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Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Stared the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Hal Rothman

 

Introduction

A look down Las Vegas Boulevard, more widely known as the "World Famous Las Vegas Strip," on New Year's 2000, revealed the triumph of post-industrial capitalism, information and experience, over its industrial predecessor. Billions of dollars from the world financial markets had been fashioned into a long line of casinos lit against the night sky. This post-modern spectacle, this combination of space and form in light and dark that owed nothing to its surroundings and left meaning in the eye of the beholder, is one of the largest private investments in public art anywhere. It produced no tangible goods of any significance, yet generated billions of dollars annually in revenue. Here was the first city of twenty-first century, the place where desire met capital, where instinct replaced restraint, where the future of a society, for better and worse, took a form that had been inconceivable even a generation before. In the 1990s, Las Vegas had come into its own, had become a city on par with other American metropolises in its significance, but that generated its profit in a different way than any other city on earth.

 

In the twelve years since the opening of the Mirage on New Year's Eve, 1988-1989, the Strip had become a world class center of entertainment encased in a fantasyland portrayal of time and space. The golden Mandalay Bay at the southern tip, the pyramid-shaped Luxor, and the faux Medieval castles of the Excalibur melded fake history with an impression of the exotic. The green glow of the MGM Grand and the raucous architecture of New York, New York, graced by the Statute of Liberty, arm thrust in the air somehow more aggressively than in the original, offered American life recast on a scale and style that reminded of Disney but promised something entirely more fantastic. In the middle of the Strip, Paris Las Vegas, replete with the Eiffel Tower, and the Bellagio, a little Lake Como with its orchestrated fountains dancing water into the air to an array of stunning music, presented Europe and its cultures as Americans wish they were. The Mirage's volcano and Treasure Island's hourly battle between a pirate ship and the British Navy offered imaginative fantasy rooted in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Caesars Palace, gaming's most recognizable brand with its tacit promise to make every man and woman a Caesar, gave the public gladiators and Cleopatras, and the Venetian's gondolas marked the newest claimant to the throne of preeminence in the war for the heart of the visiting public. These little city-states, interrelated little kingdoms, entirely self-contained and at war for customers, run by their own logic. They share a purpose, making money by providing pleasure, but they pursue this objective in varying ways. Against the backdrop of commercial competition from the Age of Exploration, the Strip combined to offer the past, the present, high, low, and nobrow culture, all in the space of one long city street. It offered a world both fantastic and unreal, yet simultaneously tangible and available to purchase. Here was the unbelievable made temporal, to be held in your hands. Here was America in the new millennium.

 

Las Vegas offered much more than a visual spectacle that and every night. For pleasure that millennial weekend, the city presented Barbara Streisand, a Tina Turner and Elton John co-bill, Bette Midler, the Eagles, Celine Dion, Carlos Santana, Rod Stewart, Gladys Knight, Hall and Oates, and a host of other headliners; for experience, the sheer thought of hundreds of thousands of people in the same place celebrating was enough to make anyone who craved that sort of thing giddy. The national television networks covered Las Vegas, promising to ferret out the real city. NBC, Fox, and CNN could be found at Caesars Palace. Connie Chung and ABC 2000 broadcast live from a floating platform in the Bellagio's artificial lake. Some wondered if she'd need an umbrella when the fountains did their dance, sending water as much as 240 feet in the air. The media and the 300,000 or so who flocked to Las Vegas that night had come to participate in an orgy of the unruly combination of experience, self, and commodity that is what culture has become in the United States. We crave experience as affirmation of ourselves; the packages of experience we buy in all its forms set us apart from one another as it makes us feel important and grants us out claim that we're unique. In an age when goods alone no longer offer true distinction, we use experience to prove that we're special, to set ourselves apart from others, to win the ultimate battle of the cocktail party by having the most interesting story to tell. Through its own bizarre alchemy, its chameleon-like ability to imitate so well that the copy it creates is often more enticing than the original, Las Vegas accomplishes that neat trick: it lets any visitor believe that they are at the center of the experience the Desert City offers. Las Vegas intuited the needs of the Baby Boomers and the changing national and global culture they created, replicated its DNA, and made it more palatable, more satisfying, and strangely more meaningful than the places, events, and concepts it mimicked. Like Disneyland, Las Vegas encapsulates what we are. Every year millions come to bask in its reflection. No one thinks Las Vegas is real; it is illusion, but visitors routinely suspend disbelief and pretend. Only snobs look down on Las Vegas these days, for its magic is green and gold, the colors of power and status in the post-industrial world.

