OK. Apparently, we are beyond the point in the discussion where I say that encouraging people to gamble is a pretty bad idea. And I suppose that while it is true that Massachusetts residents have already been throwing huge piles of money away at neighboring states’ casinos and gambling venues, why not have them do it here instead? Fine. Let’s move past the political question of whether or not we should do this. We are going to do it.
So when we do build casinos in Massachusetts, especially in the Boston area, let’s at least get it right. The model for most casinos today is distinctly anti-urban. Most of these “destination” casinos are free-standing, suburban islands of parking, hotel rooms, and gambling halls.
Casinos don’t have to be this way. They can be part of a new kind of urban spectacle, and even be integrated into under-developed parts of the city. Think about the ways in which shopping malls — also first conceived for isolated, car-centric suburban deployment — have evolved to become much more successful urban neighbors. Among the ways this is achieved is by rejecting some of the time-honored expectations of these buildings.
First, they should face onto the street, not just the parking structure. Second, more of their circulation should engage the street, and less of it should be internalized. And third, they should have their amenities, like restaurants and show halls, accessible to the street and adjoining district, too.
One doesn’t have to be a rabid fan of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (as I am) to appreciate that much of what once constituted the essence of urban vitality has been moved to the isolation of the ex-uburbs. Las Vegas is the obvious model for this isolation, but the mobsters that built the gambling mecca put it there so that it would be out of reach of those who didn’t want gambling. Apparently, Massachusetts does want it, so why not get the benefits of having this kind of entertainment in the city?
We spend an awful lot of time and energy decrying the lack of urban life “after 5 p.m.” in Boston, and to be sure, the ongoing vacancy at the Filene’s site does us no favors in fixing that situation. But a destination casino, with adjoining hotels, performance venues, and other entertainment could do a great deal to help us shed the remaining vestiges of our “Banned in Boston” puritanism, while at the same time enlivening our city.
But other than paying off people at Suffolk Downs, why should it go there? Both the Northpoint area and the South Boston Waterfront seem like pretty good locations for such a thing, in my view. If we are going to embrace gambling as a fact of modern life, let’s at least get some of the urban vitality that can go with it.