Las Vegas Musings Part Two – The Myths and Realities of the Most American City

by dave on March 13, 2013

As I come to the end of my 7 month experiment as a quasi-resident of this oasis in the desert I can’t help but try to create a neat ‘what have we learned’ montage in my mind, like the final credits of an episode of No Reservations. This is the second of three random observations about the Las Vegas we don’t see on a weekend bender on the Strip. Click here for Part One.

In 2010, the U.S. spent $13 billion to conduct a census of Americans. $13 billion! With the national budget a point of consternation these days, here is a subtle suggestion to save roughly $12.95 billion. Forget the door to door census and instead send a fraction of those census takers to Las Vegas for a year. Plant them on various corners of the Strip, at the airport and the walkways between the major casinos and let them count and interview those that pass by. There is no greater cross representation of America than visitors to Las Vegas.  People of every race, income, education, age and perspective end up in Las Vegas at some point.

After twelve months talking to visitors and locals alike, I think one could get a much better view of the U.S. than you could ever get going door to door because nothing encapsulates America as well as Las Vegas.

I didn’t come to Las Vegas to gain an understanding of the city; to expose the vast pipework that drives this city unseen. I am not a sociologist. But one would need to be blind or refuse to leave the casino floor to not confront the conflicts inherent in America’s playground.

Is there anywhere where vision and reality differ further than Las Vegas? Casino ads show glamorous models having a great time winning money. Casinos in reality are populated primarily by older, lower income folks, desperately trying to short cut their way to the American Dream. Clubs advertise rich, young kids living the life straight out of Entourage but mostly are filled with young people squeezed into clothes a size too small trying to live the life that E! tells them to.

It isn’t a coincidence that Las Vegas is located in a desert. We all need a blank canvas on which to paint our own dreams.

(NOTE: When I first wrote the above line a few months ago I thought it was Nobel-worthy poetry. I may have been drinking at the time. Now I think it sounds like a particularly bad Successories poster. However, I am leaving it here, so just know that no matter what you think of it, I totally agree with you. )

Yet, of all of those people that visit Las Vegas I wonder how many people make it more than half a mile off the Strip? While the world has a vision of Las Vegas based on one stretch of one road, an entire population lives in and around that road. Someone has to keep those hotel rooms clean and deal those cards that make those vacations so memorable.

There isn’t much other industry propping up Las Vegas. In 2011, 32% of all those employed in Clark county worked in Leisure and Hospitality. The 2 largest employers in the county are the county government and school district; followed by three casinos. The casinos are the foundation, first and second floor of the economy here.

But it is a Faustian bargain: to keep the visitors happy and coming, it is necessary to keep out of view the dirty underbelly necessary to run it all.  The ideal that brings them from Little Rock, Boston and Tacoma with visions of models hanging on each arm and a pile of chips stacked in front of them doesn’t have space for the reality of the city itself.

There is no room in the dream for the homeless or migrant workers – faces tanned to the point of appearing dirty – playing slots behind the checkout counters at the grocery store, where the bottles of liquor are locked up and beer and wine are always on sale.

There is no room for the end of a shift housekeepers waiting to be picked up outside the back of the massive casinos at 5pm for the commute home.

The endless sprawling suburbs stretching across the valley, seemingly built by a computer generated copy-paste functions, that saw some of the heaviest foreclosures in the country during the recession remain far enough removed from the Strip that visitors only see them on take-off from McCarran.

The vast ethnic neighborhoods where rundown shopping centers and burnt out neon lights are carefully kept tucked out of sight and out of mind.

This isn’t necessarily different from most other American cities. Any Chamber of Commerce worth its weight in pennies does its best to make sure that the face of the city matches the brochures. It is the cities that have broken this unspoken promise that have faced the biggest problems. In cities like Detroit and Cleveland the wall was shattered that separated the myth form the reality and that was the beginning of the end.

But no city has more riding on maintaining the dream without any messy reality creeping in than Las Vegas. When you sell the world a dream, there can’t be any dark shadows lurking in the corners.

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