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At OTB parlors, ghosts of wagers past linger

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NEW YORK » It took OTB a long time to be born. And it is taking a long time to die.

Make no mistake: The 50 or so Off-Track Betting Corp. parlors across the city have been closed since December. But very few of the spaces have found new tenants — not in this economy, and not in their condition. So OTB lives on in apparition.

The corner parlor at Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills still wears its 1971 livery, the original OTB logo, like strands of spaghetti on a Kelly green platter. A field of blue ponies still thunders across the facade of the parlor and teletheater on Avenue U in Marine Park, Brooklyn. At Seventh Avenue and 38th Street in Manhattan, a red neon sign still blazes "Off-Tra," as if noir set designers had been through. And stacks of fresh betting slips still sit in the window of the parlor at 7206 13th Avenue in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

But the bettors have dispersed, and with them so has another small "d" democratic New York community — or communities, really, since the parlors were distinctly local. Puerto Rican on Winchester Avenue in the Bronx; Chinese on Chatham Square in Manhattan; Caribbean on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. All vanished.

Which is just fine with Elaine Camerada, 71, the Grandma of Grandma’s Bakery at 7208 13th Avenue, next to the parlor in Dyker Heights.

"Thank God they’re gone," Camerada said early one morning as she shuttled loaves of freshly baked bread from racks to shelves. "The language. The fights. The filth. The screams. So they do it over the Internet or go to the casinos." Then she raised her eyebrows, as if to say, "Who cares how they’re losing their money now?"

Michael Lan, 51, the manager of Dinastia China, a restaurant on the Upper West Side, recalled patrons smoking outside the parlor next door, at 143 West 72nd Street. They littered on the sidewalk, called out rudely to women, demanded free water and sometimes solicited money from his customers. "The bottom line is we’re glad they left," Lan said.

In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, however, Raquel Ramos, 75, who works at a nearby senior center, took a more charitable view of the clientele at the parlor on Fifth Avenue, near 57th Street.

"This place was always packed," Ramos said outside the parlor, where the wood-paneled betting window bays are still visible through the storefront. "There were a lot of seniors who liked to gamble. I liked to see them having fun in there. Now, they’re just standing around on the corner."

Fun was not what the individual calling himself the Birdman of Bensonhurst observed in the parlor under the el tracks on 86th Street, near Bay 29th Street, in Brooklyn.

"I watched people throw away millions and millions of dollars," he said. "Billions." He declined to give his real name and would identify the blue parakeet on his left shoulder only as Puffy. "It’s a sickness. You have to get help."

The idea of channeling gambling proceeds into the city treasury — and out of the hands of illegal bookmakers — had been floated many times before the first OTB windows opened in April 1971, at Grand Central Terminal and on Queens Boulevard.

In practice, the idea proved unwieldy and, at last, unprofitable. After the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made it clear that its days were numbered. "Only in government can you run a bookie operation and actually lose money every year," he said last October.

Two months later, after the State Senate declined to pass a rescue bill, the corporation closed its parlors and laid off about 1,000 workers.

Most outlets now have "for rent" signs on them. The two-story parlor on Second Avenue in Manhattan, between 52nd and 53rd Streets, has more than that. It is wrapped entirely in vinyl siding that depicts an imaginary cafe and boutique.

"I don’t mind telling people that it’s a former OTB," said Jeffrey D. Roseman, an executive vice president of Newmark Knight Frank Retail, the real estate company that is marketing the space. "But I don’t want them to see it was an OTB when they’re standing in front of it, because it was so God-ugly."

Though the parlors could be unpleasant, Jessica Chapel said on her horse-racing blog, Railbird, that she felt at home among the oddball collection of characters. "On particularly unhappy days," she wrote, "I’d slip into a parlor downtown, and enjoy the anonymous companionship of others staring intently at programs and talking horses and hoping for that one big win."

Could reminiscences like this set the stage for a preservation movement?

Elisabeth de Bourbon, the communications director at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, gave the matter some thought before offering a personal observation.

"Isn’t it possible for a memory of a place to live on without a physical remnant?" she asked. "Does every place have to be remembered? I’m sure there are a lot of people who’d rather forget a place where they may have lost every dime they made."

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