A Simpler, Soberer . . . Las Vegas?!

With a skewed, vertigo-inducing photo taken at the top of a Strip roller-coaster at the head of their piece, Julie Hjerl Hansen and Thomas Hebsgaard of the Danish commentary weekly Information recently presented an interesting profile of the recession travails of Sin City itself: Las Vegas, Nevada (An Amusement Park in Decline). Their lede here provides a good summary, here it is:

A bad hand. Las Vegas is used to pulling through even when the rest of the USA is in crisis. But it’s not like that anymore. The financial crisis has hit the casinos, while the housing market has collapsed – and these days Las Vegas is the city in the USA where the most people are put out on the street.

It’s easy to see why Hansen and Hebsgaard chose Las Vegas specifically for their “US metropolis in economic crisis” feature. Predominating above all must have been the way that city exerts a certain fascination upon most foreigners, in that it is literally impossible for them to find an analogue to it in their own countries (no matter where they may be from – the gambling paradise of Macao, off the southern coast of China, probably comes the closest), and therefore to easily understand the place. Like an unconquered peak to a mountaineer, Vegas must represent to the ambitious journalist the same sort of challenge, defying one to ever come to grips with it, to ever master what really makes the place tick.

As a second reason, these days it also conveniently happens to be true that the Las Vegas economy features some of the worst economic statistics in the entire USA. Naturally, Hansen and Hebsgaard tick that box and reel these off: unemployment now at over 10%; 67% of local mortgage-holders are under water (meaning that they hold mortgages on their dwellings worth more than they are currently worth on the market); and in fact local real estate prices have fallen by as much as 80% (at least in the estimation of one local agent, by the name of Marshall Zucker, whom the authors engage to gain some insight on the market). Plus, as hinted at in the lede, they declare Vegas to “have the dubious honor of being the American champion in the number of forced sales.”

The article then ambles further along fairly predictable lines. There’s the local real-estate-agent couple, namely Marshall Zucker and his wife Barbara, who sigh for the good old days, of not so long ago, when (and I really have to quote here) “houses were sold before they were finished, and when ordinary couples from other cities invested their savings in houses in Las Vegas, with only an eye to selling them on” – or, to use the precise American terminology, with only the intention of “flipping” them in the near future for a healthy profit. Ah yes – good times, the Golden Age! And then Barbara chips in further with a tale of how, when a new casino opened for business, she heard that 2,000 people stood in line just to be able to apply for a job on the cleaning-crew. “I chatted with a woman who worked before as a restaurant chef,” says Barbara, “and she would have gladly taken this job.”

Stipulated, then: things are bad, really bad, in Sin City, there’s great suffering. Cue now “Angel with Heart of Gold,” stage left. Julie Murray, founder and head of Three Square, a two-year-old food-bank charity supported by casinos, restaurants, and private citizens, comes into the picture. At Three Square they really tried hard to plan ahead for what the need would be for their food-providing services, but still were shocked and overwhelmed by what reality turned out to be, namely (through 2008) 15,000 new households that turned to them for assistance, giving them a present total of around 210,000 Las Vegas residents (out of a total estimated population for 2008 of 1,865,746, so one-in-nine) who rely on Three Square to be able to eat.

Resurrection – Through Virtue!

Finally, of course, bring on the starry optimism, the anticipation of the Happy Ending. Speaking of Murray, the authors write:

But the city will come out of it yet, she believes – if it can only reinvent itself and bang the drum for its many good offerings. She therefore applauds the efforts to sell the city on the basis of cheap hotel rooms available for serious conferences, instead of tinsel and glamor [“tinsel and glamor” in Danish is actually “glimmer og glamour” – poetic!].

Don’t laugh – yet – for even before it gets around to Julie Murray this article has explained how that is precisely the strategy that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor’s [sic] Authority has taken up to try to reverse the city’s economic fortunes in the face of the troubled times (as well as President Obama’s inadvertent affront to the city in February, when he warned the country’s bailed-out banks from using their new government money to head off to conventions in Vegas). That’s right: in the city’s current marketing campaigns gambling, and “sin” generally speaking, and “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” is out while economy and a serious environment for holding serious conferences is in – just as the head of Three Square prescribes.

The trouble is, it’s not working, as further figures Hansen and Hebsgaard bring forth attest. For January through May of this year the number of conference-visitors fell by 29%, the total number of visitors by 7%, gaming income by 13% and the average price for a hotel room by 27%. And here let us return to what I postulated was the primary reason foreign correspondents like to write about Las Vegas: it’s so hard to understand! And, try as they might to understand it, too often they simply fail! (As does, apparently, one of the sweetest, most charitable personalities in the city itself, I have to venture.)

Because Las Vegas cannot be “economical” and “serious”! “Sin” – broadly stated – and “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” (and yes, organized crime) has always been what the place (known as Sin City, after all) has always been about, and at least most Americans understand that very well. You don’t go to Las Vegas to be “serious”; I am confident that librarian conventions, say, never ever consider it a suitable locale. Look at its history: the place did not even get off the ground until gambling was legalized there in the early 1930s and, reportedly, a series of “mob boss summit meetings” (Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, et al.) essentially resulted in the decision “Let there be Vegas!”

Porn Exhibit “A”

But don’t take my word for it. Consider instead the following delightful piece of recent serendipity, and it’s in English, too, from the LA Times: Porn museum nestled in Las Vegas. Now that’s a link designed for high click-through rates – yes, I know you well, my dear reading audience, I know what you like! – but for appearance’s sake let me offer a quote anyway, on the pretense that you wouldn’t think of heading off to read the article yourself:

In typically atypical [sic] Vegas style, the museum is next to a strip club and just a G-string’s throw from Donald Trump’s glittering five-star hotel. Although porn is playing on several of the 45 flat-screen TVs, it’s not being shown lasciviously in some darkened room. It’s part of the museum’s educational displays.

Please note that this Vegas “porn museum” opened “about a year ago.” So much for that “economical” and “serious” advertising campaign; I guess these porn-proprietors missed out on the memo. But that’s really my point: Las Vegas cannot help being what Las Vegas fundamentally is, and what it is has nothing and can have nothing to do with “economical” and “serious.” Before that ever happens – and things might very well come to this, who knows – the city will have instead shriveled up instead from within an economically-desperate country that has not been able to afford to gamble and otherwise go wild in the classic Vegas way for years, and all that the passer-by in the hot Nevada desert will see left will be one last neon sign, Ozymandias-like, imploring him to “Look on my gambling works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

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