Thirty years ago, when the Illinois General Assembly voted to allow riverboat gambling, the idea was to help faded river towns bypassed by modern transportation and technology. The state plunked floating casinos in Rock Island, Alton, Metropolis, and East St. Louis, promoting them as modern iterations of 19th Century Mississippi gambling boats. Closer to Chicago, “the boats” were moored on rivers in the satellite cities of Elgin, Aurora, and Joliet.
The fiction of riverboat gambling didn’t last long. Throughout the 1990s, the boats were required to cruise during gambling sessions. That ended in 1999, when dockside gambling was allowed. Then, in 2011, the state planted a casino on land, in Des Plaines. (To comply with state law, it sits in a pit filled with a few inches of water.)
Now, thanks to a bill passed in this spring’s session, casino gambling is coming to Chicago. And although we’re long past pretending that the purpose of gambling is to save the state’s waterfronts, there's a section of the city that resembles those old river towns, both in its history and its current condition.
That would be the Southeast Side, the corner of Chicago that never recovered after the Rust Belt era ended. Where that big empty field at 87th and Lake Shore used to be a steel mill that employed 20,000 people. Where the Bluesmobile jumped the 95th Street bridge. Where the freighter traffic on the Calumet River has dwindled from a half-dozen ore boats a day to the occasional foreign ship delivering steel to a neighborhood that used to make steel. Where legendary bartenders Horseface Mary and Peckerhead Kate once served thirsty sailors.
On the East Side — the real East Side, east of the Calumet River, not the “New East Side” near Millennium Park — you can buy a bungalow for $150,000.
10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, a lifelong Southeast Sider whose father was a fabled labor leader, thinks her neighborhood deserves the casino. She wants to put it on Lake Calumet, a turning basin for ships, just south of the Harborside International Golf Center.
“The 10th Ward hasn’t seen a development like that ever,” Garza told the Sun-Times. “It’s our turn. We have the know-how. We have the workforce. It’s our turn to get something like that by us.”
Garza was recently foiled in her attempt to bring a 20,000-unit housing and shopping development to the South Works site. The proposed builder, Emerald Development, pulled the plug because of concerns about lingering soil contamination from a mill that closed a quarter-century ago.
“If we can add on and bring other recreational activities, we can be the powerhouse,” Garza continued. “We can connect all that. There’s a giant hill there that was once a landfill that we could turn into toboggans or skiing. It could be a huge recreational facility that people from all over would come to. We could hold BMX tournaments at Big Marsh and PGA tournaments at Harborside and have a place where people can stay and eat and have recreation.”
Casino money could also pay for bike paths in the transportation-starved neighborhood, Garza’s assistant John Heroff told the Tribune.
Wouldn’t the Loop be a more convenient site for the tourists we’re hoping to fleece with this casino? Well, the Horseshoe, just across the state line in Hammond, draws in plenty of Chicago gamblers, running shuttles back and forth from different parts of the city all day. The ’Shoe’s theater, The Venue, also draws in big-name entertainers, like, uh, John Cleese.
If tourists will go to the ’Shoe, they’ll go to the Southeast Side. And placing a casino there could be a strategic move to steal business from Indiana.
We shouldn’t pretend that a casino will end the Southeast Side’s economic struggles. It hasn't in East St. Louis, where I've gambled myself.
But the casino got me to visit East St. Louis, and a Southeast Side casino will draw Chicagoans to a historic but remote section of the city most of them know jack about. The Southeast Side contributed immeasurably to Chicago’s prosperity in its heyday, but it was used up and discarded by the steel industry, which left a legacy of environmental degradation that has made its redevelopment next to impossible. Let’s give it something back.