- From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City by Chloe E. Taft
In From Steel to Slots, Chloe E. Taft offers a rich and engaging examination of the lived experience of the postindustrial city. Using Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as her case study, she joins archival research with ethnographic fieldwork and an examination of the built environment to unravel the complex transition from steel manufacturing to casino gambling, revealing the many consequent social, material, and economic changes that continue to shape the city today.
Despite the globalizing and displacing impacts of capital—impacts that have hit company towns like Bethlehem especially hard—Taft argues for the enduring significance of place and the built environment. Using the concept of the "market-place," she shows how capital shapes the material and social life of individual sites in specific, local ways. "Through their words, actions, and [End Page 118] lived experiences," Taft argues, "residents turn spaces of economic transaction into meaningful places brimming with cultural associations—both positive and negative—that demand to be reckoned with" (6). In this spirit, she grounds the often-intangible forces of neoliberalism and corporate capitalism in the place-specific voices, encounters, and built fabric of one changing city.
Taft's thoughtful narrative eschews facile, one-sided explanations to identify both the continuities and contradictions embedded in Bethlehem's multilayered transformation. Postindustrialism has meant different things to different people, and its costs and benefits have not been distributed evenly. As cities like Bethlehem continue to explore new opportunities for their outmoded sites—looking beyond gambling alone—she argues for greater community engagement in shaping the future. Stopping short of laying out specific planning recommendations, Taft instead calls for an approach to planning and historic preservation grounded in sensitivity to the broad array of actors and viewpoints that her narrative highlights.
Taft begins the book by tracing Bethlehem Steel's long decline from its position as the second-largest steel manufacturer in the world in the first half of the twentieth century through its closure in 1998 and bankruptcy in 2001. By exposing cracks in the system that date back to at least the late 1950s, she offers a deep historical context for understanding present-day challenges. The city's reliance on a single industry placed workers in a precarious position. Continued faith in the social contract between corporations and employees left workers exposed when a business deemed too big to fail actually shut down. Taft also looks outside the boundaries of the factory site to explore how Bethlehem Steel inscribed social fissures in the geography of the city. While the North Side served as home to company executives and ancestors of the city's Moravian founders, the South Side housed the working class in less healthy proximity to the factory's dirt, smells, and noises. Even as industry transformed over time, these long-standing spatial fractures endured.
When factory closure became imminent, the company began considering alternative uses for the site and its buildings. Pennsylvania's legalization of gambling in 2004 opened the doors for Las Vegas Sands Corporation—owner of resort casinos around the world—to redevelop a large portion of the property. Rather than import themes like that of its over-the-top Venetian casino on the Las Vegas Strip, the company designed Sands Casino Bethlehem to draw upon local history. Opened in 2009, the Bethlehem casino reused select pieces of the industrial landscape and largely reappropriated the "postindustrial picturesque" aesthetic in new casino spaces. Through warehouse-style construction, exposed steel beams, orange light fixtures reminiscent of molten steel, and the incorporation of an old ore bridge into the property's signage, casino patrons today experience a sanitized and stylized version of the factory floor. These features helped the site's new industry retain some connections to the old. The recent opening of the National Museum of Industrial History, housed within a former Bethlehem Steel building, offers the possibility of...