Time magazine ran a cover story last year hailing Las Vegas as "The New All-American city."
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
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
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."
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
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.
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,
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'
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
Each new mega-casino-resort that opens
on The Strip requires 5,000 to 10,000 workers to make it
"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.
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
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."
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
"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,
"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
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
"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
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."
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
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,
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." n