The Las Vegas we all know and love was the brain child of a Jewish guy from New York. For some reason known only to him, this man took a look at the little army town in the middle of the desolate Mojave Desert in Nevada and saw potential. He embarked on an endeavor that would eventually cost him his life and make his investors very, very rich. He invented the All Inclusive. He invented the supreme ideal of accommodation luxury and the concept of spoiling the spoiled rotten more rotten.
He invented the Las Vegas strip.
In a the mere 60 years since ground was broken on the Flamingo hotel this little outpost in the desert is now one of the United States largest cities…a booming metropolis that very well still might be the fastest growing economy for a city in the US. I call it LA east…that’s evident just by driving the freeway here. Mr. Siegel’s eyes would just bulge if he saw what his Las Vegas has become. His Flamingo Hotel…luxury to include fine dining, elegant casinos and top tier entertainment…his idea, what he was jided for, his folly…it is dwarfed by what has been built since then. I’d like to think old Ben would be proud.
There was one thing about Nevada that has made it different, that has now drawn millions of people to this oasis in the middle of the desert. Gambling was legal back in 1944 and continues to be to this day. Sure, in every state of the Union gambling in some form has gradually become legal and accepted and a downright money maker for individual states in the form of a lottery…and now Indian gambling has brought the poker and blackjack tables to a quaint village near you. But that has done nothing to detract from the teeming masses coming to Vegas to lose the family home, stuff themselves silly at the plethora of all you can eat buffets or even bring the family while doing this so that the kiddies can ride the roller coaster at New York New York, the gondolas at the Venetian or the watch the Pirates fight it out at Treasure Island. It has attracted top dollars for top entertainers such as Prince, Elton John and Celine Dion. It has made Cirque du Soleil a downright form of entertainment. It has attracted the top restaurateurs and chefs from all over the world, bringing their world class restaurants in to compete with the stale buffets. Las Vegas now has something for everyone. This is evident on any given day when you walk the streets. This is the town a gangster built.
The most striking thing about the Las Vegas skyline, the predominant feature that you see as you crest the hill and drive in on I15 is not the Luxor’s beam, or the towers of the Mandalay Bay or even the weird and wonderful new condo-hotel complex the Donald is building…it is the enormous amounts of cranes and skeletons of buildings under construction. Las Vegas is a city that is constantly re-inventing itself. It is almost Zen-Like in it’s “in the now” approach to its city and residents and most importantly – its visitors. It would be even more Zen Like if it wasn’t so greed driven.
Las Vegas has an enormously rich history…even back before Ben Siegel drove up what is now known as “The Strip”. It’s military as are most desert communities in California and Nevada…for some reason the powers that be figure a good place to test weapons and high speed planes would be the desert since not too many people live in them. When the increasing populations in Phoenix and Los Angeles demanded yet more water one of the biggest and most challenging engineering feats was accomplished just south of Vegas when the Colorado River was diverted and dammed…creating one of the man-made wonders of the world, the Hoover Dam. Still and all, for excitement and gambling the rich and famous with money to spare would head to Havana. No one was coming to the desolate and harsh environment of the Mojave Desert just for kicks…they were here because they either were military personnel or part of the military industrial complex in some fashion. Even the famous Flamingo flopped when it first opened. After Siegel’s death his investors learned more about this jewel in the desert and exploited it. They built it and they came. They came to gamble, they came to see Frank Sinatra and his friends. They came to see Elvis and stay in the high-rollers suites. As they came, it got built…and built…and built. Soon there were golf courses in the desert…mega swimming pools in the desert…lawns in the desert. And a seediness that could only compare to the Times Square of old.
Howard Hughes found his oasis here, taking up residence at the Desert Inn and eventually buying it and many, many properties on the strip, including the Stardust. At one point he once again became the object of desire at the US Justice Department…anti-trust issues in owning just so many of these properties in Vegas. Hughes, a staunch conservative was a secret leader in the fight against nuclear testing in the desert because he was such a freak about germs. He spent his last days in the desert…dying as he left his penthouse at the Desert Inn for only the second time since his arrival there, on his way to a “safer” haven.
All this history and nothing to show for it…Las Vegas has an odd policy in it’s desire to implode its history. The Flamingo, though a shell of it’s past year’s splendor, remains standing by the sheer tenacity of its owners, the Hilton Corporation. Other than that, all those old landmark hotels, the Desert Inn, the Aladdin, the Stardust…blown to bits amidst fanfare and to a wide audience. So, not only does Vegas blow up its history…it celebrates it’s destruction. After all, it’s not about what was…it’s about what’s next. It’s about how can major corporations such as Harrah’s Entertainment and MGM…the two single largest property owners in Las Vegas…how they can build their next mega-resort and reap those profits.
Las Vegas is nothing if it’s not a testament to everything evil in the United States. Talk about “Super Size”. It’s a monument to gluttony, greed and perversion. Let’s face it…it is one huge Hollywood movie set. Over here…the “idea” of New York. Here, “Paris”…oh look, let’s go to “Venice”. You’ve got Circus Circus for the circus, circus, Excalibur for some medieval jousting and revelry. For those wishing a “Monaco” type experience you’ve got the Bellagio or the Wynn. Like Mardi Gras? Rio. Spend a week in Vegas and you can have the world at your fingertips. For most, you don’t even need to travel all that far.
For me, it’s empty. Sure, Vegas is trying very hard to grab some cultural hold and on some levels they have. The shows are brilliantly produced. Vegas is a struggling actors dream…from singing in the Gondolas on the Grand Canal, to becoming a walking talking character at any of the themed hotels right down to dancing in the chorus line of Celine’s show. It is a haven for the struggling artist and set builder…every hotel just about has a theme for which elaborate scenery and sculpture are needed to promote the fantasy. Still if it’s high culture you are looking for on vacation, I’d say you won’t find it in Vegas. If it’s a theme park you are looking for, you have arrived, in spades.
In becoming a large city, no, a HUGE city so quickly there is bug-a-boos. I can remember Karen complaining about the lack of medical services at one point…she is a teacher in the public schools here, her career catapulted each time the Nevada state legislature had to allocate funds to accommodate a growing education need in this city. Las Vegas now has humidity…a phenomenon created by all the lawns and golf courses. Las Vegas has smog…too many freeways, no mass transit. Las Vegas has crime and poverty and desperation. While inventing itself over and over and over again, while desperately trying to be an idea of itself it comes right down to it…Las Vegas has become a booming metropolis, warts and all.
That doesn’t stop Jack and Mary from Wisconsin, each weighing 400 pounds from stuffing themselves at the buffet while spending the kid’s college funds at the slots.
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