"This hotel puts Bell Gardens on the map. It's a place where people come to dine, to gather, to have meetings, and of course, to play poker." -- Governor Jerry Brown, November 18, 2015
The Bicycle Club Casino's brand new hotel is a black and white, seven-story destination. The 100-room hotel with luxury suites has a spa, a VIP gaming room, and several dining options including a brewery. The chandelier in the hotel lobby is glittering glass made for a night out. The most beautiful piece of furniture in the lobby, however, is the reception desk carved from azure geodes forged into sheets of glass tile that radiate a warm light below. At night, the hotel glows violet, backlit by an LED billboard as big as the building. Thirty years after the Casino first opened in Bell Gardens, the dream of a massive luxury hotel finally came true.
The sign illuminates eight lanes of the neighboring 710 Freeway. In contrast to the new monument to luxury, the gritty Long Beach Freeway leads into the post-industrial heart of Southeast Los Angeles. Thousands of eighteen-wheelers trucking in the majority of exports into the United States from the Pacific Rim make this the busiest highway with the most accidents in the state. The transported goods that make their way into every store across the country all pass by the Bicycle Club and the thousands of families who live along it.
Though the extravagant casino in Bell Gardens stands in great contrast to the surrounding working class communities, its relationship to the city is complicated. And as intimately tied as it is to the local economy, it is also an insular world that aims to draw outsiders (and keep them there for as long as their pocketbooks permit.) The hotel and casino complex takes up about three city blocks. With the new amenities in place, and a small necessities store that also just opened inside, customers have a full-service city inside the Casino.
The clientele consists mostly of older and middle-aged Asian men and women, some who rushed to catch their casino bus, others who take their time at tables concentrating on their hands. The décor reflects the majority of the customers: ornate gold dragons adorned a faux pagoda that housed higher-end card game room. In another section, a future "Jade Room," will be a renovated space for people to play games, including: Blackjack, Texas Hold 'Em, Seven Card Stud, Omaha hold 'em, Mexican Poker, Pai Gow Poker, Three Card Poker and Baccarat. The high stakes rooms with tens of thousands of dollars on the table are a whole other group, a more affluent demographic that's flying in from Macau on their way to Las Vegas. For them, the Citadel Outlets and our local Casino are a warm-up for the bonanza of high-end label shopping and turned up lights of Sin City.
But the folks playing at the tables in the large main room reflect more of working-class Bell Gardens. What's more interesting is the staff: workers, from custodians to security were Latino, Black, Middle Eastern, and Asian-American. They tell jokes, keep an eye on the floor, and interact with ease --a near miracle for communities who are constantly pitted against each other in every other way out in the real world. Here, they work together to run the Casino like the steady machine it has become.
Beyond the parking lot are modest stucco homes, a taquería, a Foster's Freeze that's at least 40 years old, an intermediate school with aging buildings, and down the freeway, factories and warehouses filled with part-time wage labor force working full-time hours. Four miles away from the Casino in Vernon is the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant that used to emit noxious fumes, like a cloud of bleach hovering over schools and homes. The plant shut down to avoid facing Federal criminal prosecution for decades of lead and arsenic pollution. A full impact study and thorough cleanup of the plant and its surroundings have yet to be completed; the plant was causing headaches, nose bleeds, and insistent coughing.
On the day of the hotel's soft opening this past November, at the corner of Eastern and Florence Avenue, about twenty local residents and activists from Communities for a Better Environment were trying to get the attention of Governor Jerry Brown who was in attendance. The protesters yelled, "Jerry Brown don't mess around! Jerry Brown clean our town!" The Governor signed a law that helped close the plant in 2015 and residents wanted to follow up.
"We've been trying to get him to talk to the people in this community for years," one protester said about the Exide waste. "We've never gotten a call back from his office. Maybe he'll listen now." Protesters said that although the plant was closed down, the surrounding area has not been properly tested or treated for lead presence in the water supply, the soil, or the air. The state has not met with CBE, the families in Vernon where the plant still sits, or the surrounding southeast residents. Activists don't want to wait until their water and soil cause an environmental disaster as shameful and deadly as the one in Flint, Michigan.
When the chants became too loud, one of the emcees joked that, "They're just mad because they're not invited." Some in the crowd enjoyed the poke-in-the-ribs, but for the people demanding help from their governor before it's too late, their pleas were no joke. Nonetheless, the Casino and the City of Bell Gardens have a mutually beneficial relationship. A representative for the hotel said that the Casino supports the local community with their scholarship programs that benefit both their "employees' children and the local communities." With the addition of the hotel, the Casino predicts that they "will be able to offer even more support for families and on a wider range." In the past three years, the Bicycle Casino Community Foundation donated funds for 49 college scholarships. In 2015, 21 scholarship recipients received a total of $89,000.00 in scholarship funds.
