The Lure of Las Vegas

Just a century after it was founded by true gamblers, this desert outpost is the nation's fastest-growing metro area. Is it for real?

Las Vegas welcome sign at night

Las Vegas will welcome 35 million guests this year. Over 80 percent are repeat visitors.

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There's no sense insisting on logic when you're staying in a pyramid, which is down the street from the Statue of Liberty, which is a few doors up from the canals of Venice, which is across the Strip from a volcano, which has a view of the Eiffel Tower, from where you can watch pirates battle seductresses in a tiny lagoon. When you're in Las Vegas, you need to let go. Reason must be abandoned. Here, in the middle of the desert, the waters dance to an operatic syncopation and, well, that's just the way it is.

If you still want an explanation for such exaggerated pointlessness, you'll have to settle for pop psychology. Like: The sheer recklessness of architecture is meant to sufficiently unhinge visitors so that spending a dollar to win 92 cents seems like a perfectly reasonable investment. Didn't we just ride a gondola, enjoy a shrimp buffet, and watch men in blue face paint perform? Shouldn't we bet the nest egg on the pass line as well?

Las Vegas, the country's premier smorgasbord of sensation, the last frontier when it comes to ritualized excess, is about to enter its second century. The city's survival—its dominance—as an engine of entertain-ment has been possible because the people who rig the machines have fine-tuned the fun so that you hardly mind the small change you've left behind ($33 billion a year; that's how they pay all those pirates). Are the buildings this needlessly animated in Cleveland, the shows so full of superfluous spectacle in New York, the atmosphere this pregnant with possibility . . . anywhere else?

You pay, but you get something for your money. It might be nothing more than the temporary sense of bravado, a week's defiance of the ordinary. In Las Vegas, they've been careful to calibrate the level of implied danger for a largely conservative constitu-ency. And to the extent that 35 million keep coming back every year, you'd have to say they've got it about right. Not bad for an old railroad town that parlayed legalized gambling (not till 1931), a federal construction boon (starting at Hoover Dam that same happy year), and mob invasion (Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo in 1946) into a perfect storm of tourism. It was all made mainstream when corporate investment in gambling was finally allowed in the 1960s.

On a recent visit, I dropped in on the official ambassador of Las Vegas attitude, partly because I wanted to meet an honest-to-God mob lawyer and also because I wanted to chat up the only mayor in the country who has his own gin endorsement. Oscar Goodman has been the most public face of the city since his overwhelming election six years ago, and he's been effortlessly imposing his rowdiness on the town's sensibility ever since. "I gamble to excess, I drink to excess," he said, rather gleefully. "Is that bad?"

Not if it serves to advertise an anything-goes theme park, the last refuge for wannabe malcontents, riffraff, and well-heeled travelers from Kansas City. "This is a fantasy world," Goodman said. "A place where you can celebrate freedom, have a good time, leave your cares behind, go to the cusp of what's legal."

The imagery is appealing enough—"Whatever happens here, stays here" is now the town's slogan—that this has become the top adult destination in America. And Goodman is not one to mess with the formula. In an attempt to convince baseball officials that Las Vegas should have a major-league team, he recently visited the owners' meetings with two showgirls and an Elvis impersonator in tow. "There I am holding a drink," he said, showing me a picture of him and the two showgirls.

Like any theme park, this one is mostly an illusion. Goodman is no drunken buffoon, the city is not the Wild West, and its townspeople are not mobsters single-mindedly driven to the extraction of the gambler's dollars. The infrastructure of this wonderland is very real, even mundane. Goodman, supposed showgirl aficionado, lives on a tree-lined street with Carolyn, his wife of 42 years.