 

Las Vegas has become the first city of the twenty-first century, the one that blends entertainment, experience, and opportunity for the broadest swath of the American and world public. It fulfills the desires of the Baby Boomers, reflects the abundance that they take for granted and the selfish indulgence, the hedonistic libertarianism that is the legacy of the American Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In its promise of a luxury experience for a middle class price, Las Vegas encourages social mobility; it guarantees escape from the mundane with you at the center of the story. It is this freedom to which the Baby Boomers feel entitled and it is reflected in nearly every dimension of their impact on American society. Postmodern, postindustrial capitalism is about consuming experience, not goods, about creating insatiable desire that must be fulfilled in front of an approving audience. Las Vegas is geared to meet this challenge, to provide the audience, to deliver more than anywhere else and hold out the possibility of still more. The ability to quench desire brings people; the chance to dream of more brings them back again and again. In its latest incarnation, Las Vegas has become a center, a place of power, one people talk about, write about, and try to understand, typically without a set of tools equal to the task. Las Vegas has long been a canvas on which Americans paint their neuroses; the new city has become something entirely original precisely because of its ability to imitate so well. Its product is intangible; instead of goods, Las Vegas dispenses smiles on the faces of its visitors, provides the illusion of happiness in a moment that has commodified and packaged that sentiment at the same time it illuminates the outlines of the world of the future.

 

This transition has been rapid; two generations ago, modern Las Vegas was born with a cosmopolitan cachet that quickly degenerated. Only a generation ago, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Las Vegas retained its stigma as the sleazy home of tawdry sex and mobsters. Its face then was different, more twisted to the mainstream, yet alluring in powerful ways. Cleaned up, Las Vegas was what we wanted to become. It had been the epitome of American deviance, but as such, it seemed headed toward a dismal end, something that seemed to be drawing to a close as visitation totals dropped in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Las Vegas seemed played out, worn out, passe, soon to be cast aside as a flimsy relic of an of laced-up pseudo morality. From that nadir, the merging of a constellation of forces, the liberalization of American culture, the growing premium on the self, and the normalization of Las Vegas prominent among them, have made Las Vegas the place to be and be seen as the new century begins. The former capital of deviance has become the linchpin of not only national obsessions but our individual aspirations as well. Las Vegas simultaneously looks backward and forward, attracts and repels. Only the Baby Boomers could demand Las Vegas and the Strip. Only capitalism, with its peculiar genius for catering to desires it creates, could invent it. ** Topped by an enormous thirty-five-foot high Coca-Cola bottle but overshadowed by the billion dollar behemoths around it, Showcase on the Las Vegas Strip offered America's capital of leisure something new when it opened in 1997. Next to the MGM Grand and sporting SKG Gameworks with Surge Rock, named for Coca-Cola's latest soft drink, in the middle, and the All-Star Café, this cutting-edge entertainment power center had not a single slot machine. No 21 tables, no buffet, none of the customary accouterments of Strip properties could be found in the $160 million project. Instead, Showcase presented mainstream entertainment, wholesome and for the kids, packaged for the young of today and their pliant parents. From the All-Star Café, huge pictures of Joe Montana, Tiger Woods, Martina Navratilova, Andre Agassi, and Wayne Gretzky looked down on the new Las Vegas. Their images - all sports stars, all in sports on which you can legally wager in Nevada - gave the new Strip, the haven of recreation and entertainment for a society that has become more visual than textual, the figurative thumbs-up.

 

The brainchild of two young entrepreneurs, Barry Fieldman and Robert Unger, Showcase anticipated a future that was already here and pointed to changes not only in Las Vegas but in the fundamental structure of national culture as well. Showcase wasn't a casino and it didn't have a single hotel room. The development was a symbol, a project that could only occur in the context of the growth around it. Its $160 million price tag made it a minuscule endeavor compared to the nearby hotels, a number of which topped $1 billion in cost. No one came to the city to specifically see Showcase, but joined to the visual and psychic transformation of the Strip, the property brought the future another step closer. Showcase articulated important links between what had once been the nation's capital of deviance and the core of the liberal consumerism that now passes for culture and has become American faith. The enormous coke bottle made the difference. Coke's presence on the Strip affirmed the new Las Vegas in a way that no other brand could. No better representative of transnational capitalism than Coca-Cola existed, and few companies were more conscious of their image and their place in the global economy. Robert Goizueta, Coke's chairman from 1981 until 1997, piloted the company to preeminence in the emerging global economy. Earning about $5 billion in annual revenue in the early 1980s, the company topped $150 billion before Goizueta stepped down. From Turner Field in Atlanta to Fenway Park in Boston, Coca-Cola picked its spots. Coke's red and white logo was ubiquitous, but only a few chosen places received its symbolic anointment. In 1990, World of Coca-Cola, a prototype for Showcase, opened in Coke's hometown of Atlanta. It stood as a testimony to a future that no one thought would ever grace the Las Vegas Strip.

