Las Vegas, Nevada

This is yet another post about an American city, probably the last on that kind of place for a while, but it’s also a little different than previous posts because this one is a rerun, of a sort. I previously managed a blog through the Google blogger platform, but discontinued it maybe 9 or 10 years ago when it was becoming too much work in addition to my actual workload. But I saved a few of my favorite posts and have kept them on ice for a long time, hoping they might be useful at some point. In May 2007, my sister and her husband had their wedding in Las Vegas, and I spent a week or so there and then wrote three really long posts reflecting on Las Vegas as a city and a place. Below is a condensed version of these  posts, edited for brevity and clarity, and with some updates. Most of this is what I wrote originally in 2007, on the eve of the financial crisis, which had a major impact on the city, especially because of the roots of the crisis in the housing market.

The first time I visited Las Vegas was 1989, on a family vacation when I was 12 years old. Zoom ahead almost 20 years and all the excess and filth and glitter is still there in Las Vegas, though now it’s much more expensive and coated with a thin veneer of sophistication (very thin indeed). I asked a cab driver, who had moved to Vegas from Ethiopia nine years ago, how it was to live there, and he said things had changed dramatically in the past two or three years, especially in terms of costs. Food prices had gone up rapidly with the expansion of the Strip southward and the associated construction boom and influx of people to the city. This expansion is the most remarkable thing about Vegas right now, as the city is just booming. Condos and homes and hotel-casino complexes are going up all the time, and Las Vegas is the fastest growing metro area in the US. Since 1980, the city’s population has almost tripled, from about 165000 in 1980 to almost 479000 in 2000, while the metro area population was estimated in 2006 at over 1.8 million (this was 1.95 million in 2015; the City of Las Vegas’ historical timeline can be checked here). This has produced a sprawling city that, like many other rapidly growing urban centers in the US and Canadian West, looks basically like someone unrolled a carpet across the landscape.

Unprecedented sprawl demands unprecedented infrastructure, and in Las Vegas that means water and electricity, both of which are provided by the Colorado River, which is dammed by the Hoover Dam to form Lake Mead just a few miles away from the city. Cheap electricity and diverted water has made the Las Vegas Valley bloom, even as it sparks deeply politicized and often bitter disputes over water rights and usage and the regulation of energy markets, something that is occurring all over the West as the population increases and stretches the limits of infrastructural, economic, and natural systems (something I discussed in a previous post). Las Vegas pulls a lot of weight in inter-urban competition for water and electricity because of its importance as a regional economic center, and a spectacularly huge amount of both of these commodities is required to keep Las Vegas running. The presence of water features – like the large swimming pools at every major hotel and the fountains and pools at places like Bellagio and Treasure Island – and power lines and transmitting stations along the Strip is striking. I noticed it as soon as I walked out of the Flamingo and onto Las Vegas Boulevard. The road itself is clogged with traffic, and there are walkways and escalators all over the place to help pedestrians get between the casinos. Across from the Flamingo is Caesar’s Palace, which is gigantic, covering something like a whole city block. This is where I first noticed the power lines:

It takes a lot of juice to keep all those lights, slot machines, fountains, and escalators going, not to mention the air conditioning in every single building. It was well over 90F every day I was there, and in the summer it routinely hits well over 100F. Not that the casinos get everything in Vegas, as there is a growing suburban population that may have different economic and social demands than the gaming industry, but they are at the heart of the local economy (alongside new housing starts). And they really are gigantic, not like the aging casinos and hotels closer to and in downtown. Las Vegas is also a city that is clearly and deeply divided along class, gender, and racial-ethnic lines, divisions reflected in and reinforced by the urban landscape itself, and in ways that are so blatant and unrelenting that it’s hard not to notice them (though this is made easier by the flashy neon and the promise of winning big). There are more giant condo-hotel-casino complexes going up along the Strip all the time, and some vacant lots had signs on them that read “This space reserved for casino development”. Or something to that effect. The exact wording escapes me now – I saw it from a cab and couldn’t get a picture.

I could not help but see Vegas as anything but a machine (almost) perfectly designed to circulate capital in its various forms – money, fixed capital in buildings and roads and electrical and water infrastructure, and even in animal life. We stayed at the Flamingo, which includes a wildlife habitat in its central courtyard. This habitat is the hotel’s way of creating some unique aspect of itself that can help it compete against the other casinos on the Strip, with each seeking unique features as a way to capture some monopoly rent in an economic environment that is brutally cutthroat. Every place on the Strip has gambling, lavish buffets, and standard hotel rooms, so competition takes the form of trying to attract people via shows and other spectacles. At the Flamingo that also means a bird habitat that surrounds the huge swimming pool complex, which was actually really nice as far as pools go. But the animals at the Flamingo – all kinds of birds and turtles – are a form of capital in this equation. They serve the function of attracting people to the casino, and are viewed as an essential part of the resort’s rent-generating aspects. Not that they’re not nice to look at, but people aren’t at the Flamingo to learn about flamingos.

