A short history of Las Vegas, the ultimate American city

The Las Vegas strip in all its glory, as of 2011. Image: Getty.

The whirlwind of the US presidential primaries has now passed through Nevada. Hillary Clinton’s campaign received a major boost there – especially in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, the state’s largest city.

That Clinton apparently saved her struggling campaign in Vegas’s hotel casinos is somehow fitting. Las Vegas is the ultimate American city: it constantly confounds reality – and it never stops dreaming up new versions of itself.

This desert town’s very existence has long beaten the odds. For a city with an average rainfall of just 4.2 inches a year, water and the need for it have been constant themes as Vegas persistently defies its environment.

Originally settled by Mormons as part of their trek west, but abandoned in 1857, the settlement became a railroad repair stop. It almost ceased to exist in the 1920s, when the Union Pacific Railroad reacted to the town’s support of the national railroad strike of 1922 by closing its Vegas operations.

The building of the Boulder – later Hoover – dam 30 miles to the southeast kept Vegas afloat. World War II brought the Nellis airforce base (including its infamous and top secret Area 51) to the north. Along with its neighbour, the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, the base helped supply a steady customer base for the embryonic modern Vegas.

The mob reinvented Vegas as “Sin City” in the 1950s and 60s. Howard Hughes overhauled the Strip in the late 1960s and 1970s, famously buying the Desert Inn for $13m instead of leaving its penthouse suite when asked to by its owners. Hughes would remain a recluse for four years in that penthouse, accruing four more casino properties: the Frontier for $14m, the Sands for US$14.6m, Castaways for $3m, and the Landmark for $17m.

Yet anyone visiting Las Vegas today would find little, if any, evidence of that history.

Build again, build bigger

New buildings and billion-dollar hotel resorts prove the past is readily disposable in Las Vegas. Old Vegas has been expunged from memory just as it has been cleared from the four-mile Las Vegas Boulevard Strip, as the city demolishes itself to build again, and build bigger.

Of the four hotels that opened in spring 1955, only one still stands: the Riviera, where much of Martin Scorsese’s Casino was filmed. On April 20 2005, it became only the fifth Las Vegas Boulevard hotel casino to reach its 50th birthday. But it closed its doors as a going concern in May 2015, and demolition is slated for spring 2016.

At each stage of its redevelopment, Las Vegas has been willing to obliterate its history. Where vice and corruption once ruled, the Las Vegas revamp began with Steve Wynn’s Mirage Hotel & Casino in 1989. Late-century Vegas was remodelled as a family entertainment zone, more theme park than vice den. This dictum was at the heart of the architectural fantasy lands created in the 1990s: Excalibur, Treasure Island, Luxor, New York New York, Paris, The Venetian.

This new Vegas only came about thanks to the implosion of previously iconic monuments of 1950s' and 1960s' Vegas glamour. In a perfectly postmodern turn, the implosions themselves became part of the city’s new spectacular narrative.

9/11 and the crash

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Las Vegas was hit hard by the disaster’s economic impact. Hotel occupancy dropped sharply; job losses ran into the thousands, as Nevada’s unemployment rate rose sharply to surpass 6 epr cent by 2001’s end. The fact that federal investigations revealed that some of the 9/11 terrorists had visited Las Vegas between May and August 2001 didn’t help either.

The strip by day, as of 2013. Image: Getty.

While these statistics were alarming at the time, they paled in comparison with the effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the ensuing economic crash. Before October 2008, Vegas was the fastest growing city in the US: by 2006, the metropolitan area population had reached 2m, having been just 8,000 in 1940. But while unemployment in the city was as low as 3.8 per cent in 2006, it rose to 12.2 per cent by August 2009, peaking at just over 14 per cent in December 2010.

But with the effects of the recession now easing, the Vegas wheels are beginning to turn once more. Unemployment has now been brought all the way down to 6.2 per cent. The abandoned Echelon casino project on the site of the famous Stardust Hotel is due to be redeveloped at last by the Genting Group as the Chinese-themed Resorts World Las Vegas in late 2018, complete with panda exhibit and indoor waterpark. Other Strip owners have invested their future hopes in more home-grown attractions.

In 2013 the Mandalay Bay Hotel opened a Michael Jackson-themed lounge, an interactive museum of Jackson memorabilia and a replica of his reclusive Neverland ranch. The original Santa Barbara Neverland Ranch had been a private theme park and fairytale wonderland replete with rides, a zoo, ferris wheel and its own train, the Neverland Express. That a second one now exists in 21st century theme-park Vegas is more than apt: it completes a circle of cultural interactions only possible in Las Vegas.

By creating a public theme-park exhibit of a former theme park that was for the most part closed to the public, Vegas welcomes the promise of another reclusive and controversial individual with open arms. Jackson never played Vegas while he was alive, unlike Sinatra or Elvis. Yet in death he offers Las Vegas, a Neverland that has discarded so many versions of its own history, both a permanent attraction and another route into its future.The Conversation

Philip McGowan is senior lecturer in American Literature at Queen's University Belfast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.