Las Vegas
Utopia of Clowns
from The City in Mind

by James Howard Kunstler

 

They say that Antarctica is the worst place on earth, but I believe that distinction belongs to Las Vegas, hands down.  For one thing, Antarctica is more pleasing to look at.  The natural scenery is about equal to Nevada’s in desolate grandeur, but Antarctica’s man-made artifacts are less distressing to an average human being’s neural network.  The population of Antarctica, though tiny in comparison, is better-educated, less transient, and employed in more honorable work.  Las Vegas certainly leads in cheap buffets, but the result is a shocking rate of obesity with attendent medical disorders.  Some might even argue that overall Antarctica has better weather.  In Las Vegas, a baby left unattended in the back seat of a car for nine minutes will fricasee before its mother returns with the dry cleaning. 

            As I write, Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in the United States.  For a culture that understands things only in terms of numbers, this supposedly proves that it must be a splendid place.  I’ve heard it touted often as the American city of the future, the prototype habitat for a society in which the old boundaries between work, leisure, entertainment, information, production, service, and acquisition dissolve, and a new exciting, colorful, pleasure-laden human meta-existence finds material expression in any wishful form the imagination might conjure out of an ever-mutating blend of history, fantasy, electrosilicon alchemy and unfettered desire.  If Las Vegas truly is our city of the future, then we might as well all cut our own throats tomorrow.  I certainly felt like cutting mine after only a few days there, so overwhelming was the sheer anomie provoked by every particular of its design and operation. As a city it’s a futureless catastrophe. As a tourist trap, it’s a meta-joke.  As a theosophical matter, it presents proof that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.  In the historical context, it is the place where America’s spirit crawled off to die.
            The trouble with Las Vegas is not just that it is ridiculous and dysfunctional, but that anybody might take it seriously as a model for human ecology on anything but the most extreme provisional terms.  That they do might in itself be proof that American civic culture has reached a terminal stage.  Even the casual observer can see that Las Vegas is approaching its tipping point as a viable urban system, particularly in the matter of scale.  In evolutionary biology, at the threshold of extinction organisms often attain gigantic size and a narrow specialty of operation that leaves them very little room to adapt when their environment changes even slightly.  This is the predicament of Las Vegas.  Its components have attained a physical enormity that will leave them vulnurable to political, economic, and social changes that are bearing down upon us with all the inexorable force of history. 

            Las Vegas evolved as a crude extrapolation of several elements of American culture:  the defiance of nature, abnormally cheap land, vast empty space for expansion, and the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing -- these elements all presenting themselves there in the most extreme form.  The trouble with extrapolation as a growth model is that it assumes the continuation of all present conditions in the future, only more so.   Since this is not consistent with how the world works, systems organized on this basis fail.   Anyway, to extrapolate urban growth based only on extreme conditions invites certain catastrophe, since the law of unintended consequences will produce ever more compounded skewed outcomes.  The destiny of Las Vegas, therefore, would seem bright in the same sense that a thermonuclear explosion is bright.  I view it as a model for the extinction of the system I call the National Automobile Slum. 

