Mondo Vegas

Notes on the capital of the new Southwest--and of the new century.

Las Vegas -- This is a city of signs. Not the usual urban signs, the ones saying "yield," "stop" and "no parking." Not even the casino marquees with their hundreds of thousands of light bulbs apiece, squandering the power brought by the visibly dying Colorado River. The signs I mean are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but always full of portent: "Elvis slept here." "Instant cash." "Global power for America." "Drugs and prostitution forbidden." "Where winners belong."

Most meaningful of all is a billboard near the old downtown district of this sprawling desert city. It reads, "Your future begins here."

And so it does. In the last two decades, Las Vegas has gone from being the sunblasted headquarters of the boozy Rat Pack, a cowtown so unsophisticated as to make Phoenix seem like Paris. It has gone from being a gangster-ruled mecca for losers and drifters, gone from being the stuff of comedians' routines -- "It was 110 when I got here this morning. I would have gone to the sun, but all the flights were booked."

In those decades, while many other Southwestern cities have stagnated or declined economically and culturally, Las Vegas has remade itself. It is now a world city. It is now the preeminent virtual capital of virtual capitalism -- that post-industrial, post-information, post-real economy in which politics, commerce, daily life and entertainment are rolled up into one and are indistinguishable. An hour of watching MSNBC will show you as much; so will a few minutes' chatting with Las Vegas' personable, media-friendly new mayor, Oscar Goodman, a defense attorney who beat his heavily favored rival by playing up his successful record of winning acquittals for organized-crime figures.

"The public," Goodman says with nice circularity, "is excited about the publicity." Public figures bring publicity, publicity brings the public, and the public brings money: it's the old Vegas formula, playing now on Mafia nostalgia and the culture of sound bites.

THINK OF LAS Vegas, then, as the capital of the 21st century. But time -- measured in hours or centuries -- is irrelevant in this city without clocks, in this city that never sleeps. (It is midnight on a burning hot mid-summer night as I write, and the Strip below my hotel room is as packed as Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras.) Las Vegas is the first world capital without a sense of time, without history, without a past -- precisely because, as Joan Didion observed some 30 years ago of the place, "no one remembers the past."

The city has a history, of course. It has a past, even if few remember it. Long ago it was a gathering site for various desert tribes, who came to its now depleted springs to rest -- and, it happens, to play games of chance. The first Anglos to come here were Mormon farmers; they gave up agriculture to become shopkeepers, servicing travelers to California.

Las Vegas grew slowly at first, a supply and watering station for trains and automobiles crossing the great desert from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. Its lifeline became the Los Angeles Highway, also known as the Arrowhead Trail, the road Hunter Thompson would so fatefully follow from the bat-infested confines of the Mojave. Another lifeline, as literal as the first, became Hoover Dam, built during the Depression as one of America's greatest public-works projects.

Las Vegas benefited, then as now, from the water the huge dam brought to it. It benefited just as much from the army of dambuilders who came to the small town each weekend, lured by its handful of casinos and brothels. A few of those establishments still exist, tucked away among the technological splendors of what is now called The Fremont Street Experience, a light show that uses 1.4 million colored bulbs to dazzle the public, all, like so much else in Las Vegas, free of charge.

The dambuilders were followed by World War II-era defense workers, soldiers and airmen, many of whom liked the spacious desert and stayed after victory was declared in Europe and the Pacific. Their lot was easier with the advent of consumer air conditioning, which made those 100-plus-degree days survivable.

Legal gambling and tolerated-if-not strictly-legal prostitution were still mainstays in the little Mormon crossroads, and with a postwar boom fueling the sub rosa economy, organized crime came to Las Vegas in the persons of Benjamin Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and other refugees from the East Coast. It has been said that these men and their colleagues were the architects of modern Las Vegas, but I think that they simply rode an already rising wave, and in any event their contributions to the city, good and bad, are far smaller than has been supposed.

