I'm not a fan of casinos, regardless of the design. It is a bad, insidious business that preys on vulnerable people who can least afford to waste their money.
But I was curious to check out the first casino in the poorest, big city in the country. While the outside didn't grab me, the inside was even more depressing.
Row after row of slot machines were dotted with people slouched in seats aimlessly pushing buttons. Most gamblers appeared to be over 50. Several had canes. A heavyset woman wheeled around an oxygen tank with tubes going to her nose.
One man had a lanyard around his neck with a card plugged into the slot machine. There's nothing more pathetic than seeing a person literally tethered to a one-armed bandit.
I looked hard to see if anyone was smiling or appeared to be having a good time. But most everyone just had blank stares.
No one looked very lucky.
The customer mix seemed evenly divided between men and women, and blacks and whites. The one noticeable difference was the number of Asians in the casino, especially around the blackjack and mini baccarat tables.
The Asian community was opposed to having a casino near Chinatown, arguing that it would prey on residents who like to gamble. But SugarHouse isn't too far from Chinatown, and it clearly knows its market. One table game offering pai gow poker was filled with Asians.
In all, I counted four roulette tables and 13 blackjack tables that were open and jammed with customers.
Remember this is at 11 a.m. in the middle of the week. I guess it beats watching The Price Is Right.
There are nonsmoking sections, but most of the customers were crowded into the smoking area.
The city has thankfully prohibited smoking inside public buildings, but the casinos got themselves an exemption. They know gamblers have addictive personalities. The casinos don't want gamblers stepping outside for a cigarette when they can remain seated, puff away, and spend money.
The same goes for the drinkers. SugarHouse has slot machines at the bar so you can keep gambling while throwing back a few.
The slot machines each have mini TVs, so you don't have to leave your seat to check the score of a game. (This comes in handy for gamblers who also bet on sports.) The casinos don't want anyone plopped on the sofa at home watching the Eagles or Phillies when they could be doing something productive like sitting in front of a slot machine losing money.
To be sure, casinos may provide a fun night out for many, and an outside chance to win some money. But the hard truth is this: Casinos make most of their profits from repeat customers who come again and again. Casinos lure those gamblers back with coupons and other teasers.
Sure, the state is raking in tax revenue from the casinos. In its first week in business, SugarHouse took in almost $5 million, with about half going to state coffers. And Pennsylvania is capturing tax dollars that were going to Atlantic City and elsewhere.
But now that the casinos are close to home, gamblers will come more often and new addicts will be created. The string of adults who have abandoned kids in cars outside another area casino underscores the lure of the casinos.
This problem will become more acute in Philadelphia, where there is a large concentration of poor and elderly people struggling to get by and desperate for a financial miracle.
Here's just one snapshot: A coworker of mine went to SugarHouse on Wednesday night. A stranger approached her in the ladies room offering to sell the ring off her finger. All the casino investors and supporters should remember that sad scene as they tally up the profits they are raking in.
The rest of us can thank Ed Rendell and the lawmakers in Harrisburg who legalized gambling in Pennsylvania. It will be Rendell's legacy that the city he helped save as mayor will now see many lives destroyed by all the social ills that are sure to follow gambling in Philadelphia.
E-mail deputy editorial page editor Paul Davies at firstname.lastname@example.org.