A few thoughts from a non-resident

A reader from the Gettysburg area recently fired off a salvo in response to one of my anti-casino posts.  I returned fire in my comments section, but I think the issues he raised deserve a more thorough and less snippy response than the one I gave, so here it is. 

First, he pointed out that Gettysburg already has more than its fair share of kitsch.  With all the ghost tours, wax Lincolns, and felt kepis, he thinks it’s a little odd to preach about undefiled, hallowed ground in danger of desecration from a casino.  This is a very common argument in preservation disputes. 

My response is that if your bathroom is flooding, the first thing you do is shut off the water.  You don’t start mopping up while it’s gushing all over the place.  If you don’t like touristy schlock, I say great.  I don’t either.  Let’s stop the touristy schlock from spreading, and then we can deal with what’s already there. 

I had referenced a drop in visitation at Vicksburg, mentioned in the report that prompted my post (and to which I linked).  My reader also took me to task here, claiming that I had spoken in complete ignorance of the situation, because Vicksburg has several casinos, and all of them save one are operating in the black. 

Well, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.  I’m afraid that my reader misunderstood me.  Neither I nor the report I referenced said anything at all about a decline in either visitation or revenue at Vicksburg’s casinos.  The report discussed a drop in visitation at Vicksburg National Military Park which coincided with the growth of the gaming industry there.  I’m not sure how the reader understood this to mean casino attendance, but that’s apparently what happened.  He was, therefore, rebutting a point that no one had made.  If he’d care to respond to what I did say—that Vicksburg’s casinos did nothing at all to help the national park there, and in fact seem to have had quite the opposite effect—then I’ll be happy to hear him.  In the meantime, would a casino in Gettysburg balance out the loss of revenue that local businesses would suffer if visitation to the national park dropped dramatically?  I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t. 

These two points, I thought, were pretty easy to counter, but the reader raised another issue that merits lengthier discussion.   That issue is one of residence.  As he reminded me, he lives in Gettysburg, and I don’t.  So there. 

Believe it or not, this is a line of argument with which I can sympathize a great deal.  Right now I live in the same small town where I grew up.  We get quite a few visitors who come for the scenery and new residents who come for the low cost of living.  One of the drawbacks of living in a place like this is being subjected to the suggestions of guests, new arrivals, and short-termers about how to improve things.  They don’t like this, they don’t like that.  We need this, we should get rid of such and such.  

I cheerfully encourage such critics to go sit on a red-hot barbecue fork.  You don’t come over to somebody else’s house for dinner and then tell them that the carpet is ugly, or that they were fools to get rid of the couch they used to have in the living room.  Sometimes I wonder if snowbirds and leaf-watchers are God’s means of punishing us for what our ancestors did to the Cherokee, but I generally have my tongue in my cheek when I do that. 

So I agree that when it comes to the casino controversy, Gettysburghers (Gettysburgians?) have a unique stake in the matter.  Their businesses are the ones that might benefit, their taxes are the ones that might be offset (by a smidgen, anyway), and their municipal services are the ones that might see a slight improvement. 

Still, while the “you’re not from around here” argument carries more weight with me than most other anti-preservation canards, I still believe that outsiders have a legitimate voice in these debates.  Allow me to tell you why.  

A wartime view of Little Round Top, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Call number LC-B817- 7318)

First of all, and most obviously, this isn’t just an insider/outsider issue.  You can’t frame the debate purely in terms of suffering residents who support the casino vs. outsiders who oppose it.  Neither insiders nor outsiders are monolithic groups here.  Plenty of longtime residents also oppose the casino, and some outsiders support it. To dismiss every critic of the plan as someone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight is simply untrue, and it insults local preservationists who have at least as much stake in the community as their opponents do.  Anti-preservation folks aren’t the only residents who genuinely care about their community.

Second, I think anyone who trusts in a casino to send torrents of milk and honey flowing down the slopes of Little Round Top is in for a disappointment.  I doubt that any citizen of Gettysburg would see a drastic improvement in his standard of living, unless he is currently out of work and the casino provided him with full-time employment.  There may indeed be a considerable number of down-on-their-luck blackjack dealers sleeping in Gettysburg’s streets and praying for the Lord to smile on them, but I’m not aware of it.

