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Why Las Vegas is the ultimate American city

Sometimes down, never out. Reuters/Ethan Miller

The action of the US presidential primaries has shifted to Nevada, where Hillary Clinton’s campaign received a major boost – 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 4.17 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, which 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 US$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 US$14m, the Sands for US$14.6m, Castaways for US$3m, and the Landmark for US$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% 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.

And 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% in 2006, it rose to 12.2% by August 2009, peaking at just over 14% in December 2010.

Ceci n'est pas Paris. Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

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%. 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.

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