Half a block down from the casino on Live Oak Street is Bell Gardens Intermediate. The facilities and all of the school programs are the responsibility of the Montebello Unified School District, not the city. In a city of 2.5 square miles, the impact of the casino or where it is not present, is easily felt. The majority of class sizes there hover between 22 students due to a Quality in Education grant that will end this year. Student-teacher ratios are expected to rise to as many as 35 to 40 students per teacher. The school buildings and grounds have remained largely the same for most of the campuses in Bell Gardens for the last 25 years, while local police cars and city sports utility vehicles appear to be upgraded consistently.
However, the Casino has fiscally sponsored several soccer fields in the city and a Futsal court at Ford Park. But the city is much more dependent on the success of the casino than it might first appear.
Nancy Martinez of Eastern Group Publications analyzed the fiscal relationship between the City of Bell Gardens and the Bicycle Club in June of last year. City Finance Director Will Kaholokula told her that Bell Gardens receives a percentage of the Casino's take from table games and poker tournaments, which totaled "just over $11 million for the 2015-16 Fiscal Year; $1 million more than ." In clear terms, the city depends heavily on Casino revenues to fund 40% of expenditures for the police department, parks, and street maintenance. Bell Gardens City Manager Phil Wagner defended the city's reliance on Casino revenue because he believes Bell Gardens is not like its neighbors. "Other cities have various manufacturers, car dealerships and other sources of revenue, our major source happens to be a casino," he told Martinez.
In 1991, Mike Davis wrote an article called "Playing High Stakes with Electoral Poker: Can Casinos Fix Faltering Economies?" for the Los Angeles Times. In it, he warned that over-reliance on a single industry, in that case a new casino in South Gate, was a huge risk that made cities vulnerable to unexpected shifts and downturns. When the southeast region was devastated by closing plants like the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and the General Motors assembly plant, in 1980 and 1982 respectively, the local economies were demolished. A more recent example of the dangers that an intimate relationship implies, when the Bicycle Casino's revenues dropped to $9 million during the recent recession, Bell Gardens cut back on services and froze staffing changes to manage a deficit of more than $1 million.
About twenty years ago, the Bicycle Casino had also provided millions in revenue to the federal government in the 1990s. Funding for the original Bicycle Club casino was financed by Sam Gilbert with laundered drug money. The casino was partially taken over by the feds due to a tax lien. Bob Carter, President of Carter Management Group, Inc., is a General Partner at The Bicycle Hotel & Casino and was part of the group that bought the complex from the federal government. But of course, the current Managing General Partner & CEO Hashem Minaiy and his investors are not connected to those first owners. What has remained is a mutual financial benefit between the government and the private sector, like many other cities.
City Manager Phil Wagner was aware that the city may appear to rely too heavily on the casino. He told EGP: "We are slowly emerging from the recession but we need to be cautiously optimistic because it will take some time before we see the same level of tax revenues that were generated in the past. We've achieved some short-term fiscal stability, but we need to remain frugal."
Families from southeast LA are nothing if not frugal. It'd take a bit of saving, but for $169, residents can spend the night in a double room with two queen-size beds or a king size accommodations at the new hotel. For $1500 a night, you could reserve the Governor's or Presidential Suite, which in addition to two separate bedrooms, includes a conference table for 12, a lavish flower arrangement, a bar, and most importantly, an unobstructed view of downtown L.A. It's the only building in Bell Gardens, and for miles around, with a view like that. The neighboring factories and residential areas blend together into blocks of gray dotted by trees. From that height, it's hard to see the details outside of the hotel.
Bell Gardens residents and city employees have been buzzing about the pool bar rumors. "The pool's not quite ready," said one security guard. "And actually, there's no bar by the pool that's open to the public. The event area is just for private parties." People were really looking forward to sipping margaritas and being fancy by the freeway. Residents are fancy already, of course -- but with a view of downtown and a drink in hand? Not yet. If they ask, perhaps the hotel will listen.
As the Bicycle Casino built the new hotel, the city was supportive--their financial ties are too strong to generate anything else. The Casino has not yet expressed any desire to continue expansion beyond the recent project. For now, the casino seems satisfied with its latest addition. Basking in its neon glow, for better or worse, it casts a towering light over Bell Gardens. Residents blink back at the tower, reckoning with its promise