Much more important to Las Vegas history are largely unknown figures like Wilbur Clark, the owner of the old Desert Inn, who operated pirate gambling ships off the coast of California until he realized one day that he could just as easily lure Angelenos into the desert for their recreation, and at smaller inconvenience to himself. (He was, it seems, tired of having to outrun the Coast Guard, whose officers would not be bribed.) It was Clark's great dream that the federal government retire its wartime debts by holding a national lottery, to be administered by none other than himself. He was prescient: two dozen states and countless Indian nations now hold lotteries of the kind Clark proposed, and there are only two states in which it is not possible to gamble legally in one way or another. Clark's dream lives on: every now and again talk circulates on Capitol Hill of staging a national game to help pay off various deficits and debts, and more and more politicians are taking the idea seriously.

After Clark, for a few years, came the Mob. And after the gangsters came MGM, Universal Studios, and other purveyors of G-rated fun, which remade Las Vegas into a family-friendly place in which children and parents alike could cavort.

The hallmark of that renovation was a change in the language: the corporations insisted that the business of the city was no longer to be "gambling," a word tainted with unpleasant associations of broken homes and broken kneecaps, but "gaming," a nice, victimless pastime.

Such nice pastimes come, of course, at tremendous social cost, the cost associated with any addiction: in the case of Las Vegas, to money and chance, to sex and drugs, once-shameful weaknesses that have become, in the new entertainment economy, matters for public confession, even sources of pride and street credibility.

Those addictions are all-powerful. I think of the case of a 78-year-old man who, early in 1998, opened fire on a group of casino gamblers -- sorry, gamers -- wounding five of them before dropping his gun and fleeing. He didn't get far; his dependence on a walker prevented him from putting much ground between himself and the crime scene. In the meanwhile, those who were shot continued to play the slots, refusing medical treatment until a helpful sheriff's deputy ordered them to receive it.

"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer," wrote the British novelist D. H. Lawrence. The walker shooter was quintessentially American. But he was not quite typical, for the essential American soul thrives more on security than on risk, and even then it demands that risk come with a safety net. "Those who live in the midst of democratic fluctuations have always before their eyes the image of chance," Alexis de Tocqueville observed. "And they end by liking all undertakings in which chance plays a part." Those undertakings, cushioned by subsidies and insurance policies, have devolved into forms of amusement, the chief products of speculative capitalism: abstractions fraught with anxiety and obsession, from Game Boy to baccarat.

LAS VEGAS IS ready to serve those undertakings. But it is now undergoing yet another change, away from the family-entertainment ideals of the Hollywood studios toward moneyed solitude. In defiance of our national ideology, it is remaking itself into a place that honors the fact that there are social classes, that the rich are different from you and me. (They are different, Ernest Hemingway wryly observed, largely because they have more money.) Great portions of Las Vegas are now effectively off-limits to the middle class, to which the city has historically catered. The last of the old-fashioned middle-class hotels, the Dunes, was dynamited on October 27, 1993; before it went the Hacienda and the Sands, once-affordable places now bulldozed into the desert.

In their place have risen establishments like New York, New York, the Venetian, Paris, and the Bellagio, the last of which is planned to be the world's swankiest casino. The symbolic center of the new Las Vegas is not the Strip, but Shadow Valley, a golf course and resort for ultramoneyed gamblers, whose members are the high-stakes premium players who regularly wager a million dollars on a roll of the dice. The management of Caesar's Palace recently spent $13 million to equip just two hotel suites for these high rollers, while at the MGM Grand Hotel a set of villas is being built for them at a cost of $700 million.

Says Sandi Varvel, a public-relations executive whose job it is to market Las Vegas to the world, "With the opening of the Bellagio things went to a whole new level. When the hotel gets established it won't have a room for under $200 a night. Las Vegas used to be the home of the 99-cent shrimp cocktail and the $1.99 filet mignon, but no more. Now we've got four Wolfgang Puck restaurants. We're rivaling New York and Chicago for fine dining -- but it's expensive, and it's not for everyone."

Not for everyone, indeed. It costs serious money to amuse oneself in the new Las Vegas, and the price is going up every day as it seeks to attract the moneyed few instead of the middle-class masses. By way of example, Varvel points out that party-goers had better have deep pockets if they want to usher in the millennium on the Strip this coming New Year's Eve: most hotels will be charging upward of $700 for a room and requiring a stay of at least 12 days.

