Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue about the Great Basin.
Time magazine ran a cover story last year hailing Las Vegas as "The New All-American city."
The benediction signaled transformation for what, after all, had been considered Sin City only a few decades ago. In 1994, Las Vegas also surpassed Disney World as a family destination. Even in the high heat of August, there was no unoccupied room at the biggest hotel in the world, the MGM Grand Casino and Wizard of Oz theme park.
With places all over the country trying to cash in on this blend of gambling and amusement-based tourism, America is becoming more like Las Vegas. But Las Vegas seems able to stay several steps ahead of its competitors by recycling popular culture into a powerful come-on for each new generation of Americans - with a generation measured at seven years.
Steve Wynn, who blew up the historic Dunes casino to make way for a faux river resort on The Strip, told Time that Las Vegas "represents all the things people in every city in America like. Here they can get it in one gulp."
Novelist John Irsfeld has watched Las Vegas churn for 25 years as bigger and more elaborate casinos open. He says their pitch is the sale of "safe - as in safe sex - naughtiness. The product is money."
Filmmaker and social analyst Mike Trend disagrees: "Endorphins are the product." The rush of occasionally winning keeps people coming to the table games, slot machines, and video poker. The spectacle provides an ever-changing show within which the daily grind takes place.
Call it what you will - tourism, entertainment, service or fantasy - this is the roaring engine of the new economy. And it's not just suckers who are crowding Las Vegas. Tens of thousands of puppetmasters - everyone from venture capitalists to computer programmers to waiters to prostitutes - are needed to make this illusion work.
Las Vegas has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country for more than a decade. Each month 4,000 to 6,000 new residents turn in their out-of-state licenses in Las Vegas.
"People move where they want and if they find work they get to stay," says Irsfeld. "So many come here for the opportunity. Las Vegas is a place to go for a job, to make a fortune, to get married or divorced, either of which can be an opportunity. It draws people with a chance to do better."
Irsfeld came to teach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when it was housed in trailers on a dusty lot and stayed to be part of an institution that would grow like the city - painfully, in fits and starts.
"We complain about the streets never being fixed," he says. "They're being fixed all the time. There is not a hotel in this town that looks the same as it did 25 years ago. We're like Southern California: let it go, let it grow, let it roll, balls to the wall, unfettered capitalism."
Even the establishment feels transient in Las Vegas. "We're all recent immigrants from all over," says Jack Harvey, a businessman who came here in the 1970s to work for Howard Hughes' estate.
Contrary to popular perception, however, the nouveau Las Vegans are not all equity exiles, cashing out of the high-priced California real estate market for a better spot in the sun. Some have lost their jobs and their houses in the Southern California depression. Many are looking for work in a service economy that is growing jobs at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country.
Each new mega-casino-resort that opens on The Strip requires 5,000 to 10,000 workers to make it hum.
"A lot of those people come to our hiring hall," says Glen Arnodo, an organizer with the Culinary Workers and Bartenders Union, which represents 40,000 employees at many of the big casinos in Las Vegas. The union hiring hall in the shadow of the Vegas World casino tower is often full these days.
"Many of these people are economic refugees from California who know the jobs are good ones," says Arnodo. Average wages in Nevada, contrary to popular belief about the low-paying service sector, are the fourth highest in the country. And the pay scale in Las Vegas is a couple of dollars higher on average than elsewhere in Nevada.
"That's due to the union," Arnodo says. "We've been able to build good, stable jobs. If you're a maid, you might not get rich, but you're able to buy a house, send your kid to college. Our union represents the middle class of Las Vegas, and it is a microcosm of America: 25 percent Latin, 22 percent black, 7 percent Asian, and the rest Anglo."
Arnodo worked as a union organizer in factories in the Rust Belt before moving west to the Sun Belt. Compared to watching manufacturing jobs dry up and blow away, he says, being part of the Las Vegas boom is the most exciting challenge a union organizer could ask for.
"You talk about the West changing," Arnodo says. "No place is changing as fast as Las Vegas. I think Las Vegas represents something larger than it is. We have to face the fact that we've had a revolution in our economy. We can debate the wisdom of building an economy on gambling and service. But the important question is: Can we turn these service sector jobs into good jobs? We've shown we can.
"I call them the coal miners of the service sector," Arnodo says. "Mines and factories were terrible jobs. They became the best jobs and an engine of the middle class. I think we can do the same in this new economy. I hope Las Vegas is the first of many union towns in the future."
Unions are organizing casino workers in other cities, including Laughlin and Reno. Arnodo hopes the organizing will spread to other parts of the service economy. "If the labor movement can grow, we will see change for the 7-11s and ski resorts," he says. "But first we have to organize the base. And ours is gaming."
But the union is struggling. It lost ground in the 1980s, when it concentrated on securing better benefits for its workers rather than organizing while the industry was expanding rapidly. Now it has a major organizing drive in the new casinos, such as the MGM, which has raised wages above union scale to keep out the union.
