When the Steel Mill Gets Replaced by a GOP Megadonor’s Casino

A new book analyzes the demise of Bethlehem Steel and the rise of a casino in post-industrial Pennsylvania.

Catherine Tumber

Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem sparkles amid the Rush Belt decay of the Bethlehem Steel Plant.

In 2009, six years after Beth­le­hem Steel pulled the final cur­tain and closed its Penn­syl­va­nia-based cor­po­rate head­quar­ters, glob­al casi­no impre­sario and multi­bil­lion­aire GOP fundrais­er Shel­don Adel­son mount­ed a cer­e­mo­ni­al stage to cel­e­brate the Steel’s” rein­car­na­tion as a Las Vegas Sands casi­no resort. Against an 1,800-acre back­drop of hulk­ing detri­tus left behind by what was once the world’s sec­ond-largest steel com­pa­ny, he announced, In Hebrew, Beth­le­hem means the house of bread.’ And what do you need to make bread? Dough. That’s what we intend to make here.”

The Steel’s gigantic 20-ton ore bridge, once used to move heavy iron ore on its way to the blast furnaces, now serves as an archway—emblazoned with the red Sands logo.

This play for laughs steamed some of the locals who took pride in hav­ing once made things of sub­stance, from the steel beams that raised the Empire State Build­ing to the armor plate, ord­nance and ships that won World War II. It didn’t help, either, that Beth­le­hem steel­work­ers had not only been los­ing their jobs since 1995, but, with the company’s bank­rupt­cy in 2001, they lost their pen­sions and health cov­er­age, too. Mak­ing dough isn’t on quite the same moral plane as either pro­duc­ing steel or retire­ment security.

Or is it? In From Steel to Slots: Casi­no Cap­i­tal­ism in the Postin­dus­tri­al City, his­to­ri­an Chloe E. Taft makes the case that the postin­dus­tri­al city can­not be jammed into sim­ple his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives of progress and decline. Rather, as a place,” a city is a site of ongo­ing social con­struc­tion” rife with mul­ti­ple mean­ings and sto­ries that con­nect local expe­ri­ences and lega­cies to glob­al con­texts and trans­ac­tions.” For Taft, it seems to mat­ter lit­tle whether bad­ly need­ed pri­vate invest­ment comes in the form of casi­no gam­bling or, say, wind tur­bine man­u­fac­tur­ing. Nev­er mind that man­u­fac­tur­ing yields use­ful prod­ucts, where casi­no gam­bling — like its kin­dred scam, the neolib­er­al finance régime— con­jures ill-begot­ten for­tunes for the mega-rich. Taft is out to chal­lenge dichotomies that would dis­tin­guish pro­duc­tion and ser­vice work” and well­worn cat­e­gories of before’ and after.’”

From its ear­li­est colo­nial days, Taft tells us, Beth­le­hem has been a place of glob­al mar­ket invest­ment. It was set­tled as a Mora­vian Church mis­sion­ary out­post in 1741 on the north side of the Lehigh Riv­er. The grow­ing Ger­man vil­lage quick­ly became head­quar­ters of the church’s North Amer­i­can oper­a­tions above the Mason-Dixon Line. Its 20thcentury Christ­mas City” fes­tiv­i­ties attract­ed tourists to the quaint, order­ly streets and stur­dy archi­tec­ture, which bred an ear­ly and active his­toric preser­va­tion­ist cul­ture. Mean­while, on the south side of the riv­er, a clus­ter of small iron foundries on farm­land sold by the Mora­vians to meet for­eign debts gave rise to Beth­le­hem Steel, incor­po­rat­ed in 1904, which drew thou­sands of main­ly East­ern and South­ern Euro­pean immi­grants to work there and live nearby.

But with the pas­sage of restric­tive immi­gra­tion laws in 1924, the spig­ot of exploitable new­com­ers was shut off. So Puer­to Ricans, recent­ly nat­u­ral­ized as U.S. cit­i­zens, were active­ly recruit­ed for Bethlehem’s lowli­est jobs, which might oth­er­wise have gone to African Amer­i­cans mov­ing to indus­tri­al cities dur­ing the Great Migra­tion. Puer­to Ricans lived on the South Side too, albeit in seg­re­gat­ed neigh­bor­hoods that would expand to include oth­er His­pan­ics after the great white post­war sub­ur­ban exodus.

