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East Boston unsure if casino is a step up

Amid rapid change, some fear upsetting a delicate balance

DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Restaurant owner Jose Giraldo says immigrants have transformed the area, but a casino might be too much.

At Milano’s Delicatessen, where old women chat over espresso and working men order chicken parm to go, old-country keepsakes and Bruins decor mark the way things have long been in this part of East Boston.

Up Saratoga Street in Orient Heights, a bustling bodega, a small Korean restaurant, and a market selling falafel and taboule mark a newer way.

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Jose Giraldo, a native Colombian who has owned a restaurant on the block for two decades, said the neighborhood of 40,000 has been transformed over the years by waves of immigration, turning an Italian-American enclave into a cross-cultural blend.

Mike Petrillo said he grew up in East Boston and was visiting his parents’ home on a recent day. A casino might take the area in a new direction, some locals say.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mike Petrillo said he grew up in East Boston and was visiting his parents’ home on a recent day. A casino might take the area in a new direction, some locals say.

And now change on a seismic scale could be on the way, with plans to build a $1 billion casino at Suffolk Downs, just over the hill from Saratoga Street. Like many in East Boston, Giraldo thought the neighborhood could definitely use a shot in the arm. But he also wondered how much more change the neighborhood can handle.

“There’s been a lot of change,’’ he said. “Maybe more would be too much.’’

‘The glitz and glitter are beautiful, but we need to . . . ask whether this fits with the family nature of the community.’ ,

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While there is clear support among residents for the jobs and tax revenue the casino would bring, there are also nagging fears, even among some backers, that a development of such magnitude might upset a tenuous balance and knock an up-and-coming community off stride.

“In the past 20 years, the pace of change has been exponential,’’ said Mary Berninger, a politically active resident who is undecided about the plan. “The glitz and glitter are beautiful, but we need to look beyond the glass atrium and ask whether this fits with the family nature of the community.’’

The casino would be built at the Suffolk Downs racetrack and feature a 300-room hotel, restaurants, and entertainment venues, and a spa. Developers say the casino would create 4,000 permanent jobs and generate $200 million in new tax revenue annually for the state and local communities.

The casino needs to win referendums in East Boston and Revere before it can qualify for a state license; no date has been set for those votes.

For East Boston, a working-class neighborhood where many people are out of work, such promises carry weight. From the three-deckers on Chelsea Street to the brick homes with views of the racetrack, many say the casino can not come soon enough.

“Boston has enough money, and East Boston can use it,’’ said Michael Matranga, an unemployed banquet chef who was taking in the Boston skyline from the waterfront on a recent day. “On this side, we need it.’’

Yet in a neighborhood that is fighting to improve, particularly for new development along its largely neglected waterfront, and searching for a new identity and direction, some worry the casino could prove a distraction.

“There’s a feeling that we’re not ready for it,’’ said Gloribell Mota, a 36-year-old leader in East Boston’s Latino community. “That is very real.’’

The MBTA stop behind Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston, where a proposed $1 billion casino might be built. The area will probably see changes as a result.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The MBTA stop behind Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston, where a proposed $1 billion casino might be built. The area will probably see changes as a result.

During the past decade, a large influx of immigrants from Latin America, combined with a decline in the non-Hispanic white community, has made the neighborhood 53 percent Latino. At the same time, a small but growing group of young professionals, drawn by less expensive housing and proximity to downtown, have snatched up condos along the water, giving the neighborhood a more upscale feel.

For many of these newcomers, the idea of a casino raises fears that the neighborhood’s progress, and hopes for a brighter future, could be undermined.

“We have a lot of pride in the neighborhood the way it is,’’ said Phillip Gutowski, a 25-year-old real estate broker who moved to East Boston four years ago. “When you have a lot of good happening, why force it? Let’s not stop the momentum.’’

Residents point to two parks - Piers Park on the water and Bremen Street Park on the East Boston Greenway - as symbols of the new neighborhood, and anchors for new future development.

While the influx of professionals has had a clear influence, the thousands of immigrants from El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil have left a far deeper imprint, many say.

“They are the driving force,’’ said Tony Giacalone, who has sold real estate in East Boston for 25 years. Immigrants have made East Boston, pocked with vacant storefronts as recently as the 1990s, a far livelier place, as the proliferation of ethnic restaurants attests, many residents said.

The demographic shift has been striking. From 2000 to 2010, the number of people who identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino rose by 43 percent.

The white population, meanwhile, dropped by 21 percent, part of a long-term exodus to the suburbs. The number of white children declined 40 percent, part of a long-term exodus of white families. At East Boston High School, 15 percent of students are white. At Donald McKay, a K-8 school, 6 percent are.

Yet the change has not given the Latino community as much political clout as might be expected; 80 percent of East Boston’s foreign-born residents are not US citizens, according to a survey by the US Census Bureau.

The changing face of the neighborhood, many said, will have a decided influence on the casino debate. For many older Italian-Americans, casinos have a glamorous, nostalgic allure, while newcomers tend to see them as antithetical to the goal of a “middle-class urban village,’’ Giacalone said.

Along the same lines, many new arrivals unsuccessfully resisted a Burger King in Maverick Square, he said.

“It was a reminder that maybe East Boston is not becoming the neighborhood they want, as fast as they want,’’ he said.

Michael Gobbi and grandson, Michael Angelo-Felciano, 13 months old, live near Suffolk Downs, in the multicultural neighborhood.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Michael Gobbi and grandson, Michael Angelo-Felciano, 13 months old, live near Suffolk Downs, in the multicultural neighborhood.

Despite its proximity to downtown, East Boston feels distinctly separate from the rest of the city, and residents often chafe at its image as little more than Logan Airport. They have also looked on in envy as waterfront developments spring up in Charlestown and South Boston, while long stretches of East Boston’s shoreline lie fallow and fenced off.

The recession stopped a number of developments in their tracks, but officials have pledged to revive the area. Earlier this year, Mayor Thomas M. Menino outlined a plan for city investment to help jump-start a number of stalled projects.

In the Orient Heights section, where many longtime residents live, many believe a casino will usher in a new day for a neighborhood in flux.

“It’s just what this neighborhood needs,’’ said Malcolm Silva, a 69-year-old on his way to the track. “It’ll be a shot in the arm.’’

From her home, which overlooks the first turn of the racetrack, Jeanne Petrillo said the casino issue has divided a closeknit neighborhood, inciting strong emotions on both sides. But everyone agrees the stakes are high.

“The people who say yes say ‘Hell, yes!’ ’’ she said. “The people who say no say ‘Hell, no!’ It’s delicate.’’

Among those who have spent their entire lives in East Boston, nostalgia for the old days runs deep. Michael Gobbi, 47, admits all the changes have made him feel like “a stranger in my own town.’’

“Before, everybody knew everybody,’’ he said. “Now, there’s no community.’’

Sitting on the stoop with his young grandson, Gobbi said the casino would bring more jobs, and would probably bring more crime. But it would not bring back the past.

“It’s a different world now,’’ he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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