 

The sponsorship of the symbol of global capitalism - service, quality, and refreshment melded together - was a major coup for the Desert City. It was no accident that Forrest City, the Cleveland-based developer with properties all over the country and a critical player in the redevelopment of Cleveland's downtown, partnered with Fieldman and Unger. Las Vegas offered a development opportunity like no other, a reprise of other booms in a new and different shape. The "nation's new capital," as The Sporting News labeled the town in 1998 with only a little of its tongue in its acerbic cheek, was hip and profitable. The new Las Vegas could stimulate, titillate, and be safe, clean, and fun at the very same instant.

 

Showcase was a small piece of a much larger transformation. One year later in October 1998, Steve Wynn opened the Bellagio; the more than $2 billion hotel included Wynn's $350 million collection of masterpieces, Rubens, Picasso, Degas, Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Andy Warhol among them. Within eighteen months, Sheldon Adelson at the Venetian had entered into an agreement with the Guggenheim and Hermitage museums and hired renowned architect Rem Koolhaus to design Las Vegas' 35,000-square-foot satellite gallery. When Wynn sold his empire to meta-financier and impresario Kirk Kerkorian and MGM Grand in May 2000, he kept much of his collection and the MGM offered the rest for sale. High art seemed to reach a dead end in Las Vegas, but to the surprise of many, the gallery did not disappear. Instead, MGM negotiated with the Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., for a traveling exhibit that recorded more than 200,000 visitors in its first five months of display, Wynn planned to display his collection in the property he intended to build in place of the Desert Inn, and within a few months, Koolhaus' Guggenheim was under construction. After the purchase of the Mirage group, Las Vegas ended up with more instead of fewer masterpieces, a counterintuitive result that reflected the city's new status. Not only had mainstream commercial culture arrived in a visible way with Showcase; simultaneously so had highbrow culture, the very cultural elitism that long led its adherents to disdain Las Vegas and had lost its ability to reach across American society. In the clearest reflection of rise of Nobrow culture, high art seemed likely to become a permanent presence in the desert.

 

The combination accelerated the transition of the town that had once been the epitome of American deviance, a risque aberration in a society persuaded of its own morality. The nation long looked down on its Sin City, and Las Vegas was excluded from the main patterns of post-World War II American prosperity in industrial America. The corridors of growth and development went around Las Vegas, and the city had to forge its own divergent idiosyncratic way. During the 1940s and 1950s, almost no one from the centers of power in American society invested in the desert oasis. The idea of an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of stock for a casino was ludicrous. The rare attempt fell flat, victim of a marketplace that disdained what casinos sold and looked down, way down, on places that permitted such activities. The wealthy and the powerful wanted no connection to gambling and corruption. Gambling had been a pastime for the lazy, those who wanted a short cut; a neo-Victorian culture rightly scorned it as a vice and more, something not only sinful, but demeaning to individuals and their society as well. Even those who were tempted by dollar signs feared disapproving friends at the country clubs or scathing editorials in the newspapers. The financial markets would not touch gambling. With money to be made elsewhere and the gambling industry marred by the stigma of hoodlums, Wall Street saw no percentage in backing deviance. Gambling was illegal everywhere else. American society grappled with the transition from deferred gratification to immediate self-indulgence and Las Vegas' idea of fun as excess was too much. In a society in which Ward and June Cleaver were the iconography of normal, how could staid bankers, pillars of the community and first pew at church, finance casinos - with half-naked showgirls - run by guys with accents? As late as the 1980s, as the Baby Boomers reached positions of power in American society, this stigma remained powerful. Even though American morality had loosened considerably, Las Vegas was not yet truly legitimate. In 1983, CitiCorp located a service center in Las Vegas. This financial giant so worried that its credit-card clients would balk at mailing payments to a Las Vegas address that it invented a fictitious town, "The Lakes, Nevada," to soothe customers' worries. No one in Las Vegas minded; it was better to have the payment center than not to. "We would have let them call it Citibank City then if they'd wanted to," recalled Somer Hollingsworth, then a leading banker and president of the Nevada Development Authority in 2000. The tarnished image of Las Vegas stood, solid and visible, almost twenty-five years after the Del E. Webb Corporation simultaneously owned the New York Yankees and the Sahara on the Strip; seventeen years after Howard Hughes departed from his train car and pulled up to the Desert Inn in his combination ambulance-luxury vehicle; seven years after Atlantic City legalized casino gaming; four years after Chemical Bank determined that the Sahara needed $25 million more than it asked for to renovate its property on the northern edge of the Strip; and as Circus Circus secured almost $500 million in bank loans near the prime to support its newest project. CitiCorp recognized the economic advantages of a Las Vegas location. Wall Street already knew. But in the view of corporate executives, the American public - at least those who held credit cards at the onset of the great spasm of loosening credit - was still dubious of the ability for even a primary American corporation to be responsible in the face of endlessly encouraged excess.

