Cover Story

Triple or nothing

Where does hope lie? In Detroit, a recent history of failure intensifies impatience with the slow work of home-by-home revitalization. The city appears ready to gamble on its future, and with three new casinos opening, it appears the church has lost this round-or, in some cases, joined the other team.

Issue: "Betting on the future," Aug. 1, 1998

in Detroit - Ravendale is a neighborhood on Detroit's east side. It isn't a wealthy neighborhood; in fact, The Detroit News once said it "wore trash like a necklace ... homes and overgrown yards were draped in apathy." But more than 10 years ago, a former welfare mother named Toni McIlwain decided to fight back. She looked at her neighborhood and saw crack houses, decay, and despair, so she organized her neighbors into a block club, "Neighbors United on Wade." At the same time, Eddie Edwards, a minister who had been running a summer camp for inner-city youth, decided to buy an old school building in the Ravendale neighborhood for his organization, Joy of Jesus. He saw the changes taking place on Wade Street and thought the idea should spread over the whole neighborhood. Over the next five years he and Ms. McIlwain joined forces to help 35 of the 38 blocks in the neighborhood organize. Soon, almost every block had posted a sign noting its name: "Elmdale Striders," "Family of Elmdale," "Corbett Cavaliers," "P.I.A. People in Action," "Struggle for Survival Block Club." With the help of suburban churches, Joy of Jesus bought abandoned houses and renovated them. Christians cleaned up blocks, repaired houses, and restored neighborliness. Joy of Jesus offered Bible studies, after school programs, and daycare. But the effort to reclaim a neighborhood-to reverse both social and material entropy-ran into thorns. In 1993 the block clubs, whose leaders thought they were strong enough to go it alone, broke away from Joy of Jesus-and many turned out to be not so strong. Some of the once-proud block club signs now bear graffiti. A park developed by neighbors out of a vacant lot is once again full of weeds and cast-off furniture and mattresses. Kevin Feldman, who works at Joy of Jesus just a block away, said, "The neighbors have let the park go. It's not even used now." The tragedy is visible and almost palpable. Three years ago a tidy white house stood on the corner across from Joy of Jesus. The old man who lived there kept his yard mowed and flowers planted. Every day he picked up the trash that careless folks threw on his yard. Then he died, and the house fell into disrepair. Within months thieves stripped from it every pipe and fixture. Within a year it was a shell-and then it was torn down. Now the once-immaculate yard is a dirty city lot, without a trace of the man who had labored to redeem his corner of the city. Revitalizing a city block by block, business by business, is so frustrating that the market for quick fixes is growing. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and other movers and shakers are promising a big fix early next year when three temporary gambling casinos open; the plan is to have three permanent casinos in place by 2002. Mayor Archer chose the riverfront between Chene Park and the Renaissance Center-an area known as Rivertown-as the permanent site for the gambling casinos. It's easy to see why: The area currently is a scramble of vacant and overgrown lots, boarded-up factories and warehouses, and even cement plants that line the river. The gleaming towers planned for the casinos could light up the entire area. According to the gambling industry, casinos light up riverfronts and set entire local economies on fire. A new study by Arthur Andersen consultants shows that casinos paid $2.9 billion in taxes in 1995 and created 13 jobs for every $1 million in revenue. Overall, the industry directly employed 284,000 people, "equal to all the jobs in Madison, Wis., or El Paso, Texas." The study also found casino expenditures for construction, equipment, furniture, and services created 400,000 indirect jobs. The three Detroit casinos project their projects will create 11,000 permanent casino jobs, although some of those will come at the expense of other local businesses that stand to lose customers to the casinos. In Detroit some big winners already have emerged. Landowners along the river are estimated to get $250 million from the casino groups, and some prominent business leaders are major partners in the casinos. For example, Marian Illitch, partner in one group, is the wife of Mike Illitch and co-owner with him of the Little Caesar's Pizza chain, the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, and several other important Detroit properties. More surprisingly, some church leaders are primed to benefit as well. Crain's Detroit Business reported in March that pastors in Detroit, some of whom had been influential in defeating previous casino ballot initiatives, were instrumental in passing the gambling proposal in 1996. The president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, Rev. Wendell Anthony, pushed for passage of the plan. So did Herb Strather, a trustee of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and an investor with one of the casino groups, who says the casinos "will create a minimum of 50 real, solid black millionaires." Rev. Jim Holley, who runs an advertising agency that had a $1 million contract to market the state's lottery to minorities, had opposed casino gambling and now supports it. Gov. Engler recently appointed him to the state's Gaming Control Board, which will have to give final approval to the three casino applicants. Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, owner of a radio station, recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and pastor of a Detroit church, is an investor with the MGM Grand Detroit group. Her assistant would say only that "Martha Jean is the only pastor who is a partner in a casino group." Rev. Steinberg did not return phone calls, but she told The New York Times: "Detroit is a woman. She opens her arms to migrants. She brought them here. The woman has been beaten down and talked about by everyone in the world, and now the Lord has lifted her up, and anointed her with a new opportunity." Robert Smith, pastor at the 6,000-member New Bethel Baptist Church (a church made famous by Aretha Franklin's father), is another casino investor. He defends his economic involvement: "What I have done is assure and secure that the people of Detroit share in the benefits and bounty of the casino," he said. "To make sure I am not the person who can be dismissed, I'm at the table as a decision maker and shaker." With a soft southern accent, Mr. Smith describes the plans he has for his church and development projects in his poor neighborhood. He hopes a lot of the funding will come from the casinos, which will be required to put $72 million toward community programs and community redevelopment. Asked to make a biblical case for casinos, Mr. Smith emphasizes the need for people to show their loyalty and obedience to God by having the freedom to make choices and suffer the consequences for bad choices, including gambling. Detroit is the first big city to wager on Las Vegas-style casinos in its central business area. Boosters hope that Detroit will resemble Las Vegas and attract gamblers from outside a 100-mile radius, drawing money from outside the Detroit metro area. Skeptics think Detroit will more closely resemble Atlantic City-with busloads of day-trippers coming only to gamble for an afternoon. Whether gamblers come from far or near, Wall Street analysts estimate that Detroit casinos will have a cash flow of more than $1.5 billion. Casinos will spend $1.8 billion for construction and employ more than 11,000 construction workers. Casinos estimate they will pay about $240 million in state and city taxes. The promise of big revenues may be one reason that Detroit's Democrat Mayor Archer, who was an opponent of casinos, has become an ardent supporter. Another reason for the about-face is a cross-border gambling attack. In May 1994, Casino Windsor opened across the Detroit River in Canada; a year later Northern Belle Casino opened. More than 23 million people have visited the two Canadian casinos since they opened. Gamblers from Michigan have spent about $400 million at the Windsor casinos. For gambling proponents this outflow of money from Michigan to Canada gave impetus for another push to bring casino gambling to Detroit. A few churchmen, including 65-year old William K. Quick, stood up against gambling. Mr. Quick was pastor of Metropolitan United Methodist Church, Detroit's largest United Methodist church, for 22 years, and during that time he fought four campaigns against gambling casinos: "I led every campaign for 22 years," he recalls. Mr. Quick assumed the pastorate of his church at about the same time that Coleman Young became mayor of Detroit. Almost from the beginning, however, the two men disagreed about the best way to revitalize the city. Mayor Young was a fervent supporter of casinos; Mr. Quick opposed them. Each time the anti-casino forces won a referendum, the pro-casino side reorganized and tried again. The last battle occurred in November, 1996-but neither of the warriors took part. Coleman Young had retired, and Mr. Quick was sidelined by a quintuple heart-bypass operation. That year Michigan voters approved Proposal E, which opened the door to three gambling casinos in Detroit. Casino interests put up $1 million to get the issue on the statewide ballot, and then spent $13 million to push its passage, telling statewide voters that casino revenues would keep the city from being a burden on the rest of the state. The measure passed by 1 percent of the vote. Although the casinos won, Mr. Quick and many others did not give up, but formed a statewide coalition to repeal Proposal E in 1998. Initially, the group promised to turn in by May 27, 1998, the 247,000 signatures required to place a measure on the Michigan ballot. The May deadline came and went, as did subsequent June deadlines. Finally, on July 2 the coalition delivered 260,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's office in Lansing. The same day the petitions were delivered, Mr. Quick packed up his office-at 65 and battle-weary, he was retiring. The next day the state said the petitions had come in too late to get the measure on the November ballot. Bill McMillan, campaign consultant for the repeal group, vowed that his group would continue the fight to place the issue before the voters. Why couldn't the coalition produce the signatures in time? In part the Coalition to Repeal Prop. E was underfunded. But there is also division among churches as to the proper response to gambling. Kevin Feldman of Joy of Jesus volunteered part-time to help the coalition get petitions into the churches in Oakland County, north of Detroit. "There was unanimous support in the Methodist churches," he said. "The bishops had written a letter of support ... but there was little support from the evangelical churches like