Published March 30. 2014 4:00AM
New London - The region's two casinos brought dramatic changes to southeastern Connecticut, transforming neighborhoods and altering the physical and cultural landscape in ways that can make long-term residents and governments react with fear and resentment, experts on "casino urbanization" said at a daylong conference on the topic Saturday.
More than 100 people attended Saturday's conference for the exhibit "Casino Urbanization, Suburban Chinatowns & the Contested American Landscape" at the Lyman Allyn Museum. The exhibit depicts new norms for the region - flourishing Asian vegetable gardens consuming front lawns, houses remodeled to add sleeping spaces and workers diligently trekking to Mohegan Sun casino on foot from those homes.
One large map on the wall in the second-floor exhibit is dotted red showing the hundreds of homes and other buildings in Norwich and Montville owned by Asians. An accompanying map lists the dozens of Asian-owned local businesses.
Exhibit curator Stephen Fan, who grew up in Norwich and has degrees in architecture and history of art and visual and environmental studies from Harvard University, has edited a new book that accompanies the exhibit. He hosted the forum. Fan invited experts who have studied the impact of casinos on local life and immigrant labor and tourists drawn to those casinos.
The resulting collision of cultures can give rise to housing discrimination and resentment, said Ellen Pader, anthropologist and associate professor of regional planning at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Pader and others addressed the audience during an afternoon forum on the issues at Connecticut College.
Pader quickly reviewed blatant housing restrictions enacted in the 1850s in San Francisco clearly aimed first at limiting Chinese immigrants to congested slum areas and then attempting to eliminate by definition even those housing arrangements.
Lest attendees think ethnic housing discrimination is a thing of the past in America, Pader asked participants to close their eyes and imagine a room full of curry and what ethnic group that would bring to mind.
In 2014, a luxury apartment complex in East Windsor banned that smell, she said. Without putting it on paper, the ban signaled that people of East Asian ethnic groups need not apply.
Much closer to home, Pader and her students examined housing regulations in Montville, home of Mohegan Sun and its thousands of Asian workers. Pader said conditions built into zoning and housing regulations often target Asian residents who see nothing wrong with using living room spaces or even garages as bedrooms.
Regulations define "family" and list limits on the number of unrelated residents who can reside in a home. While Americans have become comfortable with the "one person per bedroom" concept, Pader told the audience, most of the world lives differently.
At the Lyman Allyn exhibit, a panel explains how Asians often make functional space out of defined storage space. They turn front lawns into productive vegetable gardens. They hang laundry and dry fish in those yards as well.
A woman named Su in an unnamed town bought a house, built an addition and had hoped to bring extended family to live with her. When that fell through, she rented rooms to casino co-workers. The town assessed her house as a rooming house, and her taxes tripled, a panel in the exhibit reads.
Saturday's audience included local public officials, attorneys, artists, teachers, Connecticut College students and business people.
Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey and City Council President Pro Tempore Francois "Pete" Desaulniers - a neighbor of Fan's family in Norwich - said they were fascinated by both the exhibit and the lectures. Hinchey said Norwich hopes to embrace the new urban landscape the new Asian residents have brought to the city.
Hinchey and Desaulniers invited Fan to meet with city officials to discuss how Norwich can benefit from the cultural influx, Desaulniers said.
City officials are trying to promote the concept that Norwich is a "walkable" city, and the Asians already are proving that it works.
"They walk everywhere," Hinchey said. "And it's multi-generation. The adults and the children are out there walking."