 

On New Year's Eve 1988-1989, Las Vegas entered a new era, grander than any in its past. The Mirage Phase began with impresario Steve Wynn, the former liquor distributor who morphed into the progenitor of a Las Vegas that melded gaming and entertainment, and his Mirage Hotel and Casino. The Mirage cost $630 million, about $500 million more than any previous casino, and needed to clear $1 million a day to meet its overhead. The new hotels completed since then - Excalibur (1990), Luxor (1993), Treasure Island (1993), MGM Grand (1993), a few blocks off-Strip, the Hard Rock Hotel (1995), the Stratosphere Tower (1996), Monte Carlo (1996), New York, New York (1996), Bellagio (1998), Mandalay Bay (1999), Venetian (1999), Paris (1999), and the new Aladdin (2000) - took a city of mid-size hotels and turned it into a 125,000-room paradise of enormous properties, a metropolitan area of a mere 1.4 million people with twice the number of hotel rooms of New York or Los Angeles. Wynn's Bellagio was the capstone, a $2.1 billion casino, easily the most well-appointed casino space anywhere and a candidate for the most gracious public-private space as well. Wynn envisioned the Bellagio as a casino-hotel in which women would be comfortable, a different framing in a town known for the pandering to male pleasure built into its fabric. The Bellagio enjoyed the "best assortment of shopping on the planet," Wynn proclaimed, and with amenities like the $350 million art collection, its remarkable restaurants, and superior drinks - women swear that the Bellagio makes the best Cosmopolitan anyone's ever tasted - the attraction was obvious. Wynn made his reputation on service, and there was simply no place - anywhere - like the Bellagio. The ante in the Las Vegas poker game had become astronomical. Only the boldest of the bold could afford to buy a seat at the table. In the space of a decade, Las Vegas had ceased to be an experience limited to gambling and had crossed a line into the culture of the future. In that brief time, Las Vegas had gone from gambling to gaming to tourism to entertainment.

 

During the same time, American society underwent a remarkable shift. The old rules and standards were tossed out, and new ones, defined through media, evolved into prominent positions in a world without clear cultural distinctions. Experience has become currency and entertainment has replaced conventional definitions of culture. Experience is what Americans trade, how they define themselves; entertainment has become the storehouse of national values. Authentic and inauthentic have blurred; it's not that people can't tell the difference - they can. But in a culture without a dominant set of premises or commonly agreed upon values, topped by a strong twist of relativism, it's hard to communicate why conventional authenticity is better. "Better" morphs into preference, and people do as they please, encouraged by talk shows, self-help books, and twelve-step programs. When the value is on the self, when people rationalize their pleasure as socially useful, when it's all "me, me, me, now, now, now," what they seek is Las Vegas. ** To generations of Americans, Las Vegas is a code for self-indulgence and sanctioned deviance. It is a town of fun, of excess, where anything and everything is possible and for sale. It is Bugsy Siegel and the Rat Pack, Shecky Greene, and Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, the Lido de Paris, the Follies Bergere, and countless bump-and-grind joints. It is the place that you promise your mother you'll never go, then break that promise with a wink and a leer. No place in the United States gives permission like the Las Vegas of myth.

 

There is another Las Vegas, a real place found now on the business pages of The Wall Street Journal instead of the police blotters or the scandal sheets. To date, the money people have best grasped this change; the cultural cognoscenti can't get past the myth. For almost fifteen years, this Las Vegas has been the fastest growing place in the nation, the first city of the post-industrial world. In the process, its population doubled and then nearly doubled again as its physical expanse exploded all over the desert. Rapid growth obliterated the old company town and replaced it with the post-modern metropolis, the leading tourist destination in the world and the only city in the world devoted to the consumption of entertainment. In 1999, Las Vegas surpassed Mecca as the most visited place on earth. It's this Las Vegas that is featured in Worth magazine, that is considered by entrepreneurs the best city in America to start a business, where despite sexual exploitation in the core of the economy, a phenomenal number of women open their own businesses and succeed. People are born by the thousands in this Las Vegas, a lot more in the 1990s than the 1950s, and they live, go to school, work, start businesses, marry and raise families, and attend church, synagogue, and mosque. This Las Vegas is a fast-moving place, through which billions of dollars travel - for land acquisition, for infrastructure development, be it roads, sewer pipes, water and waste water projects, airports, and a plethora of related structures and systems, for hotels, casinos, homes, and the like. New strip malls and doctors' offices spring up daily, serving the never-ending stream of newcomers. Orange cones dot the roads, always under construction, ever longer and wider. Growth overwhelmed so quickly in southern Nevada that when U.S. Senator Harry Reid ran for reelection in 1998, incumbency was neither advantage nor disadvantage; it was meaningless, a cipher. His constituency had no history with the senator. More than half the state's registered voters - almost all in Clark County, home to greater Las Vegas - had not been Nevadans during his 1992 campaign.

