The Sin City reputation of Las Vegas gave it a foundation on which to build a tourism brand, but it also, until recently, imposed a ceiling on how mainstream the community could become.
Professor Jonathan Foster of Elko’s Great Basin College explores the evolution of that perception in his new book, “Stigma Cities — The Reputation and History of Birmingham, San Francisco and Las Vegas.”
Las Vegas’ beginnings as a Mob-run desert playground where tourists indulged in vices not available back home created a nearly indelible impression about the community, Foster argues.
“I think that did color people’s perceptions of the city and of people from the city,” he said.
In the book, he recounts how former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones Blackhurst encountered people who thought she had been an exotic dancer because of where she came from.
Foster himself experienced the city's stigma when he told family and friends he would be moving here to pursue his doctorate at UNLV.
“The reaction was very negative,” he said.
Family and friends based their opinions about the city on the generalizations that it was nothing but a gaming center or mob controlled or sinful.
But when Foster lived in Southern Nevada, he found a very normal American city that was different from where he grew up in Alabama but was not very different from many urban centers.
Ironically, the city's reputation has actually helped it stay a top tourist destination, Foster said. He believes people love and hate Las Vegas. They love coming here to do the things they can't in their own communities but they like leaving those things here.
While the reputation sticks around, the view of the city itself is changing, Foster said. He argues people need only to look as far as professional sports to see how opinions about Las Vegas have changed.
“It wasn’t that long ago when the city couldn’t even advertise (Las Vegas) during an NFL game or during a Super Bowl, but now the Raiders are moving; they’re building the stadium,” Foster said.
Foster called that “sort of a marker of Las Vegas arriving as a major city” as well as a sign that societal norms are moving closer to Las Vegas.
“That stigma that I write about,” he said, “has disappeared somewhat.”
But he thinks the city has to walk a fine line.
“How does it balance that? How does it balance the needs of a modern, urban center… with also the need to maintain that sense of the risqué, the deviance from national values and norms at times,” he said.
The book also explores the racist past of Foster’s hometown of Birmingham, Ala., and San Francisco’s image as an ultra-liberal enclave.
Jonathan Foster, author, "Stigma Cities"
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