The Brief History of a Place Which Laughs at the Idea of History

            Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish.  In a valley where the Mojave and Sonoran deserts meet, between thrust faults, which the geographers call basin and range and geologists call horst and graben, three potable springs flowed out of the cementatious sand into what is considered the harshest climatic region in North America.  The ancient Anasazi people established a farming civilization centered east of these springs in what are today Arizona and New Mexico during a favorably moist weather cycle between 700 and 1200 AD.  Las Vegas lay at the edge of their territory and they used the swampy oasis as a camp in a trade route that connected New Mexico to turquoise mines near present-day Baker, California.  After 1200 AD, altered rainfall patterns in the southwest severely reduced agriculture and, with it, the Ansazi.  By 1519, Hernan Cortez was in Mexico, destroying the Aztecs and permanently disrupting the web of native cultures that emanated from them, and soon the Spanish penetrated what is now the interior western U.S.  For decades, the Spanish maintained a trail from their outposts in Colorado to their mission at San Diego, with Las Vegas as a midway watering hole.  After 1600, Spain declined steadily as a world power.  Their colonial enterprises languished in this  forbidding region, but the native cultures never recovered either.            
            By the mid-1800s, Mormons ventured from Utah into Las Vegas long enough to build an adobe scouting station, but soon decided the extremely hot and isolated basin was beyond even their ability to make deserts bloom. When a U.S. government expedition finally got there, the area around Las Vegas was inhabited by less than a hundred very primitive Utes, who survived by the most marginal scavenging.  Captain John C. Fremont disparagingly called them “the Diggers.”
            Toward the end of the 19th century, as railroads criss-crossed  the Great American Desert, Las Vegas became a place where steam locamotives stopped to fill their water tanks, the classic jerkwater.  It was incorporated as a town in 1905.  The Hoover Dam project on the Colorado river -- thirty-odd miles from Las Vegas -- brought thousands of well-paid federal employees to the area between 1929 and 1935.  The state of Nevada legalized gambling in 1931 and for a while Las Vegas benefited by hijacking federal paychecks.  When the dam construction was complete, in 1935, the place languished again.  During World War Two, the army set up an artillery training range just north of Las Vegas, cycling thousands of trainees through every couple of months.  For all this federal life-support, Las Vegas remained a desert tank town with a few honky-tonk casinos until after the war.  It was hard to get to, hellishly hot half the year, and offered the kind of sordid attractions geared only to 19-year-old soldiers.
            That changed with the federal highway program, air-conditioning, and a national syndicate of criminals whose specialized skills in the art of the grift were prefectly suited to a state where grifting -- formalized as casino gambling -- was perfectly legal.  We all know by now the story of Benjamin “Bugsy (don’t call me that!)” Segal, the Los Angeles gangster and business partner of New York gangster, Meyer Lansky, and how the Flamingo Hotel was built with mob money, establishing the original template for both the physical planning and financial infrastructure of post-war Las Vegas.  Segal was murdered for grifting his grifter associates as soon as the Flamingo was up and running, but the experiment of Las Vegas as a mob money-machine proved highly successful.  More low-slung, cheaply-built, tilt-up Modernistic motel-casinos were quickly established on the highway outside the Las Vegas city limits proper and the place entered its classic era -- mid-Elvis, early Rat Pack, quickie divorce and marriage capital of the US, desert laundromat of mafia money.  Elsewhere, in “normal” America, gambling was still considered a crime and a sin.
            By the early sixties, the original casinos with their attached sleeping quarters, were growing out-dated and shop-worn.  To enlarge, refurbish, and reproduce casinos, the mob concocted a scheme for funneling additional enormous sums of money through the Teamster’s Union regional pension funds -- which became, in effect, the chief investment bank of Las Vegas.  A quirk in Nevada law had made it impossible for publicly-held corporations to own casinos (under the law, every single stockholder would have to be individually licensed to operate a casino), so “normal” capital was unavailable to the gambling “industry.”  The quaint system of using sanitized front men to pose as owners for shadowy partners left Las Vegas a socially medieval society of mob lords and vassels glossed with the trappings of hyper-modernity. 