 

Out of this outburst of people, ideas, and money came something remarkable: an index of the economy, social mores, and culture of a changing society. As Time magazine announced in 1994, the nation had become more like Las Vegas. At the same time, Las Vegas became a lot more like the rest of America - in where its financial capital came from and who lent it, in the distribution of its demography, in who lived there and what they did, in their levels of education, in the businesses that catered to the community, and in countless other ways. The flimsy aberration became more than a reflection of the salacious desire of the underside of American life. It offered a primary outlet in a self-indulgent and fast-changing society, the ability to reinvent the self to the applause of a paid audience. When roller coasters were good clean fun, Las Vegas was risque. Now that casinos are a legitimate recreation and entertainment choice, what was once Sin City is now the mainstream, nowhere near as shocking as pierced privates, gangsta rap, or the admissions fourteen-year-olds routinely make on the Jerry Springer Show. Las Vegas is still socially sanctioned deviance. Its brand is just more comfortable to more Americans than it used to be.

 

Las Vegas is different from much of the nation precisely because it is a part of the future that never shared in the prosperity of the past. It is a rare human who ate an apple grown in an orchard in the Las Vegas Valley or wore a sweater from the wool of sheep that fattened on its desert flora. Few machine tools were ever ground to a fine edge in the valley. Even fewer people made their living in its automotive plants. Las Vegas' past is of the margins of American society, of the places now abandoned, forgotten, overlooked, or just hanging on. Its history shares more with Carlsbad, New Mexico, ecstatic to receive the nation's first low-level transuranic nuclear waste dump, than it does with New York or Los Angeles or even Omaha. Las Vegas doesn't have traditions unless they're staged for visitors. It recognizes the past for what it is, an ephemeral and malleable story line, and remakes it not for the present but for the future. Among the places that never found their way in the industrial world, Las Vegas is unique: it forged a divergent future at which the good people of the centers of American culture turned up their noses and made it into a remarkable success. While small towns around the nation withered after 1945, Las Vegas became a city - at odds with the rest of the nation to be sure, but a real city nonetheless - and then the rest of the nation strangely caught up, tried it out, and found that it had a lot more in common with Las Vegas than most would care to admit. Las Vegas has pieces of the puzzle of the future, ways to solve the problems of the present, but maybe not in a form that can be transplanted to other places. The rhythms of Las Vegas are different; they spring from a different well, flow in different streams, and lead to different results. Wearing the glasses of industrial America, the constellation of premises and expectations that shaped the first eighty years of the twentieth century, only fogs the Las Vegas landscape. With those eyes, you can only see the difference. The convergence so central to the future is obscured, cropped from the picture. "This is America," the narrator in Neal Stephenson's 1992 futuristic cyber classic Snow Crash asserts. "People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing . . . because they have a right to." In Stephenson's world, there are four things his "we" - the people who live in North America - do better than anyone else: they make music, movies, and microcode (software), and they deliver pizza. One of those, microcode, belongs to Silicon Valley and its offspring. The rest - service and entertainment - belong to the new Las Vegas. **

From its twentieth-century inception, Las Vegas was always ripe to become anything that paid. In the desert, away from the systems that sustained American cities, Las Vegas had to forge its own destiny. When middle-class America subscribed to a largely uniform set of values derived from the Victorian era, there were clear lines of conduct outside of which people strayed only at great risk. This created a culture of confinement, of proscribed values and behaviors, and a world in which a minor deviant turn at the wrong time or place could put someone entirely beyond the pale of the respectable society. If you stepped over the line, you couldn't come back. "They hung a sign up in this town," Tom Waits described that world in Hold On, "if you live it up you won't live it down." Everything went on your "permanent record," as the vision of venal authority, Dean Vernon Wermer trumpeted in 1978's Animal House.

Such a controlled society desperately craved a release, a place to blow off its internalized steam, and to the post-1945 world, that outlet was Las Vegas. In the desert, you could indulge yourself, even sin for a fee without paying the social price. Slot machines and gaming tables were everywhere; food and drink was plentiful and free. Nevada even had legalized brothels and casinos engaged in a furtive and active sex trade as well. In Las Vegas, you could exercise your fantasies. Everything, it seemed, was for sale. In the 1930s, Las Vegas offered an image of the mythology of the nineteenth-century West, where a person could thrive and few institutions impinged upon the myth of American individualism. This image persisted even with the glorification of a new cultural chic that began with Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo in 1946 and continued for a generation. Las Vegas was first deviance, a place to sin with impunity, where actions that at home would certainly bring disgrace and might even land a person in jail were perfectly acceptable. This scapegoat of a town, a place to cast off sins in a morally and socially constricted society, was an absolute necessity both for its devotees and its detractors. Its patrons needed its freedom, the glitz, glitter, and casual life it promised, while its opponents needed its image as a way to contrast good and social evil. In this, Las Vegas served a clear, necessary, and widely agreed-upon role. Occasionally there were scandals - the Kefauver hearings that investigated organized crime in the early 1950s provided a prominent example - and Las Vegas survived with a sense of humor and a bawdy irreverence. And why not? Its people had, to an individual, chosen a life at variance with the norms of their society. Las Vegas began to change even before the rest of American society. The forces that supported it were at odds with the mainstream and its limitations forced Las Vegas to bend to the will of whatever would generate its revenues. This dependence gave Las Vegas a fluidity, a way around the rules of mid-century America that locals learned to treasure. The city learned that its shape was always transitory, always flexible, not only because it responded to the emotions of a larger culture but equally because the forces that were behind the city were on the borders of legality and acted as if their efforts could disappear overnight. Even in moments of great success, Las Vegas had a powerful sense of impermanence, a strong intuition that whatever ruled today might very well not tomorrow.

