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East Boston group to fight casino

Concerns raised over crime, traffic

In living rooms in East Boston, a few dozen residents have begun gathering on couches and chairs to discuss how they might stop what seems like the inevitable arrival of slot machines and blackjack tables at a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs.

The nascent group, No Eastie Casino, has constructed the outlines of a website. They have launched a Facebook page with 96 members.

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They have started to strategize about how they might combat the power and influence of casino magnates, developers, and elected officials who are pushing hard for a casino at the racetrack.

“I love East Boston; I want to stay here,’’ said Celeste Myers, 40, a group organizer whose family emigrated from Portugal to East Boston 70 years ago. “I don’t want to be driven out by a casino or the fallout from a casino.’’

The group, a mix of longtime East Boston residents and newcomers, faces extraordinary odds.

But this neighborhood, isolated on an angular peninsula it shares with Logan Airport, has a history of galvanizing to fight for its rights against formidable foes.

East Boston’s battles with the Massachusetts Port Authority have become neighborhood lore, especially the fight in the late 1960s and early 1970s over the extension of a runway, when mothers lay in the streets to protest the destruction of parks and homes.

“In a lot of respects, that is kind of the Alamo in East Boston,’’ said Mike Russo, 42, who lives in a Dutch Colonial his grandfather bought in 1935 and can hear the public address announcements at the racetrack from the front steps. “We’re in this to win this. We’re not in it for mitigation. I don’t give a flying handshake about ornamental street lights or new uniforms for the T-ball team.’’

The opponents worry about a surge in traffic through the neighborhood and fear the addiction, theft, and other ills that can accompany gambling. Many are dubious about the promise of good jobs and shared prosperity.

“The concerns they have are legitimate concerns; they are concerns that I have,’’ said Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, a vocal booster of a casino at Suffolk Downs. “If it is going to have a really negative impact on the neighborhood, then East Boston should reject it.’’

But, LaMattina added, “What I’m hearing in East Boston is a lot of people looking for jobs.’’

The Suffolk Downs ownership has not made a formal proposal to build a casino. Before a developer can compete for a state license to build a casino, the plans must be approved by local voters in a referendum.

But the push to build a casino at Suffolk Downs has the support of elected officials, who can be influential at the ballot box.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, for example, captured 60 percent of the vote in East Boston his last election and is an ardent proponent of a casino at Suffolk Downs. That may be difficult for a group such as No Eastie Casino to overcome.

“Of course people are concerned about any economic project in their neighborhood,’’ said Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce.

“It’s not uncommon for these types of groups to form around those economic development proposals. Our position remains the same, that East Boston, because of its history with the gaming facility at Suffolk Downs, would be an ideal spot for a resort-style gaming development,’’ she said.

Before any casino can open, voters get a say. In large cities such as Boston, the state casino law limits a referendum to the local ward or neighborhood, unless the mayor and City Council opt for a citywide vote.

Menino is against a citywide vote, but the opposition group plans to push the issue. A casino would affect all of Boston, Myers said, and a proposal would more likely be rejected if the entire city got to decide.

A vote on a local casino may cut across traditional political alliances. Myers, one organizer of the opposition group, volunteered for Menino’s 2009 reelection campaign, helping to organize phone banks.

“East Boston is a community that loves the mayor, so this is going to be kind of a challenge,’’ Myers said. “But you can love the mayor and not love all of his points of view.’’

Myers is the sister of John Ribeiro, who lives in Winthrop and has been an opponent of the law that paved the way for casinos in Massachusetts. Some members of No Eastie Casino share that sentiment.

“Casinos are a bad idea generally,’’ said Jessica Curtis, 31, who bought a house in East Boston in 2009. “It’s not in a not-in-my-backyard perspective. It’s a not-in-anybody’s-backyard.’’

But others who have been in touch with the opposition group remain undecided. Chris Marchi, for example, wants to be sure the process is transparent and that the neighborhood gets a chance to scrutinize the claims of both sides.

“We’re pretty savvy as a neighborhood,’’ Marchi said. “We’ve been here for 400 years on this little island. We’ve never lacked the ability to stand up for ourselves.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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