But you must have guessed as much. This is not only a state of mind; it's a real city, home to retirees, wanderers, small-business owners. And it's growing like no other. One of the 84,000 new Las Vegans who arrive every year, a casino desk clerk, told me his story. Except for a detail here and there, it could serve as boilerplate for so many others. "I was sitting in a Borders in Akron one winter," he said, "and I looked at the weather map in the newspaper. I handed in my letter of resignation at the sheriff's department, got in my car, never looked back. That was six years ago. I haven't worn an overcoat since."

If it's not the weather or the chance for a fresh start (Las Vegas leads the country in small-business growth), it's the unending demand for manpower. For every hotel room that gets added along the neon-washed Strip, five more workers are sucked into a feverish economy—hotel maids, doctors, carpenters. The opportunities are staggering and it's hard to discount the effects, good and bad, of so much growth. They say a new house gets put up every 20 minutes. Along Interstate 15, the housing keeps pushing south. Not even the graffiti can keep pace with the walled subdivisions. Nor, some wonder, will the water supply; Goodman admits that's a civic and geographic challenge.

These newcomers are not all servicing the dreams of visitors, however. The city is more and more independent of the tourism industry. As spokesperson, Goodman labors to preserve the rough-and-ready image of old Las Vegas, hawking a round-the-clock culture where anything can happen. "Sin City?" he asked, laughing. "It's hard for the mayor to advocate Sin City. But I don't take issue with it."

Yet his winking advocacy of that old Rat Pack kind of town is strained. The Rat Pack is gone, as are most of the mobsters Goodman used to represent. And he knows it. The biggest picture in his office is not a signed Tony "The Ant" Spilotro or even a Tony Curtis, but a huge aerial photo of Union Park. Goodman calls it "Jewel of the Desert," a planned 61-acre development off the Strip that will have dozens and dozens of stores, a medical center, and a vertical urban village that the mayor says will Manhattanize Las Vegas.

Even the gaming industry is hedging its bets, having discovered that hotel operations, retail, and real estate have pretty good margins too. Each property, it seems, has a topflight nightclub, its own stage spectacle, its own roster of celebrity chefs. And these attractions are no longer loss leaders. Want tickets to Kà, the $165 million Cirque du Soleil offshoot just opening at the MGM Grand? You'll pay as much as $150.

It used to be that gambling got up to 65 percent of the tourist's budget. But now, thanks to a more realistic pricing of the $2.99 buffet (it runs $25.95 at Bellagio), it's dropped to 44 percent. Food and drink, accommodations, shows, and shopping account for the most tourist dollars—meaning that Vegas is no longer the bargain it has been. Caesars Palace, which was once ground zero for the serious gambler, may be more attractive to visitors these days for its Forum Shops, an upscale retail space at the end of the casino. Caesars can't mind all that much if gamblers wander from the slots to handle the Bulgari neckties; yearly sales per square foot are about four times the national average.

And now some of the casinos, which used to turn sand to make room for more slot machines, are getting into the condo business. MGM Mirage is building a 66-acre development that will have not only a 4,000-room resort and casino but also high-rise residences and boutiques. They will probably not be replicas of Egyptian temples.

Las Vegas, after 100 years of marginal citizenship in this country, may be becoming more like any other city, run by real government, funded by legitimate corporations, populated by teachers, shop owners, and doctors, putting up high-rises of no particular distinction. Yet at its core, this is still a city that genuinely adores nonsense, cultivates the amazement of its visitors, and most of all believes in everyone's right to buy fun. Is that bad?

Las Vegas by the numbers

POPULATION (METRO)

  • 273,288 in 1970
  • 770,280 in 1990
  • 1,641,529 in 2003.

VISITORS

  • 6.8 million in 1970
  • 21 million in 1990
  • 35.5 million in 2003, when 5.7 million delegates attended 24,463 conventions
  • Thirty-six percent of visitors came from California.

GAMBLING

  • In 2003, 87 percent of visitors gambled
  • They spent an average of $479.94 (down from $665.23 in 2000)
  • Gambling revenue hit $7.8 billion.

Photography by Chip Simons

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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