The elms of Yale College often act as sentinels, shrouding Yalies from even the most pertinent of local political issues. As we return to New Haven for another year, however, a contentious political debate has escalated in Southern Connecticut regarding the possible construction of an Indian-run casino to salvage the deteriorating city of Bridgeport, 20 miles south on Interstate 95. If the Golden Hill Paugussetts Indian tribe gains permission for construction of the casino, the effects on surrounding communities, including New Haven, will be devastating.
The casino proposal is being seriously considered simply because Bridgeport is in dire need of radical urban redevelopment. The manufacturing base of the city has slipped away, and crime, unemployment, inadequate education and poverty are all symptoms of this problem. According to the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, the crime rate in Bridgeport is 72.3 percent higher than the rest of the state of Connecticut, the unemployment rate is 91 percent higher than the state’s and per capita income is 86 percent lower than the rest of the state.
This past summer I worked for Sen. Joseph Lieberman and then campaigned for Stephanie Sanchez, a Democrat running for U.S. Congress in Bridgeport. In walking over five miles along the Bridgeport Puerto Rican Day Parade route, stopping along the way to talk to constituents in both English and Spanish, I experienced the poverty and despair of Bridgeport firsthand. Bridgeport residents are especially concerned about jobs and education. I was told that the prospect of a casino at Bridgeport Harbor is appealing because it would create numerous new jobs for city residents, as well as help local small businesses throughout the city.
Furthermore, some residents believe the casino would also generate funds for the city’s troubled school system. Recently, the city has begun to bus the brightest students to magnet schools in neighboring Fairfield, further demolishing Bridgeport’s ability to attract qualified teachers. Since a casino would become one of the city’s largest taxpayers, supporters say it would supply much-needed revenue for school improvement and teacher recruitment.
But despite the need for radical action in Bridgeport, a casino is not in Bridgeport’s best interest. The problem most cited is the traffic problem, as a casino along I-95 and the Merritt Parkway would further clog already overcrowded highways. A casino not only causes traffic because it is a large tourist destination, but also because vehicle trips to and from a casino are much longer than routine shopping or work trips. Therefore, they cause more congestion for longer stretches of highway.
Other than traffic congestion, casinos also generate increased crime and social problems associated with gambling, problems that are detrimental to improving the school system. There are also pollution concerns. Environmental regulations are more lax on Indian reservations, since these laws differ considerably from state and federal statutes. According to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, “Establishing a casino in Bridgeport would have profound and lasting impacts on quality of life throughout the region.”
Of course, fighting a casino does nothing to help poverty-stricken Bridgeport, an anomaly in a dichotomous region. While quality of life issues for neighboring towns are overwhelming, so is the despair along the parade route in downtown Bridgeport. With gubernatorial and federal elections taking place, high-profile candidates must develop alternative urban redevelopment plans to justify casino opposition. Without such plans, they are leaving their most needy constituency behind.
Here in New Haven we are on the periphery of this debate. Local concerns include highway traffic and possible injury to New Haven’s tourist industry. Yet while New Haven has its own problems to grapple with, the dire circumstances in Bridgeport should not be overlooked. Despite the joy that a nearby casino would bring to college-aged gaming enthusiasts, the detrimental effects of such a casino are impossible to ignore. One need only attempt the drive towards Bridgeport on I-95 to realize that attracting more traffic onto the highway is not a feasible option.
Matthew Bloom is a sophomore in Calhoun College.