I can’t believe that I wrote this about a famous American city, more than 25 years ago: “Pockmarked with vacant hardscrabble expanses, the city seems unfinished – a quivering, pulsating conglomeration of potential.”
The city was Las Vegas, the youngest city in America; hence the references to adolescence. Returning there last week for a technology conference, I realized that everything I’d written is no longer true.
It is no longer an adolescent. There are no longer any hardscrabble expanses. The strip has been filled in, one vacant lot after another, covered over with soaring buildings, all devoted to the hospitality industry, nary a one showing a 90-degree angle in its architecture. If you want to drink, smoke, gamble, or eat, this is the last city in America where you can do all of them with impunity. How ironic for a city founded by Mormons (look it up).
I’m all for reinvention when there’s actual change involved. But Las Vegas keeps reinventing itself and just becoming more like Las Vegas. Is this Vegas 5.0? I’m not sure. There was the Vegas the Mormons founded, basically just a watering hole on the old Spanish Trail. Then there was the first gambling center, a place where the workers building Hoover Dam could blow off steam. Then came the strip, with its sprawling ranch-style hotels like the El Rancho, the Desert Inn, the original Flamingo, with swimming pools and showrooms. That’s the Vegas I covet, the Vegas of the original Ocean’s 11.
About a dozen years ago, the latest iteration of Vegas – the so-called “megaresort” era – arrived with the opening of the Mirage, followed soon after by Treasure Island and Luxor (both 1993), Monte Carlo (1996), New York, New York (1997), Bellagio (1998), Mandalay Bay, Venetian, and Paris (all 1999). All these properties were either built on vacant land or upon the rubble of imploded classic casinos (classic in my eye, anyway). I’d love to have an interactive map of Las Vegas showing where all the old casinos were and what’s there today.
Although the downturn hit Vegas pretty badly, still more hotels followed in the 21st century, including a pair of hotels owned by MGM (yes, the studio that used to be known for wholesome family entertainment). The Aria and the Vdara opened side-by-side within weeks of each other in 2009. This is where I ended up when I visited Vegas a few weeks ago: with a room in the Aria, and at a conference in the Vdara.
This trip convinced me that I don’t belong in this latest iteration of Vegas, chockablock with hotels, casinos, shopping centers – anything that involves spending money. (My attitude has nothing to do with the fact that I got roasted at the blackjack table.) Everything has been done to excess – the hotels, the rooms, the traffic, the noise, the malls, the heat, even the airport. It took me half an hour just to find the taxi stand. I had another long walk to my room at the Aria, and that was only because I found the right hallway. I wish the front desk had issued bread crumbs.
I still prefer Reno, even though Reno is as downtrodden as Vegas is overbuilt. I wish there was a way to average the two, so one didn’t seem so whorish and the other so homeless. I was in Vegas for less than 24 hours, and was damn glad to leave. All that pockmarked land is now gone, and the city is all grown up, but not in a good way. It kind of reminds you of a relative whom you thought would be a wild success, but who ended up as working in an open-all-night diner.