 

That malleability served Las Vegas well when both American society and the world economy were reinvented as the American industrial economy declined. OPEC and the oil shortages it caused, inflation, and the end of post-war prosperity all hit at once, best epitomized by the rising cost of gasoline for which the nation stood in line in 1974. In an instant, the pillars of post-war prosperity, cheap energy, the rising value of wages, and low inflation, came crashing down. Gerald Ford and his WIN - Whip Inflation Now - button were the best response his administration could muster. Beginning in 1974, the United States entered a twenty-three-year period that represented a regression to the American economic mean. The catalyst was the annual drop - for each of those twenty-three years - in the real value of hourly wages. Simply put, people worked longer hours to stay where they were on the socioeconomic ladder. One-income families became more scarce. It took more hours to make the grade in each successive year, and middle-class women entered the work force in greater numbers than ever before in American history. While the reasons for this transformation of the so-called pink ghetto of teaching and nursing where women had been consigned were as much social as economic, the change in economic direction of the nation spoke of a harder, more competitive workplace with fewer opportunities to rise.


The global economic realignment that began with the combination of the OPEC oil embargo and the post-Vietnam War inflation masked larger considerations. The fundamental basis of the world economy shifted away from natural resources - of which Las Vegas had few - and toward a combination of information and entertainment that took advantage of an array of new technologies from the VCR to the Internet. This transformation was as great as the Industrial Revolution. It changed the global economy from its basis in industrialism to an information and service configuration. The Information Age, in which knowledge and the ability to manipulate it genuinely became power, became its progeny, and the range and significance of the service economy dramatically increased. When you could get anything you wanted in virtual time and space, a new premium was added to actual experience. In an age when anyone could wear a Rolex or lease a BMW, when you could ski the Alps from your computer terminal, actual experience, the commodity that Las Vegas specialized in, gained rather than lost significance. The microchip spawned a new world with a new set of rules. Against all odds, Las Vegas became one of the winners. At the same time, changes in the fundamental nature of American society began the long road to making Las Vegas part of a broader American mainstream. The cultural liberalization of the United States from a place where Baptist preachers piled rock 'n' roll records on Friday night bonfires and Elvis Presley could be shown on television only from the waist up to the individually oriented culture of personal choice of the cusp of the new century created the context for the rise of leisure and the transformation of socially unacceptable "gambling" into recreational "gaming." Las Vegas had perfected the service economy long before the rest of the nation began to encounter it. The rise of entertainment as a form of commodity increased the cachet of the city. With Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s and the Hard Rock Hotel thirty-five years later, Las Vegas captured high status, commercial cutting-edge culture. In the process, the town became more sophisticated at reflecting the desires of the public back onto it, at creating a script for visitors that placed you - any you - at the dead center of all that swirled around you.

Las Vegas's ability to change itself into the newest fashion is the root of its success as a purveyor of the low-skill, high-wage service economy. With nearly a century's head start on offering people what they demand and in a culture that insists that the act of buying something makes the purchaser the center of the story, Las Vegas has a strategy to export that is more than mere gaming. In the transformation to entertainment as the basis of culture, Las Vegas leads all others, despite the relatively low levels of education and skill in much of its workforce. Perfecting the smile on the face, creating a city that implodes its past, pursuing a theming that has replaced the desert of the Sands and the Dunes with the Italy of the Venetian and the Bellagio as well as the tinytowns of the Orleans, Paris, and New York, New York, Las Vegas has reached an astonishing maturity. The busiest corner in the world is either Tropicana and the Strip or Flamingo and the Strip. The two corners have been at war with each other for two decades, each claiming primacy as its newest innovation opens. At any time of the day or night, any day of the week, month, or year, these places are jammed. Hundreds of thousands walk the Strip to see the sights - from the Statue of Liberty to the fountains at Bellagio, the Eiffel Tower, the volcano at the Mirage, and the pirate battle at Treasure Island. Locals muse that someday a hotel on the Strip will surely accommodate those who stroll the Strip to marvel at its faux wonders; called "Las Vegas, Las Vegas," it will be a cutdown version of the Strip with all its hotels inside a Strip hotel. People will be able to see the Strip without ever going outside - at 5/8 scale - and they won't get sunburned in the process! ** Las Vegas remains different, harder, tougher, and a little bit stranger than most places. It is a true desert city, built on a small oasis rather a flowing source of water. Las Vegas means "the meadows," and underground artesian wells created the lush wide spot in the desert that became the basis of the community. Now that ground is a wild patch in the city, a part of the Las Vegas Valley Water District's holdings where the water is diverted before it reaches the surface and the land is let wild and managed to be as wild as it can be in the middle of a metropolitan area. Las Vegas is the largest American city that truly began in the twentieth century. Its nineteenth-century Mormon outpost was an isolated moment rather than a piece of continuity with the present. It is the only city that can claim that its very survival hinged on Americans' willingness to transcend the norms of their society.

