New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he wants to make Atlantic City “Las Vegas East.” And Christie’s counterpart (both would hate that description) Gov. Ed Rendell and his Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board seemingly have never met a casino proposal they don’t love. The character-less Sugar House Casino on Philadelphia’s waterfront is set to open in a couple of weeks, right on top of the site of a British Revolutionary War fort. Oh, and another soulless slots parlor – “now with table games!” – in the Philadelphia suburbs is dealing with a rash of incidents where parents, and grandparents, are leaving their young children alone in cars in the parking lot while they gamble.
Surely there are many things wrong with this picture. And perhaps the most audacious idea yet, a slots “resort” in an abandoned motel less than half a mile from the Gettysburg Battlefield, may actually have legs. Two days of public hearings earlier this week thankfully brought out hundreds of thoughtful folks who passionately objected to the very idea of a gambling parlor near, actually really on, hallowed ground. And the No Casino Gettysburg group presented an inspiring video, featuring David McCulloch, Ken Burns, Susan Eisenhower and a host of Gettysburg residents articulating their heartfelt opposition to the casino developer’s contention that slots and roulette wheels will “attract tourists to the Battlefield Park.”
What? The authentic experience of walking the paths that American soldiers trod on their way to one of the most important confrontations in American history isn’t enough? You’d rather leave the kids in the car while pretty colored lights flash in your eyes than share with them the story of America’s survival in the face of deep division and unspeakable suffering? Heroic acts, or a free buffet?
Many observers, Richard Florida among them, bemoan an America “awash in generica.” That certainly describes Atlantic City, the prospective Las Vegas East. I wonder if Christie’s goal includes creation of a higher level of inauthenticity than one can imagine: a replica Las Vegas version of a fake New York or a phony Paris. Sadly, there’s so little left of the authentic, historic Atlantic City, and so few who even care, that it probably no longer matters. There. But Gettysburg is a real place, that tells real stories. And I believe that people – yes, even Americans – can still tell the difference and do care.
More and more towns are signing up for the Main Street revitalization programs, and are buying into a heritage tourism promotion mentality. My friend and colleague Donna Harris invests her time in helping many of those communities to capitalize, literally, on their unique and authentic downtown places. Local volunteers support historical societies, serve on preservation boards, learn how to capture funding for neighborhood revitalization. Care.
I’m looking for authenticity. Let’s hope Pennsylvania – and dare we hope, New Jersey? – opts for some, too.