the Baptists and Assemblies of God." Pastors explained their unwillingness to be involved in two ways: They wanted to avoid political issues, and they viewed gambling as a gray area, "neither a sin, nor an activity to be encouraged." Although casino proponents tried to portray the battle as one of the religious right vs. self-expression through gambling, a look at the Detroit battles suggests that storyline is too simple. The United Methodist Church, a denomination that favors legalized abortion and generally opposes Christian conservatives, opposed Detroit casino gambling. That reflects the nationwide United Methodist posture; for example, Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG) is a United Methodist pastor. Methodist opposition to gambling is "a historic position from the days of John Wesley," according to Mr. Quick. "It's the whole matter of wagering. Gaming, we feel, appeals to a base nature in human beings, namely greed.... It preys upon the poor." In 1996 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church added an anti-gambling statement to its Social Principles: "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government." Among groups in the conservative camp, Focus on the Family strongly opposes gambling because of its contribution to the breakdown of the family, its furtherance of community deterioration, and its negative effects on youth and the poor. It lent support to the campaign to Repeal E by mailing petitions to 100,000 names on its Michigan mailing list. The Southern Baptist convention also condemns gambling and has adopted at least 12 resolutions on the subject. The Mississippi Baptist Convention reflects the basic Baptist approach: "The Bible often speaks to moral issues in principles rather than prohibitions. The spirit or basic intent of the Scriptures reveals that gambling is morally indefensible." Detroit anti-gambling organizers, however, chose to emphasize the public-policy case against gambling. For instance, gambling opponents circulated a study by Robin Widgery, a research associate at Social Systems Research Institute, showing the effects of Windsor casinos on Detroit. Mr. Widgery interviewed a sample of Detroit families and found that one-third had gambled in the past year; 7 percent reported that casino gambling had a detrimental effect on their families, and 6 percent said someone in their family was a compulsive gambler. Those percentages may seem small, but in a city of Detroit's size it translates into 20,000 compulsive gamblers, with the casinos still across the river. The survey also showed that the poorest families had the most gambling-related problems. Mr. Widgery found that those on welfare lost five times more as a proportion of total income than did other Detroiters, and he found that 38 percent of single moms had patronized casinos in the past year. Mr. Widgery's findings tracked closely the findings of other researchers. A 1996 Mississippi State University study found that poor gamblers lost about 10 percent of their income to gambling. Richer gamblers lost only about 1 percent. Nearly half of the lottery sales in California go to people with incomes below $35,000. Studies show also that compulsive gambling has spread as casinos have become more accessible. The rate of compulsive gambling increased in Minnesota from 2.5 to 4.4 percent from 1990 to 1994. The percentage of problem gamblers in Iowa has increased from 1.7 percent in 1989 to 5.4 percent in 1995. Other studies show that each compulsive gambler affects from 7 to 17 other people; the mean debt of compulsive gamblers ranges from $52,000 to $92,000. Crime increased by 43 percent on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the four years after casinos arrived. U.S. News and World Report found crime rates in casino communities to be 84 percent higher than the national average. Detroiters need look only to Mt. Pleasant, a college town several hours to the north, to see gambling's effects: Since an Indian casino opened there in 1994, bankruptcies, domestic violence, and substance abuse have all increased sharply. These long-term consequences of gambling, however, have mainly been ignored as the promise of almost instant economic revitalization looms large. Threats of more poverty, crime, and despair are easy to set aside in a city that some believe is already on the ropes. As Kevin Feldman of Joy of Jesus puts it: "People who see the situation as being desperate will do desperate things." Desperation: Compare the promise of casino splendor, millionaires in the making, and the hope of buckets of gold for good works-with the reality of slow renewal in Ravendale. There the process is frustrating: two steps forward, one step back, and sometimes the process seems reversed. Many well-kept homes are visible in Ravendale, but so are many vacant lots and boarded-up houses. Joy of Jesus is having success in training churches to help people leave welfare, but there are also setbacks as drug dealers ply their trade in the neighborhood. Detroit's civic leaders are clearly impatient with a house-by-house approach to redevelopment. And thus this clash of two visions: changing people one by one from the inside out vs. changing a city millions by millions from the top down via casinos. "For people used to broken promises," Kevin Feldman says, "it's sometimes hard to know where to put your hope."

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Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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