 

As the twentieth century ended, Las Vegas became the court of last resort for displaced humanity from around the globe. If you couldn't make it somewhere else, if your factory closed and you didn't want to wait around the union hall or go through retraining to be a what? If your logging job disappeared, if a friend lost a finger at the plant and the risk seemed too real, if the crops finally gave out, Las Vegas offered the same promise it offered visitors. You could reinvent yourself there. For a generation, most came expecting to beat the odds. These "something-for-nothing-suckers" genuinely believed that they were the one who would defy probability, to strike it rich in the biggest of ways. This wasn't thug-turned-local philanthropist Moe Dalitz's town or later Steve Wynn's. It was theirs, their fantasies told them. At first, these migrants were foolish, desperate people living on the very edge. Many wised up and realized that the real opportunity in Las Vegas was unskilled blue-collar work at union scale and tips in a town with a low cost of living and no taxes to speak of. The transformation created a town that was like everywhere else and simultaneously apart. Las Vegas seemed equal parts Washington, D.C., a transient place where everyone was on the make; Los Angeles or Miami as more and more conversations were in Spanish and signs offered pollo and carne asada; Phoenix as almost twenty percent of the population was retired and medical care became a huge industry; Detroit of the old days, with its vocal and powerful semi-skilled unionized work force, and New Orleans, the city that, as Etta James still sings, "care forgot, where everybody parties a lot." At the same time, Las Vegas was different, newer, less structured, more vital, with fewer rules and wider degrees of what constituted normal. Its mythic status made it into its own place whatever the similarities with the rest of the world.

 

Las Vegas was and is a hard town that will make you pay for your inability to restrain your desires. "It turns women into men," comedian Alan King quipped, "and men into asses." "You have no idea how many families have lost daughters to the strip clubs," a well-dressed middle-aged African American woman told me with real pain in her voice. Atop Binion's Horseshoe, the casino his legendary father, Benny Binion, built, Jack Binion stood next to Mob lawyer Oscar Goodman, elected mayor of Las Vegas in 1999, and surveyed the city he knew so well. The lights twinkled, the city shimmered, and Binion observed: "Las Vegas is a wonderful place if you don't have any weaknesses." It was a remark only a survivor could make. If you have a weakness, Las Vegas will punish you. People come, desperate for a last chance or a new beginning, fall flat on their face and then find, in Jimi Hendrix's lyrical description, "tire tracks all across [their] backs," run into the ground by a place that is clear about what it values: winning and money. In this, the desert city is only more frank than the rest of the nation. The thin veneer of civilization is rarely applied and when it is, it cracks in the baking sun. Class and wealth won't protect you. Doctors as well as bartenders succumb to their own excesses. Those who think this is the place, that they're the lucky one who will hit Megabucks, the progressive slot machine game that offered a multi-million dollar payoff, find an enormous gap between their expectations and their abilities, and usually end up headed out of town, ground to a nub, happy to see the dust rise behind them.


Las Vegas is also a frontier town, maybe the last in the United States. It took the better part of the twentieth century for the American nation to come to grips with its margins. New Mexico, with its Hispano dominance, has been dominated only since 1945; technological transformation and the pipeline turned Alaska from a frozen federal province into an oil fiefdom and now into a dependent of the Princess Line. The desert was equally harsh. Las Vegas' growth was only possible with air-conditioning and the other mechanisms of industrial society. Only then could Americans turn the desert into something tolerable, could build the endless suburbs with their minuscule but neatly cropped lawns, rolled out like a kid's playmat and tended by armies of Spanish-speaking gardeners. Where the technologies of an industrial society are applied, communities like Las Vegas can flourish. Where they aren't, as around the Salton Sink in southern California or in nearby Pahrump, Nevada, Mad Max's world takes hold and anarchy is rampant. Yet in Las Vegas, the road from an older American society of industry is being paved to one version of a new, post-industrial world of service and information. **

