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.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.