Conspicuous accumulation, conspicuous consumption, the hallmarks of capitalism: these are the idols of the new Las Vegas. "You can do what you want to here," says my friend Lenadams Dorris, a native of the city and, from his vantage point as the owner of a small, hip coffeehouse, its unabashed defender. "Anything, that is, as long as it doesn't harm the bottom line."

"Las Vegas is not really a city of the United States, but a city of the world," he adds. "We have a zone of activity that is transnational; it is really irrelevant to us what our neighboring cities are doing. There was a terrible period in the late 1980s and early 1990s where Las Vegas was trying to paint itself as just another town, which is absurd. We're not just another town. We're the most spectacularly odd urban thing ever to happen on this planet. Let's revel in it, and if you can't revel in it, just shut up and let it revel in itself. We don't need to prove to the world that we're valid. They prove it to us every day, with their dollars."

Dorris lives and works in the "real" Las Vegas, one that inarguably exists but is out of view of casual visitors, a Las Vegas of neatly clipped lawns and low crime rates, the Las Vegas of individual taxpayers and fast-food eateries. That Las Vegas is inaccessible to outsiders; certainly it is not promoted by the city's boosters, who devote their energies to bringing the Strip, and only the Strip, to the world.

That "real" Las Vegas lies beyond the Strip, beyond the dead zone of decayed, abandoned buildings that cordons off the vibrant Strip from the rest of the city, the modern equivalent of a medieval city wall. Few tourists venture into that everyday Las Vegas, a congeries of strip malls, industrial and office parks, chain restaurants and walled suburbs. This Las Vegas illustrates an observation by the Indian economist Deepak Lal:

"In many ways, at the frontiers of the West...there is a return to the Middle Ages, as 'decent' citizens, irrespective of race, increasingly live (or want to live) in gated communities or distant suburbs from which they commute to privately policed workplaces. The only danger lies in the public places they have to traverse in getting from home to work. These are infested with the modern versions of medieval highwaymen -- muggers and carjackers. This growing failure of Western states to provide the most basic of public goods -- guaranteeing their citizens' safety -- is eroding their legitimacy, but it need not dissipate the economic vigor of the West.... This failure, however, will make the West a dangerous place in which to live."

Dangerous, perhaps, but only for those brave souls who venture into the world. Those who live in trans-Strip Las Vegas can easily stay behind their security-patrolled walls. Those who come to the casinos never have to leave the indoors except to brave a few seconds of running in the hot sun from the cab to the sliding doors at McCarran International Airport, now one of the country's busiest. Las Vegas is ready to serve them all: the city's businesses employ the country's largest private police force, who keep Las Vegas hassle-free, transient-free, free of any distractions that make it difficult to concentrate on The Game.

EVOLUTION IN LAS Vegas is consistently toward more and bigger symbolism," write the architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour in their now-classic 1977 study Learning from Las Vegas. "The Golden Nugget casino on Fremont Street was an orthodox decorated shed with big signs in the 1950s -- essentially Main Street commercial, ugly and ordinary. However, by the 1960s it was all sign; there was hardly any building visible."

Venturi and his colleagues need to be updated, for Las Vegas is grown up now. The signs are smaller, and buildings are less those glorified sheds than remarkably playful works of monumental art. One has only to spend a few minutes gazing at New York, New York or the Luxor, places that are shrines to their own magnificence, to appreciate the point.

Las Vegas symbolism, always a national curiosity, now encompasses the history of the planet, drawing on all times and places, the product of a global scavenger hunt, a paragon of what the architectural critic Reyner Banham once called the "fantasticating tendency" of the Far West. That play of mixed histories produces strangely mixed results. Las Vegas is in many critical respects an utterly forward-looking city, and few places work so well on the infrastructural level. But even if its current big-selling shows are Cirque du Soleil productions that introduce conceptual and performance art to a mass audience, elsewhere it thrives on nostalgia: as I write, the headline acts advertised on the Strip include Tom Jones, Bob Dylan, Mary Wells, David Cassidy and George Carlin, time-warped in from the 1960s.