Almost by accident, Las Vegas has become the place where the twenty-first century begins, a center of the post-industrial world. In this transformation, the old pariah has become a paradigm, the colony of everywhere, the colonizer of its former masters. Old Nevada allowed people from core areas to come there to cast off their sins; when prizefighting was illegal in every state in the union but one, Nevada hosted title bouts. This once dubious trait has become a virtue in the post-industrial world, where the people who once made things at respectable wages now stock bottles in 7-Elevens. Las Vegas has a peculiar cachet. It was genuinely first, and to be first at anything in a fluid culture is to have a claim on being significant. Las Vegas has become an economic model to which cities, states, and regions look to create their own economic panacea. Its consistent re-invention, once scorned as flimsy and fraudulent, a mark of a lack of permanence, was essential to its transformation from peripheral to paradigmatic and has become a much-envied trait. Las Vegas had become normal; even more, it points to the twenty-first century. What people see in Las Vegas today is what they can expect everywhere in the near future. Las Vegas has come to symbolize the new America, the latest in American dream capitals. As New York once defined the commercial economy and Chicago used its big shoulders to become the industrial city, Las Vegas represents a vision of the post-industrial, postmodern future. Not only in its economy, but in every other aspect of its development, Las Vegas has become an icon. It is the place to be as the new century takes shape, for it defines American hopes and fears. Las Vegas tells us what has happened to American society and what we now aspire to, simple possession of the ethos of status. In a world where entertainment is culture, Las Vegas' magic is unique. As the bonds of cultural continuity and transmission fray in the proliferation of visual youth culture at the expense of text-bound literacy, Las Vegas' position improves. As travel becomes more important, so important that wags say someday the world economy will run because people from one place take the money visitors leave and go to those very visitors' towns and spend it, Las Vegas's position as the Mecca of post-literate faith will become even more secure.

 

Las Vegas leads in other ways. It offers the most fully developed version of a low-skilled, high-wage service economy in the nation and possibly the world. The power of unions in southern Nevada has made Las Vegas the "Last Detroit," the last place in the post-NAFTA world where unskilled workers can make a middle-class wage and claw their way toward the American dream. It is the place of choice for reinvention for those cast on the scrapheap of economic history. With one-quarter of its population retired, Las Vegas has already begun to grapple with the future of the nation and it almost perfectly represents one of the socially complicated features of the coming decades: an older, mostly white, affluent population being served by a younger, increasingly non-white, far less affluent population with fewer options for economic rise. This typicality is stunning. Only in a world that crossed a divide that equaled the industrial revolution could such a rapid transformation of a city so large be possible. Understanding Las Vegas requires any observer to discard the notions of space, order, economy, and standards derived from the industrial economy and replace them with a new kind of intellectual organization that is still being formed. In recent years, Las Vegas has been dubbed the "new all-American city" by Time magazine; Robert Brustein pilloried the town in The New Republic; Paul Goldberger chided its architecture in The New Yorker; and it even graced the cover of The Nation, the famous "Degas in Vegas" quip. When Las Vegas dropped its own ball on national television to inaugurate 1999, New York was outraged; Las Vegas was, from the Big Apple's view, a cheap imposter. Would New York have cared if Paducah, Kentucky, dropped its own ball? Why do Angelenos fear the rise of entertainment in Las Vegas? Because Las Vegas has more concert venues and more sources of revenue from acts and promoters than the City of Angels? How can Los Angeles be the leading city of the future if so many of its residents move to Las Vegas each year? How did Nevada become the state that gave more to both political parties than any other during the 1996 elections?


Clearly, a significant transformation has occurred. A city without any claim to a past, one that purposefully markets the destruction of its past, has taken its place among powerful and important American metropolises. In the twenty-first century, Las Vegas will lead. Its models, already exported, will be more widely copied as the shifting of the global economy away from traditional economics makes the anomaly of Las Vegas more tempting. Already other places seek to copy casinos; soon they will copy the structures of companies such as Mandalay Bay Resort Group and Steve Wynn's Mirage Corporation, the second most widely admired American corporation in Fortune's annual ranking in 1997, and the capital formation strategies of Las Vegas. They already covet the entertainment options and the malleability of identity that defines the town. Las Vegas is rewriting the relationship between law and power as it privatizes public space and splits the definition of the First Amendment along public-private lines. The city's growth has exceeded the pace of any other American city for more than fifteen years and with twenty percent of the population retired and another twenty percent Latino in 2001, Las Vegas foreshadowed the coming retirement of the Baby Boomers and the influx of immigrants and native non-whites who will likely provide the bulk of their care. In all of these ways and so many more, the future has already arrived in Las Vegas, for better and for worse.

 

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