Travel February 2001

Las Vegas, 'Tis of Thee

The sweet land of liberties deserves our respect—or at least our ambivalence

And indeed, compared with most buildings, these will prove as fleeting as a song. Let someone have an idea for an even grander hoax, or let the occupancy rate fall below 90 percent, and down they will come. The famous Dunes fell so that Bellagio could rise; The Desert Inn is closed and will soon be razed to make way for something vaster and more glorious. I hate to say this, because The Venetian is so new, but even now I hear time's winged chariot over the Grand Canal.

As the Strip in all its impermanence has flourished, Las Vegas's old downtown has languished—it's the paradigm, after all, for what has happened in a city near you. And, as usual, efforts at revival—in this case an arcaded street—only make the place look more forlorn. But downtown has its pleasures. For one thing, it's a good place to go to gamble, particularly if you just want to get your feet wet: betting minimums are lower than in the big casinos; the players include some local types; the dealers, less scrutinized by cameras, feel free to reveal their consummate boredom; you see more real drinks; and in general the atmosphere achieves a high sleaziness congruent with what you're doing. I spent an enjoyable hour at a storefront casino one afternoon, betting at the two-dollar craps table. I stood next to a fellow with a glass of whiskey in his hand who was playing an aggressive game but took time to share his strategy with me: "Always bet on the come, always take the odds." This leaves you with chips spread out across the table and a chance at multiple payoffs if the table gets hot—if you "get a shooter." I followed his path for a while, and maybe stayed in the game longer as a consequence. "Okay, now we're playing with their money," my friend said, when things started to go his way. Unfortunately, though, we never got a shooter and the table never got hot, and I noticed that his stack, too, was dwindling. He left me to "take a dinner break," though it seemed early to me—quarter to five. Anyway, I was grateful for his advice, which helped me to lose more money with a little more élan later in the day at Bellagio.

Craps used to hold center stage in Las Vegas casinos, but it has been eclipsed by the more solitary and competitive blackjack. (A clever academic could probably derive an entire sociology from this.) Craps remains the social game, and in the right circumstances the most fun. At the craps table you root out loud for the shooter, and the shooter talks to the dice, and the woman in gold lamé who's been making the reckless bets jumps into the air when the dealer intones, "Eight the hard way, eight."

The new wisdom in Las Vegas is that people don't come here for the gambling, they come for "entertainment." Logically this has to be true in some sense, since gambling is now so widely available elsewhere. Yet people gamble here who wouldn't gamble elsewhere. They feel free, historically licensed, to do so—that's what the place is for. And gambling still pays the bills: it accounts for about 60 percent of the revenues at an average large hotel. Purists—those who like their corruption uncorrupted—object to the new tourist-paradise Las Vegas, but it may be that the fantasy architecture, like the absence of daylight and clocks inside the casinos, only enhances that sense of suspended reality that can make a hundred-dollar bill look so insubstantial. In any case, whatever the architecture does for the gambling, there is little doubt that the gambling enhances the architecture—it provides the charge in the air, the sense of living dangerously, that keeps the place from being the Disney World it sometimes seems to want to become.

Las Vegas meets one fundamental criterion for a great city: it imposes its own reality on you. The cityscape effectively cuts you off from the outside world, but from time to time you may look down a long side street, get a glimpse of the red mountains beyond, and feel curious about the desert in which the city has grown. One day I rented a car to look around. The desert used to begin right outside the Strip's back door, but Las Vegas has sprawled. Its metropolitan area is the fastest-growing in the country, with a population now of about 1.4 million. (Forty years ago the entire state of Nevada had fewer than 300,000 residents.) To the east and the south development stretches for some twenty miles, all the way to Henderson, and so the drive down toward Hoover Dam (thirty miles from Las Vegas) has become rather dispiriting, in a landscape whose long, treeless views forgive nothing.

On the highway I thought about the theories of the architect Robert Venturi that appeared in a controversial book of a generation ago, Learning From Las Vegas (1972), celebrating the free spirit of Strip architecture and chastising reflexive critics of the style. There's something to be said for the Las Vegas aesthetic, which essentially holds that nothing is ugly, and in the city itself you get caught up in this liberating abandon. Even a billboard looks somehow organic, God-given. But the magic wears off at the city line, and I think that's the trouble with Venturi's argument. The Las Vegas aesthetic doesn't travel, isn't "scaleable."

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