But so be it. Las Vegas is becoming the first city in history whose center is one big theme park -- call it Worldland -- that encompasses Assyria and Manhattan, the Champs Elysée and deep space, the Valley of Kings and the Valley of the Dolls, with all times, all cultures, all locations carted in as casino magnate Steve Wynn and his peers roam the world like modern-day Lord Elgins, transporting its riches to this once-remote desert outpost.

One of the stranger new entries in that theme park is Red Square, a restaurant inside the massive Mandalay Bay casino, at whose entrance stands a giant, headless statue of Vladimir Lenin. The interior is an amalgam of loot from the fallen nations of the Communist world: the central gold-and-crystal chandelier, for instance, is one of two taken from the Polish embassy in Moscow (the singer Michael Jackson owns the other one), and the proletarian art, mostly giant blood-red workers-of-the-world posters, decorating the restaurant's walls was scavenged from government flea markets throughout the former Soviet Union.

Red Square's interior has met with no objections, but the Lenin statue -- manufactured in the United States, and originally with a massive head -- did rile a few locals. "Some people were upset by it," says Sandi Varvel. "I guess they didn't understand that we won the Cold War. They probably don't understand the redistribution of wealth that goes on in the casinos, either."

Under the orders of Mandalay Bay's management, a team of welders swept down on Red Square in the middle of the night just a few weeks ago. When they were finished, the statue was without a head, which disappeared for a few weeks. "It turned up in a Las Vegas thrift shop," says Varvel, "and Red Square bought it back. They're going to encase it in ice and use it as a table in their vodka freezer."

A dangerous place, Las Vegas: dangerous for statues, dangerous for the ghosts of a failed past.

BUT DOLLAR SIGNS are the real iconography of Las Vegas, the ruling symbols of a world in which politics, industry, and entertainment are interchangeable. That world is already here, writes the Dutch historian Wim Brockmans:

"It is not the politicians who can now be considered the most effective interpreters of values and norms but the hidden persuaders of capitalism who in the form of entertainment play on the aesthetic and emotional dimensions of the public. In this they have reached a degree of technical perfection which makes the propaganda campaigns of preachers in the thirteenth century, Jesuits in the seventeenth, nationalists in 1900, and bolshevists and nazis look paltry. What, then, is their message? Materialism, individualism, and competition, the core values of capitalism. Other values such as democracy, the rights of man and pacifism are put second by the capitalist entrepreneur and in practice desecrated daily whenever that improves his profit."

Brockmans is right. With all deference to the headless Lenin, so was Karl Marx, who observed that history repeats itself: first it comes as tragedy, then it replays as farce. We are replaying, everywhere in Western culture, the 19th-century tragedy of speculation, degradation and accumulation. But this time we are doing so in the name of amusement, using entertainment as a way of fending off ugly reality, learning the me-first core values of capitalism in the process and paying for the privilege.

And as we do, Las Vegas, or something very much like it, will be replicated around the planet.

This is not so farfetched, for the 21st-century economy will involve mass entertainment and games of chance on a scale without 20th-century precedent. As a University of Nevada economist said recently, "I can't think of anything that gives as much hope for general social development, employment, economic development, health and education as gaming operations."

He was thinking of the Indian reservations. But the rest of the Third World -- and the Second, and the First -- is fair game, too. Imagine Versailles, the Taj Mahal, the Forbidden City as theme parks with slot machines and kiddy rides, and you get the picture.

Now imagine downtown Tucson as a southerly annex of Las Vegas' great Worldland. If you can make that kind of cognitive leap, you're in tune with the developers who early this year proposed converting a large parcel on the western edge of the city center to an entertainment-consumption district called Rio Nuevo South. Recently the site of a homeless camp, an eyesore that spoiled everyone's fun, the development would have included four hotels; four history and natural-history museums; more than a million square feet of shopping, dining, and office space; a visitor center; a multiplex motion-picture and an IMAX theater; and other features. Another proposal would have created a mix of shops and restaurants populated, Disneyland-style, by an army of employees dressed in colonial Spanish costumes. (Both proposals were rejected by the City Council, which has placed the fate of a scaled-back Rio Nuevo project on the November ballot.)

Tucson as theme park, the world as casino, existence as a game of chance: welcome to the millennium, whose capital lies on the edge of the Nevada desert, a capital at whose gates stands a sign reading, "No exit."

Your future begins here.

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