Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century by Hal Rothman

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From "insignificance" (p. 3) as a desert stopover to its under-the-radar growth for most of the twentieth century, the author traces Las Vegas' development in terms of economic forces, demographics, and the built environment.

Rothman's coverage focuses on how gambling plus infusions of federal workers (initially, the construction of the Hoover Dam), gave rise to an environment where gambling became a profitable business. Demographically, Las Vegas grew even more as workers came to serve the visitors in all aspects: food, gaming, shows, cleaning, construction, and ancillary and then supporting industries such as government, banking, legal services, and retailing.

Rothman shows how the draw of Las Vegas in the late 20th century was largely a mythical "American dream" in which relatively unskilled people could gain jobs that would pay well enough for housing, consumer goods, and a lifestyle that were out of reach for much of the rest of the people with the same level of skills elsewhere in the country.

The built environment of Las Vegas took off rapidly during the last part of the 20th century, in particular since 1990. Casinos had not been just gambling halls for decades, but the complexes of the century's turn became elaborate entertainment systems. Rothman traces how Las Vegas maintains its position as a gambling and entertainment destination by accumulating a city-wide spectacle where the built environment itself becomes something to see.

Rothman's specific studies including observing the sociology of a Starbucks and what that indicates for the different demographic groups existing in the area. Rothman also very ably shows how the struggle for control over the sidewalks, notably the handbill purveyors, highlights the conflict between the private (and controlled) built environment and the public (and uncontrolled) environment. It is this tension between the public versus private and control versus freedom that is Rothman's most powerful exploration, as it applies not just to Las Vegas but all urban areas of the world.

By reading this book, I have come to understand Las Vegas in terms of how it grew (and grows today) from mathematical certainties and statistical probabilities. The isolation and insignificance of its beginnings set up an environment where gambling enterprises could succeed away from too much attention or regulation. The relatively austere landscape turned the attention of the inhabitants on the excitement of gambling and assorted other vices. The insignificance of Las Vegas well into the 20th century gave the gambling industry time and privacy to figure out how to appeal to their customers' desire for excitement. This expands to a sense of naughtiness and a whiff of danger inherent in the "sin city" brand.

To me, the mathematical certainty of being able to take peoples' money through gambling and the statistical predictability of knowing how to show them a good time simultaneously lies at the heart of Las Vegas' power. It is the predictability of visitors that makes this happen. It is possible to test and adjust the visitors' sense of excitement and reaction to city (e.g., everything from gambling to shows to food to architectural features to a controlled sense of danger). This helps turn a profit on investment, and these profits make possible relatively good wages, a relatively low cost of living, elaborate infrastructure, and assured energy and water supplies (as long as the money is there to buy water and energy). These probabilities give a great deal of control to the people building the huge complexes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Indeed, the built environment is all about control: controlling the movement of people through casinos and resorts in such a way as to provide them with stimulus and simultaneously extract money from them in such a way that they want to do it again. As long as this game can continue, Las Vegas has it made.

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