            The night before Thanksgiving, 1966, billionaire Howard Hughes, erstwhile Hollywood movie mogul, aviation pioneer, founder of Trans World Airlines, and increasingly delusional recluse, moved into a penthouse suite in the Desert Inn on the Strip and began buying up approximately half the action in Las Vegas for reasons that are still largely mysterious, but may have had to do with a conjunction of his morbid terror of microbes, the clean desert air, the fact that he had a mania for controlling his surroundings, and that he had the financial means to do it.  As the sole stockholder in the Hughes Tool Company, and head of its Las Vegas spinoff, the Summa Corporation, Hughes alone of all his employees and factotums needed a casino license to carry out operations.  By this time, the founding generation of Las Vegas gangsters was growing old, and they were happy to sell out to Hughes for tens of millions of dollars to retire in splendor from the toils and hazards of gangsterdom.   Hughes ruled his empire from the unreal isolation of his penthouse sickroom, his instructions carried out by a few handpicked morally hygienic Mormon executive aides whose rectitude in business matters was a stark contrast to the anarchic gangster folkways of the old guard, with their gauche bundles of cash, notorious skimming operations, and liberal application of “muscle” in employee relations.  Hughes himself remained so generally invisible and unavailable to the public, including federal officials who vainly called him to testify before this or that subcommittee, that the newspapers retailed wild stories about his ever-weirder life in seclusion, the length of his hair and fingernails, his dietary peculiarities, and his neverending war against germs.
            Perhaps fearing the prospect of a Hughes-dominated city, the state legislature in 1967 rescinded the law that had prevented publicly-held companies from owning casinos.  This made available for the first time gigantic streams of “normal” American investment capital, just when the scale of construction and operation in Las Vegas began to require larger sums of money than the criminal underworld or individual eccentric tycoons could provide.  Meanwhile, Howard Hughes became increasingly crazy and physically ill.  He departed Las Vegas in 1974 in a desperate journey between disinfected hotel suites in Europe and around the Caribbean, and he finally expired under mysterious circumstances during an airplane flight from Mexico to Houston in 1976, though his Summa Corporation remains to this day a major land owner in Clark County.  The Hilton, Ramada, and Holiday Inn hotel chains soon stepped into the vacuum left by Hughes to buy several old established casinos, including Bugsy Segal’s Flamingo.  Banks in New York and California began for the first time to regard Las Vegas as a wholesome place for investment.  By 1980 half the action was owned by publicly held corporations.
            In the 1980s, beginning with Atlantic City, New Jersey, gambling rapidly became legalized in many other parts of the United States, creating an enormous problem for Las Vegas.   Folks in Rochester or Tacoma could piss away their paychecks in a local casino now without the bother of an airplane trip halfway across the country.  Casino riverboats opened on the Mississippi where any soybean farmer could drop his life savings at a blackjack table and drive home in time for the Eleven O’clock News.   Every state cooked up a lottery. Video poker machines appeared in convenience stores all over South Carolina.
            Through a loophole of federal law, Indian tribes were licensed to operate casinos on reservations, and they built some gigantic ones in, of all places, Connecticut.  Few Americans knew that there were Indian reservations in this part of the country.  Even the locals had not known their neigbors were Indians.  But it was part of the odball epidemic of Political Correctness ideology of the same period that gambling licenses became the de facto national reparations program to compensate Indians for the wholesale theft of their homelands -- and one did not have to be fractionally much of an native-American to qualify.  Some putative Narragansetts and Pequots in Connecticut might have had a native-American great-great-grandfather, but meanwhile they were fifteen-sixteenths Italian, Portugese, Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, French-Canadian, Serbo-Croatian, Anglo and Dutch -- which is to say of mixed heritage like most other Americans. They owned gas stations, plumbing supply stores, insurance offices, optometry practices, drove Mercury Montegos, and dressed in mail-order casuals like anybody else.   But now, through some freaky caprice in federal statute, they were all candidates to become multimillionaire casino operators.  By the mid 1990s, all but a few states had Indian casinos. Legal gambling had become nearly as ubiquitous on the American landscape as “factory outlet” shopping.
            The response to this in Las Vegas was interesting.  First, the official gambling trade association (and political lobby), in a swift semantic move, changed its name to the National Gaming Entertainment Association.  This was intended to flush the last vestige of stigma out of it, to make gambling seem a normative, socially acceptable behavior, just another form of entertainment, in a culture that was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain boundaries between what was entertainment and what was not, what was decent behavior and what was was socially or personally pernicious.  Henceforth, gambling would be just another game, like basketball, Nintendo, pin the tail on the donkey, or the stock market. Gambling was now play!  And what was more innocent, in the popular jargon of psychotherapy, than play?  Little children play.  Kittens and puppies play.   Gamblers were no longer skeezy, profane, overweight, alcoholic, cigar-chomping, wife-beating, acne-scarred losers in stained polyester suits with matching white leather belt and shoes.  Now they were players, like members of the world championship Chicago Bulls, or partners in a Wall Street brokerage.  Players could be sleek and fit!  Buff men in hiking shorts, gals in spandex aerobic outfits.  Moms and dads could be players!  Playing was good, clean American fun.