So what happens when a casino-hotel goes under, when it has seen its last drunken gambler, it no longer can provide the paying customer with a buffet as good as one down the street, and can no longer make a return on its investment sufficient to cover taxes and maintenance? Well, they sell it, or they blow it up and wait for another investor. An interesting website called Las Vegas Casino Death Watch has a running history of casino closures and offers, and the most recent major casino to be offed (when I wrote this in May 2007) was the Stardust, imploded with much fanfare in 2006. I passed the Stardust site on my way to a baseball game on the north side of downtown, and it’s basically a huge empty lot with a bit of construction trash. And when I got to the baseball game I noticed a giant junk yard across the street from the stadium parking lot holding a number of colorful signs.

Two examples stood out for me in highlighting the contradictions of Las Vegas, particularly the way in which local social and economic relations are structured to provide a (seemingly) placeless, ecstatic, and even bacchanalian experience to the consumer while actually being tightly controlled and maintained for the sake of a highly unequal system of profit making and taking. This is true in many cities, but especially so in Las Vegas because of the prospect of high returns on gambled risk, the actively cultivated expectation, if not delivery, of overwhelming spectacle, and the physical design of the Strip landscape that collapses multiple representations of disparate places onto one single street. Few, if any, consumers of Las Vegas take the experience of these simulated places as authentically as they would if they were in the actual place (e.g., Paris casino is clearly not Paris the city), but this kind of city-as-consumable-experience purposely masks the power required to build and reproduce it as such, even as it requires ever larger amounts political, social, and physical capital to do so. But sometimes that mask falls away, and you see these relations in all their unequal and often brutish power.

One evening after listening to some street preachers berate listeners about the dangers of gambling and fornication in front of the Bellagio casino, I walked north along the Strip toward the Flamingo, which meant I had to use one of those elevated crosswalks that are in certain places along the Strip to help pedestrians get between casinos. I heard a small girl ask her father why they couldn’t have water, and the father responded that the police said the people couldn’t sell it to them because it wasn’t right. So I knew something was up on the walkway ahead of me. I scurried along to the scene this family had just encountered, where I saw two Las Vegas police officers (not casino security from what I could tell, but official police officers, on bikes) talking to a Hispanic family that included a mother, her husband and three children amid a steady stream of pedestrians.

The police were telling the family that it was illegal to sell bottled water there, and then they began to confiscate their goods, which consisted of 7 or 8 cases of bottled water, a cooler of ice, and a couple of duffle bags that had been used to carry the water and other belongings. And there was nothing the family could do because there are signs that state that selling anything on or within 15 feet of the overhead walkways is illegal. Nominally this is public space, though for all I know those walkways are privately owned by the casinos, but the point remains that this kind of informal economic activity is illegal and cracked down upon quickly and without recourse. Fair enough, the family was breaking the law, but the fact that their goods were confiscated (I did not see the end result of this, but one officer directly told the other to “just take it all” as he hoisted one of the family’s duffle bags over to the side away from pedestrian traffic) means that they could not just move along and retain possession of what is in fact their private property. They weren’t arrested I don’t suppose, but now they’re probably out $15 for each case of water, and probably $10-15 for each of the duffle bags, at least.

Inside the casinos, it costs upwards of $4 for a one-liter bottle of water. The crackdown on parts of the informal economy on the street combined with the privatization of water retailing and consumption (in the middle of the desert, mind you) leaves thirsty tourists with little choice but to crack open that wallet, and leaves those who can’t or won’t pay $4 for water pretty much out of luck. And keep in mind that the cost of living in Vegas is constantly going up, not just on the Strip but everywhere, and that the city is seeing a huge influx of mostly Hispanic workers and families. This is the labor pool from which was drawn the vast majority of workers (all middle aged men really) employed in handing out the cards advertising prostitution I mentioned above. Not good work, probably not well paid, something that’s likely true of most work in Las Vegas outside the casinos and hotels themselves. Las Vegas is like the rest of the US Sun Belt, but more so – population and construction booms coupled with rising costs, an influx of highly sought after vulnerable immigrant labor, and a criminalization of poverty and informal economic activity. The very large number of hotels has meant Las Vegas also has among the highest union density of any US city, and has become more reliably Democratic than in the past , especially with culinary and hotel workers’ unions being quite militant and well-organized.

Meanwhile, the informal economy that takes the form of side bets between the “superstar” poker players that haunt the casinos is openly celebrated. I noticed this when I was with my dad in the Caesar’s sports book watching some simulcast horse races. Between races I picked up one of the umpteen poker magazines laying around and read about a recent poker tournament in which two of the favored players had made a series of interesting side bets; the author noted that the most interesting involved the loser buying the winner a whole night of lap dances at the strip club of his or her choice (one of the players was a woman). “Hired muscle” indeed.

