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Freedom Corner Push: Freedom from Casino

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Kimberly Ellis wasn't sure what direction the two-day "'Raise Your Hand! No Casino on the Hill" rally/street theater would take. On opening day, Nov. 3, she had set up Freedom Corner at Centre Ave. and Crawford Street in the Hill District with microphones for anyone to use, while a sound system played her own song, "Raise Your Hand! The Hill Freedom Song," on a loop.

The lyrics served as a mission statement: "We've got a lot to be proud of our past / and we're gonna build a future that's gonna last / so we don't want no casino on the Hill." It is a mistake to build a casino, Ellis sings, when "we still ain't got no grocery store."

It was a cold day, and most onlookers didn't hang around for more than a few minutes. But Ellis and a handful of "Raise Your Hand!" supporters enthusiastically gave out flyers to everyone who walked -- or drove -- by.

Ellis is also known by the stage name Dr. Goddess, which is both a declaration of self-empowerment and a tongue-in-cheek allusion to her doctorate in American Studies. She declared the rally a success, even though the crowd never got big enough to need the microphones.

"It's primarily an awareness campaign," she said, "and we have definitely increased the level of awareness" -- awareness that Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., one of three companies vying to place a slots parlor in Pittsburgh, wants to put its facility in the Hill District. Competing proposals are for casinos in Station Square and the North Shore, but Isle of Capri is the only one aiming to build in a residential area.

Supporters of Isle of Capri's plan argue that their casino will bring restaurants, hotels and other businesses to the Hill District, as well as new housing -- not to mention the promised new arena for the Penguins -- and will thus encourage economic growth.

Ellis, who has lived in the Hill District for most of her life, does not believe a casino is the kind of development that will help the area. And if nothing else, Ellis wants the casino to be on everyone's mind. "[The rally] is just the first step of many," she said.

Freedom Corner has been a Hill location for protest since the late 1950s, when the city started tearing down parts of the Lower Hill to make way for the Civic (now Mellon) Arena. Oluwashegun Amen-ra, whose "No Casino on the Hill" sign received honks and thumbs-up from drivers, remembers the outcry by his grandparents against such urban renewal, and is hoping for the same kind of protest now.

"Look what [gambling] has done to Wheeling, West Virginia, and Atlantic City," says Amen-ra. "All people are going to do is come, gamble, and leave." The only thing a casino will bring to the Hill, he adds, is crime, "misery and grief."

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