Third, although I’m a non-resident preservationist, that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the community’s general welfare.  On the contrary, I fervently hope and pray that each and every citizen of Gettysburg prospers, just as I hope that every historically significant area prospers.  Aside from the simple fact that wishing the best for your fellow human beings is a moral obligation, there are sound pro-preservation reasons to desire the financial health of historic communities.  Economically robust communities are the ones that can maintain and interpret their historic treasures.  When hard times hit, bureaucrats target museums and historic sites, and people become more willing to trade heritage for immediate profits.  I’d like to see Gettysburg and the surrounding region wealthy and secure beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, so that they won’t have to look to dubious enterprises such as the proposed casino. 

Fourth, I think it’s a mistake to equate serious history enthusiasts with mainstream tourists.  Most of us hardcore heritage buffs don’t share the run-of-the-mill tourist’s indifference toward the communities around the sites we visit.  We’re not just going to blow into town, take a photo at the 20th Maine monument, buy a postcard, and then high-tail it out so we can make it to Hershey’s Chocolate World.  Most of us come to savor the whole place, and not just the park.  We’re not blind to the fact that there’s more to the community than the fields straddling Emmitsburg Road.  We love the surrounding region as much as we love the battlefield itself. 

When we travel, we’re generally unobtrusive folks.  We won’t block your driveway during Bike Week or make a racket tramping around outside your yard during a nighttime ghost tour.  In fact, most of us wouldn’t be caught dead (no pun intended) on a ghost tour.  We’ll shop in your independent stores and eat in your locally-owned restaurants.  In fact, of all the meals I’ve eaten at Gettysburg, I think I’ve only had one at a chain restaurant.  (A friend and I grabbed lunch at a KFC on my first visit because we’d just hiked Pickett’s Charge route and were absolutely famished, so we grabbed the first thing we saw.)  Eating in one-of-a-kind restaurants is one of the joys of historical travel, and besides, the food is better than at some chain joint. 

Finally, if we must assume that a person can’t take sides in this debate unless they have some material stake in the matter, then let me point out that we all have some stake in it, however small that stake may seem.  The battlefield is, after all, the property of the United States, held in trust by the government for you, me, and every other American, and ultimately for every inhabitant of the world who’s alive now or will be in the future.  I heartily agree that Gettysburg residents should determine their community’s future.  All citizens have that right.  But when it comes to the battlefield itself, we’re all citizens, and it belongs to all of us—not just metaphorically, but legally. 

Of course, those of us who are only there for a few days a year don’t stand to gain or lose as much as those who live there.  But area residents themselves have varying stakes.  How do we go about weighing the relative value of their different opinions?  How many county residents from outside the city limits does it take to equal one living in Gettysburg itself?  Does a local resident living a mile from the proposed casino matter less than one living half a mile from it, since the latter will be more directly affected?  Hotel owners stand to lose guests to a new resort, so do we weigh their opinions more heavily than those of, say, bookstore owners?  Does someone who pays twice as much in property taxes as his neighbor have an opinion that’s worth double?  If a resident is currently out of work and could apply for a casino job, then should his opinion be more decisive than that of another resident who enjoys a comfortable salary? 

I realize that Gettysburg’s residents didn’t ask to be put in a position of stewardship over the field.  Nobody ever asks for the burdens that come with being born where they are; I myself don’t like seeing my own region torn apart to supply the nation’s insatiable energy demands.  The truth is, though, that the stewardship role faced by Gettysburg residents is as much a privilege as a responsibility.  

I have to drive ten hours one way to spend a few days walking over those fields, and I consider it well worth the effort.  I’d make the trip weekly if I could physically and financially manage it.  It’s the historic area to beat all historic areas, the one that’s probably produced more Civil War enthusiasts and scholars than all the top graduate history programs combined.  Of all American historic sites, it stands in a class by itself.  The landscape bores its way into your heart and stays there. 

I would hope that anyone who stands on the battlefield today with a desire to appreciate and understand could be considered an insider, just as we’re all outsiders compared to the soldiers and civilians who were there in the summer of 1863.  I trust that plenty of residents know how lucky they are to live on the stage of one of the great American dramas, and that they believe the treasure that surrounds them is something worth fighting for.


1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

One response to “A few thoughts from a non-resident

  1. Pingback: The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board met today | Past in the Present

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