entranced nearly everyone in a city that regards parades and parties as an art form, many here say the casino, which could be operating next year in a 400,000-square-foot French Empire-style building, will fall far short of salvation for this economically troubled city.
`WE have people here who are hurting, people without jobs and little hope of getting them, even at McDonald's," says Jim Chisom, a community and civil rights activist who spends much of his time trying to revitalize one of New Orleans's historic neighborhoods, the Treme area near the French Quarter. That section, more than 200 years old, has a majority black population.
"What happens when something big like a casino comes along is that smaller things like neighborhoods are forgotten," Mr. Chisom says, "and everyone is so excited about this big ol' casino, they've completely lost sight of the man and woman in the street, the person out there fighting to live."
For activists like Chisom, New Orleans is a sinking town, a place with a rich and almost Continental history that is declining under the weight of its own particular burdens. Statistics bear out Chisom's pessimism: For more than 30 years, the city has been losing most of its white, middle-class workers.
Median family income in New Orleans has dropped from about $23,000 in 1970 to $21,000 in 1990, while the city's poverty rate - the poverty line for a family of four is $13,000 a year - increased in the past decade from 26.4 percent to 31.6 percent, making New Orleans the third-poorest city in the United States, behind Detroit and Laredo, Texas.
In 1960, the New Orleans population was 627,525, of whom 37 percent were black. By 1990, the overall population was down to 496,938 with a 65 percent black majority.
"We can see that things are getting worse and worse in the city by the number of new faces we see in here every day," says Biaggio DiGiovanni, the assistant administrator of the Ozanam Inn, a private operation providing food and shelter for the city's homeless. "Last month we served about 29,000 meals here, and of that number more and more are going to white people, women, children, and families in their 20s. It is much more widespread than ever before."
Just as widespread is blight. The vast majority of the 8 million tourists who visit the city every year rarely venture beyond the antique and T-shirt shops of the French Quarter or the mansion-lined Uptown Street-Charles Avenue streetcar route. Surrounding these tourist landmarks are dozens of neighborhoods where crack dens reign supreme, unemployed men sit on front stoops, and vacant homes - many dating back to the pre-Civil War era - are boarded up and eventually demolished by a city fearful of their p otential as drug dens.