            Next came the campaign to turn Las Vegas into a family vacation destination, like Disney World or Colonial Williamsburg -- along with all the physical infrastructure needed to support it.  The idea was to make gambling seem incidental to the family vacation, just something that happened in the background, like sunshine in California or Muzak in a Disney “theme” restaurant.  To this end, the casinos went through another incarnation of massive renewal and reinvention.  Hotels were built that had some of the rudimentary features of theme parks.  Steve Wynn’s Mirage was the prototype.  It featured a fire-spewing volcano on the hotel’s front apron along the famous Strip which erupted at hourly intervals, like Old Faithful up in Yellowstone, with better lighting effects.  Even with the kids in tow, sooner or later the lure of gambling (i.e. the possibility of getting something for nothing) would overtake the flash of the “family entertainment” come-on.  You could eat all the tater tots in the world at the $7.95 buffet, buy the souvenir rubber rattlesnake, and finally catch Sigfried and Roy’s magic show, but the scent of winning big always lurked in the bakground like an especially potent pheremone, igniting irresistible fantasies of unearned riches.  A nation in denial of all its bad habits and lapsed standards of decency wanted to believe that Las Vegas was a perfectly wholesome place to take children.  The themed spectacles just provided an excuse.  The fact that Las Vegas pulled it off with hardly a peep from society’s moral guardians attests to the flimsy pretense of family values politics.
            If you visit Las Vegas these days, you will most certainly find yourself in the company of many people with children in tow, families who have done time in the Disney Worlds, Sea Worlds, Six Flags, Universal Studio parks, et al, and are seeking evermore thrills in themed togetherness.  The volcano at the Mirage has been joined next door by a pirate ship extravaganza, in front of the Buccaneer Bay Resort, complete with cannon fire and live swashbuckling actors, enacted every two hours.  The Circus Circus offers big-top thrills and chills along with blackjack.  An enlarged Caesar’s Palace contains a Last Days of the Roman Empire shopping mall.  The Luxor has a gunnite sphinx with laser beam eyes guarding the door, an indoor boat ride down a simulated ancient Nile, and a reproduction of King Tut’s tomb, not to mention a video game arcade and several swimming pools.   New York, New York has, on the outside, an enormous roller coaster weaving up and around the cartoon skyscrapers of its fanciful facade.  Inside it offers a food court done up in a pistache of Greenwich Village and Times Square (yeah, both in the same place, why not?).  Across Tropicana Avenue stands the Excalibur, featuring more magic shows, jugglers, acrobats, medieval banquets, and jousting tournaments. Across the street -- that is across the ten-lane Strip -- from Excalibur, looms the baleful glass box of the MGM Grand, the casino of which is larger than Grand Central Station.  The MGM Grand has an adjoining mini “theme park” which is transparently a glorified babysitting service.  Visible from every compass point in the Las Vegas valley is the Stratosphere Hotel, Tower, and Casino, at 1100 feet, nearly as tall than the Empire State Building.   It anchors the north end of the strip and boasts a revolving restaurant with a roller coaster grafted atop it, like a freakishly tall person wearing a crown of orbiting horseflies.  The broadcasting needle at the tippy top does double-duty as the armature of a kind of zero-gravity-drop ride called the Big Shot that gives thrill-freaks a taste of what a pleasure defenestration might be. 
            Recently opened are Steve Wynn’s $1.8 billion Bellagio, a Lombardy-themed colossus with a twelve-acre simulated Lake Como atop the front parking lot, plus (drum roll) a collection of real European paintings, including such superstars of plein air as Van Gogh and Renoir ($12 entry surcharge); the Venezia (same thing as Bellagio only Venice-themed with a canal inside); the Parisian (ditto, Paris, the River Seine, half-sized Eiffel Tower, etc); and the Mandalay Bay, a sort of Indiana Jones-style generic South Seas fantasy featuring an artificial surfing beach with wave machines.  All the foregoing are essentially the same building type dressed up in different costumes, just as the old strip casinos were just hypertrophied versions of a basic roadside motel dressed up in different neon flavors.  The Bellagio’s Strip-side main sign is housed in a structure nearly the size of the Flatiron building, and at least as ornate.  Locals joke that the way things are going, somebody will eventually have to build a Las Vegas, Las Vegas -- a miniature version of the Strip inside a hotel on the Strip, so you can avoid the Strip and still experience it.
            Which is something the casual visitor might dearly wish to do, because the experience of actually being on this gigantic motorway lined by buildings of such monstrous scale -- or, at some stretches, vacant lots that appear to be the size of Rhode Island -- is not apt to gratify many human beings with normal neurological equipment.  In fact, if ever a setting was designed to ravage the central nervous system and induce acute agoraphobia, the Strip is it.