"I talked to a waitress at the MGM whose husband was a steelworker," says Arnodo. "He lost his job and they went on the road looking for work. In Florida, she was a waitress for $2 an hour. She told me, 'I never believed waitressing could be a profession until I came here.' "
The most common job openings in Las Vegas are for waiters and waitresses, followed by cashiers, dining-room and bar helpers, food-preparation workers, blackjack dealers, retail salespeople, maids, janitors, gaming change persons, and guards. Take away jobs related specifically to gambling, add nurses and orderlies, office clerks and truck drivers, and the profile is remarkably similar to job growth in the national economy.
"Las Vegas is a conventional working man's town," says John Irsfeld. "It's a shift town. Today you serve; tomorrow you're served." Irsfeld says his daughter has worked in pizza parlors here and in California while going to school. The tips are better in Las Vegas, he says, because people understand that service is a way of life.
Even in these go-go years, however, not everyone prospers. Casinos know: They raked in $420 million a month in 1994 in Las Vegas. But no one tracks the losers - not after they leave the casinos - not after they abandon the job market.
"There's a lot of people who come here from California thinking, 'Oh, a job, great,' " says Peggy Jackman of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "They get here and find out there's a lot of people looking for jobs here. And they pack the car and leave here, too."
"They wash up on our shores," says Mike Trend, a city employee who helps provide emergency housing. The first hotel for the homeless is now being built in Las Vegas.
"There is still real transiency here," says State Senator Dina Titus. "The boom and bust in Las Vegas in construction is just like the mining camps. If the economy drops, the men leave. And they leave the women here with children. And that puts a burden on welfare."
At the same time jobs are created in the hotel, gaming and resort industry, the welfare rolls in Nevada also balloon. An irony of this gaming-dependent state, Titus says, is that low taxes and no income tax mean that each new resident creates a net deficit for state and local governments.
Titus says the ups and downs of the gaming and tourism industry, which provides the lion's share of the state's tax revenues, make planning difficult. This year the state government has a $390 million surplus. Two years ago, however, Nevada faced a deficit of nearly the same proportions.
"It's hard to predict revenues from gaming," says Titus. "So we don't plan anything. We're always betting on the come, the next roll of the dice. When the bust comes it's too late. You have to react. Or get the hell out."
Residents know who pays their taxes. "Don't think of it as gambling," one resident urges a visitor. "Think of it as slots for tots."
"I've been through slumps in gaming," says Irsfeld, "and when it goes south everything goes south."
"Interest in gambling ebbs and flows," says Jack Harvey. "It's a sales motivated business. It's cyclical. Las Vegas is booming. It's on a roll. I've never seen this town like this. But at some point it will be over-built. That's the way things work."
Sometime in recent months, Las Vegas passed the mark of 1 million residents. It is now doubling and doubling again every 12 to 14 years, steadily rising in the ranks of major American cities.
"There's so much momentum you can't stop it," says Harvey. "It's very big. Sixty thousand pounds of shrimp come in here every day. You can't send that over a wire."
You can't send water over a wire either. And water is forcing Las Vegas to look to the rest of the region for help in the future.
Like Westerners in general, Las Vegans like to think that they built something out of nothing. If truth be told, Las Vegas built itself with federal energy and water, upon federal highways and airports. A federal work force at Boulder Dam, the Basic Manufacturing Industries' ammunition plant in nearby Henderson, Nellis Air Force Base, and the Nevada Test Site provided a stable center before the hotel-gaming-resort industry boomed out of the hands of hoodlums and onto Wall Street in the 1970s.
Now, Las Vegas has to figure out how to get what it needs with its own moxie. And to do that Las Vegas is having to fashion a role for itself not as a loner, but as part of a broader regional community.
Las Vegas was criticized for arrogance when it tried to grab groundwater in rural Nevada in 1989. The city has since put that grandiose pipeline project aside in a quest to get more water out of the Colorado River. To do that, Las Vegas will have to figure out how to get along with the older West, represented by traditional agricultural interests and the upper basin states on the Colorado (HCN, 2/21/94).
There are signs Las Vegas is already moderating its brash style. Instead of flaunting its juice in the old way, Las Vegas is starting to work behind the scenes to create a "community of interest on the Colorado River," says Patricia Mulroy, director of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which controls the spigot that supplies this desert oasis. "When you try to catapult yourself at the expense of your neighbors, you bring problems in the future. We end up hurting ourselves. Our future is part of their future."
It is a common complaint that cities have lost touch with the countryside. But Las Vegas never was connected to the countryside. For better or worse, Las Vegas lacks a lot of baggage when it tries to make deals with the rest of the region. But with close to 70 percent of the population of Nevada, Las Vegas controls the state more than ever.
"Reno and the north is so preoccupied with Las Vegas," says Titus, who represents Las Vegas in the state Legislature. But "we don't even think about them. We are self-centered because we seem to think we've done it on our own. You know the desert was there. The federal government didn't like our gaming. We didn't get much help from Carson City. It was far away and it cared about mining and cared about farming. We're very individualistic. And we kind of feel like, "well, we did it on our own. Why don't you do it?"
"But we need to step back and see ourselves as part of the whole state," continues Titus. "Eventually, we'll have to support the whole state. So we need to help the whole state come along, so we don't have to pick up the pieces."
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story: