American Impressions, Chapter 17: Connecticut
From Swords to Slots
To a first-timer, a casino can be an overpowering experience, like a beach landing on a Normandy of money and loss. Lights bombard the eyes from every side. Sounds of slots devouring coins, of coins teasing chrome. And supervisors everywhere, armed with walkie-talkies and laser stares, make sure, like platoon leaders, that everyone stays on task, gambling, gambling, gambling.
The supervisors are redundant. Nobody needs to be reminded to keep betting at Foxwoods Casino, a $1 billion-a-year cash cow grazing on the fortunes of gamblers from New York City to Boston from its rustic half-way location in Southeast Connecticut’s woods.
I’d been through little gambling dives out West, in damp, smoky back rooms that attach to ice cream parlors or coffee shops or bars in poor towns’ desperate reach for cash. But those places were like video arcades for adults hedging remnants of Social Security and welfare checks. Foxwoods is the world’s biggest and most profitable casino, the sort of place where top gamblers are coddled and everyone else is seduced, or at least lulled, into feeling like imminent winners at every lever. Despite my 34 years and ample tolerance for casinos, I’d never gambled a dime, or set foot in an honest-to-slots casino. And it was obvious from the moment I walked into the first of Foxwoods’ 314,000 square feet of wagering space, with the pitiful $60 I was prepared to lose, that I was a rookie in a barrack of veterans. It had never occurred to me that I didn’t know baccarat from baklava, or that craps was not the plural of a familiar euphemism.
But I wasn’t at Foxwoods to wager, exactly. (A wagering wimp to the core, I ended up stemming my losses at $16.50.) I was there to see for myself ground zero of one of the most remarkable economic metamorphoses that has taken place in America since the end of the Cold War a decade ago. Foxwoods is located in the area of the country that depended most heavily on military contracts for its economy during the Reagan build-up of the 1980s. With the bulk of the defense manufacturing jobs gone, it is now most heavily dependent on gambling. In New London County, roughly the same number of jobs lost in defense industries -- 17,000 -- has been restored in two gambling casinos owned by two Indian tribes. (The difference is that manufacturing jobs paying $18 an hour and secretarial jobs paying $14 an hour have been replaced with croupiers’ and bellhops’ jobs paying less than $10 an hour.) I walked around Foxwoods dazed not only by the lights and the siren pull of the whole place but by the recurring sense that this, finally, was the homefront consequence of the Cold War. We assume the Cold War had no domestic front or casualties of any consequence, or that calling it off was simply a matter of news. Connecticut’s southeast corner is proof it wasn’t so simple. Devastation may not be in the form of rubble and blasted homes, or of acres of white-crossed cemetery fields. It is more innocuously called “economic conversion.” But its face is no less disturbing, be it the zombie-like expression of human coin-dispensers trolleying between Foxwoods’ 5,500 slots, or the vacant expression of shuttered buildings in surrounding towns. Places like New London and Groton and other military-industrial towns bleeding from the peace of the 1990s are now paying the cost of America’s longest and most pointless conflict of the century after reaping its war-time benefits and assuming the war’s rich contracts would never end.
Indians, of course, had their own wars, and the cold one was not of them. But the business void they have filled in Southeast Connecticut is not without its ironies, one of many dictated by the price of “economic conversion.”
Norwich, New London and Groton between them are a Balkans’ worth of history (with the Thames River for a Danube connecting them), from Benedict Arnold’s torching of New London during the Revolutionary War to a British massacre of Groton patriots at Fort Griswold. Before that came bitter conflicts with Indians. In 1637, the British drafted Mohegan Indians in a war against Pequot Indians that culminated in the massacre of between 400 and 700 Pequots. The treaty signed between the British and Indians the following year was an early case of ethnic cleansing: The British sold surviving Pequots into slavery or split them between Mohegans and another Indian tribe and forbade them of ever being called Pequots again. The final irony is that today, the Mashantucket Pequot own Foxwoods, the Mohegans own the Sun Casino a few miles to the north, and 40,000 customers a day, many of them descendants of British colonists, split their fortunes between them—enslaved, in this case, by slots and odds.
The 19 th century gushed blood of a different sort in the area—whale’s blood for whale’s oil, which made New London’s whaling port second in the nation only to New Bedford’s, in Massachusetts. When whales disappeared, New London weathered one of its many depressions, losing its status as one of the state’s biggest cities. But 20 th century shipbuilding and manufacturing kept it alive. A linoleum factory on its waterfront kept the city smelly but working in the 1950s and ‘60s, while Groton became America’s submarine factory. The Nautilus, the Navy’s first nuclear sub, came out of General Dynamics’ Electric Boat shipyard in 1954. More than a fleet of subs followed.
Talk about superpower numbers: Connecticut had them. For decades, Groton was king of the Connecticut coast’s military industry, building dozens of subs, including the $4 billion Seawolf (two were built instead of a planned 29). “Generous Boat,Ó as it was known among locals, employed 25,000 at its peak. An undersea naval warfare lab employed another 1,400. In New London County, the Pentagon spent almost $10,000 per capita in direct military contracts in 1989. (Dallas-Fort Worth, the area second-most dependent on military contracts, was receiving $2,852 per capita). Jobs related to the military industry accounted for 60 percent of all payrolls in a county that had 110,000 jobs. Down the coast, Pratt & Whitney made jet engines in East Hartford and Sikorsky made helicopters in Fairfield and New Haven counties. An estimated 1,800 to 3,100 other military contractors made their home in the state.
That’s all finished now. The undersea naval lab has closed, “Generous Boat’s” payroll is down to a few thousand, its laid-off workers now in Washington wooing legislators into funding more Seawolfs, and military contractors by the dozens have gone out of business. The Nautilus is permanently docked along the Thames, its 500,000-mile journey over. It’s been retooled as a museum, a signal shift in the fate of every community along the river, except that their aim has been to keep from becoming urban museums of a better past.
New London has the feel of an old European town that knows itself to be as comatose today as it was once an important corner of the world. It is tiny, built on less than 7 square miles of land along the Thames. The linoleum factory is long gone, replaced by a junkyard waterfront and the failed promise of the 1960s’ “urban renewal,” when historic buildings and neighborhoods were leveled to make way for highways and businesses. The highways materialized, bringing people to nowhere. The businesses didn’t. The feel of the old city isn’t entirely gone, but its storefronts alternate between plywood and lethargy. The only real activity of note one recent afternoon was a gathering, at the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, of a half-dozen “war resistorsÓ protesting NATO’s air strikes in the Balkans. Every fourth or fifth car that passed by would honk in approval. You wouldn’t know that New London, like Providence, R.I., to the north (but on a much smaller scale) is claiming to be a renaissance city.
Yet it is. Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company, just broke ground on the junky waterfront and will soon turn it into a $150 million research campus. The company promises to bring 2,000 high-paying jobs to a town of 28,000. Aside from their casino, the Pequots have opened a shipyard in New London, employing 100 former Electric Boat workers. The waterfront will soon have a new hotel, housing units and a health club, and boosters are talking about their town as a future high-speed rail link between Boston and New York. With more satisfaction than discomfort, they mention the ferry traffic through New London, which, even as late as 11 p.m., shuttles New York’s gamblers to Foxwoods and back.
City revivalists credit one person in particular, Claire Gaudiani, a French-literature expert who divides her presidencies between Connecticut College, on a hill above the city, and the New London Development Corp. I’m not sure why repeated attempts to speak with her went nowhere—she hasn’t had an easy relationship with the local press, although she told the Economist of her vision for “a hip little town”—but her special assistant, Gail Schwenker-Mayer, cordially conveyed the sense of excitement rippling through the development corporation and the city.
The leader of the Balkan war protestors was Joanne Sheehan, who, it turned out, also heads Southeast Connecticut’s Community Coalition for Economic Conversion. She was not at the demonstration that afternoon. She was preparing for a radio interview at her Norwich home, where she met me with a stack of newsletters and information going back 10 years about the region’s struggles with conversion. She was hesitant to gush as liberally as Gaudiani’s boosters, being most worried about fairness and “headlines saying we’re going to look like Appalachia soon.”
That was a new one: Connecticut, the wealthiest of the 50 states, compared to Appalachia. Sheehan talked about the long history of state and corporate promises of jobs coming to New London (department stores, hotels, amusement parks), none of which came true. At least Pfizer already has a foothold in Groton, and it has broken ground in New London, but Sheehan is troubled by the Pfizer-induced gentrification of New London’s downtown, where lower-income residents are being removed to make room for the wealthier residents sure to come with the company. And she points out yet another irony that has undergirded the region’s efforts to convert: “A good community conversion is participatory, but the military is not, so there’s a real tension there.”
I was about to discover the 1990s’ globalist version of “giving back to one’s community.”
It is well known that wars make certain people, and certain nations, rich. (The American economy grew by 75 percent during World War II). It is well known that the Cold War’s military build-ups made many military contractors very rich. It is less well known that the peace that followed the end of the Cold War has made them even richer, even as they have collectively shed 1.6 million workers from their ranks since the mid-1980s.
”When peace arrived,” author William Grider writes in his new book, “Fortress America,” “the swords were not beaten into plowshares, as the prophet Isaiah envisioned. The swords, one might say, were beaten into capital gains. A ‘peace dividend’ did appear after the Cold War ended. It was distributed to shareholders of the major defense companies . . . Conversion was not what the industry leaders or Wall Street had in mind.”
Collectively, too, earnings per share at nine major military contractors rose from $27 in 1989 to $40 in 1994. General Dynamics, the company that owns Groton’s Electric Boat Shipyard, saw its stock rise from less than $35 in mid-1992 to $70 in April, even as it shed thousands of workers. A look around Groton and New London immediately shows how the company’s profits, its own private peace dividend, have gone to the only community that matters: the stockholders.
New London’s promise of better things to come aside, the area is, for now, closer to Sheehan’s Appalachian fears than to Gaudiani’s hip little hopes. The population is shrinking, income inequities are growing and soup kitchens, like the casinos, are doing a brisk business. (By the mid-1990s, The New York Times reported last year, the richest 20 percent of families in Connecticut had an average income of $147,000 compared with $10,420 for the poorest 20 percent. Working poor families—those with an income below the poverty line—had doubled between the 1980s and 1990s.) Peace has had its price, and it is being paid by Connecticut. Meanwhile, the military is trying to cope with too much weaponry built for too much war that never happened. It is giving surplus planes and tanks away to allied or “developing” nations, or dumping tanks by the hundreds into the ocean to build reefs for fish, as it did with 100 old Shermans into Mobile Bay, off the Alabama coast. Then, as William Greider noted, the Pentagon has looked around the world and noticed that, with so many nations flying American-made F-16s and F-15s, the most advanced jet fighters in the air, it’s time to modernize to stay ahead. Like overprivileged kids set loose at FAO Schwartz, the Air Force wants 438 new F-22s, the Navy wants 1,000 new F/A-18s, the Army wants 1,300 Comanche helicopters, and all three services plus the Marines want 3,000 of the new “Joint Strike Fighter.” They’re getting it all over the next few years, in these days of peace—and much of the hardware will be manufactured in Connecticut, but by a much leaner, downsized workforce. The taxpayers’ price: $570 billion. The riddle of Connecticut’s economic pain in the face of military contractors’ soaring stock prices is solved. The peace dividend is war profits by other means—leaner means that simply bypass the old workers, who must seek their fortune elsewhere.
A place like Foxwoods cannot be more convenient. They bus you in and out for next to nothing. They give you Thirst-Buster-like plastic cups to carry your cache of coins. They even offer counseling (which is a nice way to address Connecticut’s having one of the nation’s highest rates of problem gamblers). And they let you be a “Wampum Club” card-holder, which means all your wagering time is tallied automatically with the simple insertion of a credit-card-type thing into a special slot at whatever slot machine you play. Win or lose, you build up credit that can be redeemed for food or to catch a show. Most gamblers have them, sometimes more than one as they play on two or three slot machines simultaneously, their Wampum cards latched to their lapels or breast pockets with colorful, stretchable chords, to give them room to play. Never mind that in old Pequot tradition, wampums were beads used as ransom for captives, or as compensation for crime.
CONNECTICUT IN BRIEF
Total area: 5,544 sq. miles (rank: 48)
Population (1997): 3,269,858 (rank: 28)
State Capital: Hartford
Economy: Manufacturing, banking, insurance, services.
Nicknames & Motto: Constitution State; Nutmeg State; He who transplanted still sustains.
Entered union: Fifth of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution ( Jan. 9, 1788).
Notable fact: Could extending NATO membership to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have had anything to do with Connecticut’s economy? Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman said so as he opposed a measure that would have limited taxpayer-funded U.S. aid extended to the new member nations to help them buy American weapons: “The effect of that will not be to protect the American taxpayer,” he said on the Senate floor a year ago, “it will be to hurt American defense workers, whose products will not be able to be sold to these three countries.”
(From the Congressional Record, April 28, 1998, p. S3673.)
The state in quotes: “I can never get used to the thousands of antique shops along the roads, all bulging with authentic and attested trash from an earlier time. I believe the population of the thirteen colonies was less than four million souls, and every one of them must have been frantically turning out tables, chairs, china, glass, candle molds, and oddly shaped bits of iron, copper, and brass for future sale to twentieth-century tourists. There are enough antiques for sale along the roads of New England alone to furnish the houses of a population of fifty million.”
(From John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charlie.”)
Books: William Greider’s “Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace” (Public Affairs, 202 pp., $22), is a readable, comprehensive, updated look at the nation’s military-industrial complex, which still, maintains an “excess of lethality” Greider contends is unjustified in a post-Cold War world.
Suzanne Staubach’s “ Connecticut: Driving Through History” (Covered Bridge Press, 283 pp., $16.95) is a town-by-town tour of Connecticut that blends history with notable present-day sights.
* Foxwoods Resort and Casino: www.foxwoods.com
* General Dynamics: www.generaldynamics.com
* The Nautilus: www.ussnautilus.org
* Connecticut tourism: www.tourism.state.ct.us