This is the cul­tur­al geog­ra­phy Adel­son inher­it­ed in his role as default urban devel­op­er: the North Side with its lega­cy preser­va­tion­ists and church and cor­po­rate elites, and the South Side with its dor­mant indus­tri­al infra­struc­ture and com­mu­ni­ty activists at war with deep­en­ing pover­ty. He was undoubt­ed­ly drawn in part to the fact that, unlike most of its small indus­tri­al city peers, Beth­le­hem was not a shrink­ing city, hav­ing lost only 7 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion at the trough of its decline com­pared with, say, Flint, which has lost more than half. Taft lays greater store by anoth­er geo­graph­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion: Beth­le­hem is half as far as Atlantic City from New York, home to large pock­ets of Chi­nese immi­grants whose numero­log­i­cal tra­di­tions lend them­selves to gambling.

Taft’s ethno­graph­ic study shows how these var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties with­in and beyond Beth­le­hem have imprint­ed their own mean­ings on the for­mer steel works. While some steel work­ers, feel­ing betrayed, want­ed to see all rem­nants of the com­pa­ny replaced, oth­er com­mu­ni­ty inter­ests pushed suc­cess­ful­ly to inte­grate the city’s indus­tri­al past into the casi­no complex’s reuse plans. Adel­son pre­served parts of the Steel’s archi­tec­tur­al lega­cy, embrac­ing indus­tri­al aes­thet­ics in the resort’s décor: amber ingot-shaped light­ing, exposed brick and beams rem­i­nis­cent of the old mill. The Steel’s gigan­tic 20-ton ore bridge, once used to move heavy iron ore on its way to the blast fur­naces, now serves as an arch­way — embla­zoned with the red Sands logo.

As a case study of the steel industry’s decline and casi­no-based postin­dus­tri­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, From Steel to Slots offers up illu­mi­nat­ing detail and sto­ry­telling — if also a con­vo­lut­ed inter­pre­ta­tion indebt­ed to what has been called the spa­tial turn” in the human­i­ties. Espe­cial­ly engag­ing is Taft’s analy­sis of deal­er ser­vice work, which com­bine ele­ments of risk-based entre­pre­neur­ial mobil­i­ty with those of fac­to­ry work. In the words of one inter­vie­wee, The tables are your pro­duc­tion line, the chips are your assets that you use to facil­i­tate your pro­duc­tion, and your deal­ers are your line workers.”

Inter­est­ing, too, is the Beth­le­hem Sands’ shift over time toward cater­ing to bus­loads of day-trip­ping Chi­nese tourists from New York City (where Chi­nese immi­gra­tion jumped by 160,650 between 2000 and 2010), as the resort departs from its indus­tri­al aes­thet­ics to suit Chi­nese tastes and the locals bear what Taft describes as racial­ized” ambiva­lence. We also learn a great deal about the grow­ing glob­al casi­no indus­try, which mir­rors neolib­er­al casi­no capitalism.”

Taft acknowl­edges that work­ing peo­ple in for­mer fac­to­ry towns like Beth­le­hem are worse off eco­nom­i­cal­ly than they were before the flight of man­u­fac­tur­ing, but she con­tends that active place­mak­ing” of the sort being car­ried out on and near the Steel site pre­serves a foun­da­tion of mean­ing,” how­ev­er inde­ter­mi­nate. Such activ­i­ty aligns with a virtue shared by gam­blers seek­ing to over­come past per­son­al fail­ures and high-stakes risk-tak­ers in busi­ness and finance: Both are fun­da­men­tal­ly for­ward look­ing,” Taft insists — try­ing too hard, it seems, to thread the needle.

Taft’s dis­cur­sive land­scape” is forced to do too much intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal work, and is itself one of those 20-mile-high now-hoary abstrac­tions that 40 years of neolib­er­al finance cap­i­tal­ism has bred in our aca­d­e­m­ic class. One can care deeply about place, agency, his­to­ry, the feck­less opti­mism of progress nar­ra­tives and the dan­gers of roman­ti­ciz­ing heavy indus­try, while also con­ceiv­ing a more capa­cious future worth real­ly fight­ing for — and not bet­ting it all on short-term place”-holders.

His­to­ri­an and jour­nal­ist Cather­ine Tum­ber is the author of Small, Grit­ty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Small­er Indus­tri­al Cities in a Low-Car­bon World (MIT Press, 2012). She lives in Boston.
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