Another day, I decided to slip away from my family for a bit (a gift to my mom on Mother’s Day, four hours without me complaining about the desert heat and capitalism) and go see the Las Vegas 51s play the New Orleans Zephyrs in some minor league baseball action. The stadium is on the other side of downtown from the Strip and I wanted to see more of the city so I took the bus. “The Deuce” (so named because it costs $2 and because it’s a double decker) runs along Las Vegas Blvd to the main bus terminal downtown, from where you transfer to a city bus (cost at the time, $1.25) to the stadium. Well, to the stadium parking lot. By the way, nothing beats walking across half a mile of blacktopped parking lot at high noon in Las Vegas for a workout.

Once you get off the Strip and head toward downtown, you begin to see that Las Vegas is like most other American cities. The downtown and its immediate surroundings are crumbling, full of empty lots and rapidly deteriorating old buildings with “For Lease” signs in the windows. And after you pass the Stratosphere hotel and casino (itself a troubled enterprise, being pretty far from the rest of the Strip and on the wrong side of the Stardust lot – though it seems to have rebounded, and it’s the only “Strip casino” officially inside the city limits of Las Vegas, the rest all located in unincorporated Clark County), the clientele of the public bus system changes pretty quickly. Relatively few tourists from the Strip seem to go downtown, despite the presence of the Fremont Street Experience open-air shopping mall, and a number of historic old casino hotels, and you soon find yourself riding the bus with the locals, or at least those locals who rely on the bus as their primary mode of transportation.

Like in most other large North American cities, the folks who use public transit are overwhelmingly working class people, and in many places, minorities. Almost everyone on the bus with me after Stratosphere and all the way to the stadium was Hispanic or African-American, save for a couple of other tourists headed to the ballgame. The central downtown bus station itself was a highly segregated space, in the sense that the buses more likely to be carrying tourists loaded and unloaded from a different wing of the building than the regular city buses that carried locals to and from their jobs, shopping, and wherever else they need to go. And few locals seem to get on or off the Deuce, unless they were wearing the uniforms of those employed in a casino hotel on the Strip. This is what I meant in the last two posts when I said that the landscape of Las Vegas is deeply divided along class and racial and ethnic lines (and gender too). Not everyone is dying to get to the Strip because not everyone is welcome there in the same way, and the bus to get there costs more anyway. On the bus I happened to pick up one of those free local community newspapers that you can find in every reasonably large city. The cover story stated that local residents in a predominantly African-American neighborhood were still agitating the city council to help attract a supermarket to the area, as the only food stores within a few miles’ radius were corner stores that did not stock nearly enough fresh produce. The same story is common in many large North American cities.

At the baseball game, you wouldn’t even have known you were in Las Vegas really, except that there were ceiling fans in the covered sections that would move the mist around that gets sprayed when humidity drops below 14 percent. This part of Vegas was also like many other North American cities, dominated by a space of middle class consumption, with lots of families coming out on a sunny weekend afternoon to pay $11 or so to watch a baseball game. No slot machines, no ads for topless revues or call girls, no spectacle of water fountains and bright lights, just the ball game and overpriced beer (and very few tourists, from the look of it). Quite different from the typical image the city promotes, but not in the same way as the dilapidation and attempted rejuvenation of the downtown core.

Zoom ahead to 2017 (remember that most of what’s above are my observations from a decade ago), and Las Vegas is recovering from the housing and financial crisis of 2007-08. The effects of the crisis lingered until 2012 in Las Vegas, when the local housing market “bottomed out” in terms of median home price. Home prices are an important economic indicator tied to consumer and investor confidence, job availability, and wages and salaries, and are vital to municipal and county taxes, which pay for vital service and infrastructure, as well as other knock-on economic effects. People buy lots of other things to put in their houses, they renovate them and upgrade them to increase their value, and housing is (usually) a long-term investment that is also an essential social and individual need. And Las Vegas’s housing market has slowly but surely recovered from its nadir in the years following the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008. At its worst point, Las Vegas (and really, Nevada as a whole) was the epicenter for the housing crisis, with almost two-thirds of homes in the state “underwater” as late as 2010, meaning the debt owed on the mortgage was more than the estimated value of the house. In these cases, people have few options: stay and become “house poor” and cannot afford things to put in a house for which they can’t find a ready buyer willing to pay even what it’s worth, they; sell for less than the house is worth, shedding your debt but also losing a significant sum of money on a huge investment you had hoped would grow in value over time, while still needing to pay for another place to live; walk away and let the bank or mortgage company foreclose on the home, destroying your credit in the process. Though overall the market has rebounded and the local and national economies have picked up, the recovery has left many behind in Las Vegas, and the city is the worst in the US for affordable housing for low-income families. This is an important reminder that aggregate statistics can often mask local processes, including social and economic inequalities and suffering, and that places are made in part through a series of investments and disinvestment. Las Vegas may have the veneer of glamor and sparkle and winning big, but the reality on the ground for many of its residents has been quite the opposite in the last 10 years.