What Happened Here
Las Vegas has been deemed ‘inessential’ before — but not like this. Does our history of essential contributions to the nation offer any hope for a new purpose?
What you’re about to read probably won’t age well. Odds are that a year from now, this essay will seem either neurotically pessimistic about dangers that were mostly imagined, or stupidly blind to an impending doom whose signs were all too obvious in retrospect. It will be a relic of an uncertain period when Las Vegas was on the cusp of change, a time capsule seen as quaint in a wiser, and hopefully happier, time. But that reflects both this unprecedented situation, and the difficulty of predicting the future of a resort city that has always banked on selling the world the possibilities of the present.
In that way, Las Vegas has always been an attitude, a spirit, an essence. As such, “What happens here, stays here” still defines the city’s image, 17 years after the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority rolled that slogan out. But that’s just the surface. We all know that underneath, the real Las Vegas is defined by much more than the debauchery implied by the slogan. We’re a diverse metropolitan area whose main economic engine is service.
Evel Pie offered a hopeful message on its Downtown marquee.
However, our city and state have historically offered service on a higher level. We’ve always prided ourselves on contributing to the national mission, whether it be winning a world war or preventing one. Our history of federal projects, our innovations in hospitality, and our infrastructure fine-tuned for an increasingly mobile, globalized economy have connected Las Vegas in meaningful ways to the nation and the world.
Now that we’re newly reminded how inessential — and potentially dangerous — much of what we offer America is, Las Vegas is facing an existential crisis. How does a place that prides itself on its connections find meaning — and offer service — in a time when those connections are cut? There are no sure answers, but history may offer an inkling of guidance.
In 1905, the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad Company founded the town of Las Vegas with a land auction. The new burg had one purpose: to keep the trains running and make the company money. Following that line’s 1921 acquisition by the Union Pacific, a bitter strike led Union Pacific to remove its repair shops from young Las Vegas, leading to a local economic depression and its first loss of confidence.
For the rest of the decade, Las Vegas was a city in search of a purpose. Boosters hoped that the town could become an agricultural producer or a haven for outdoorsmen. But nothing clicked. Then, in 1928, Congress passed legislation mandating the construction of what would become Hoover Dam, and the city had a new purpose: gateway to a modern engineering marvel. When construction started in 1931, the project was a model for federal stimulus, as the many paychecks that found their way to Fremont Street made clear. Las Vegas was front and center for the New Deal, an example for the rest of the nation to follow.
During World War II, the Las Vegas Valley prided itself on hosting Basic Magnesium, which produced a metal necessary for munitions and other military stocks, and the gunnery school that would develop into Nellis Air Force Base. We did our part to win the war — nobody could deny that.
With construction work considered essential, work continues on Allegiant Stadium.
Hot Streak in a Cold War
But it was during the Cold War that Las Vegas really and truly stepped up to the challenge of contributing to the defense of the free world. Here, it found a purpose deeper than any other.
At first, Las Vegans were leery of the new identity that had been thrust on them. In January 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that it would soon commence testing atomic weapons at what would become the Nevada Test Site, a sprawling federal landholding 65 miles from Las Vegas. Understandably, Las Vegans were concerned. Some were even outraged, remembering we had dropped atomic weapons on Japan to end World War II. And here the government wanted to explode them practically on our doorstep.
Following scientists’ reassurances that there really was nothing to worry about — and federal officials’ assurances that the tests were going ahead, no matter what — Las Vegas resigned itself to becoming the Gateway to Ground Zero. The $10 million that the government was promising to spend helped it go down easier.
Still, the first test, on January 27, 1951, was a jolt, literally and figuratively. The bomb was powerful enough to shake the ground and break windows (but not powerful enough to interfere with the clockwork spinning of roulette wheels). For all the talk of the national interest, it was one thing to buy war bonds or produce magnesium. It was another to be shaken awake by an A-bomb earthquake.
Some thought that the city should take a stand, insist that the testing take place elsewhere. Certainly, the burgeoning gaming and tourism industry would have fared better without the threat of nuclear doom, no matter how faint, hanging around. But, barely two months after Estes Kefauver’s crime-fighting Senate committee had visited Las Vegas and found its toleration of “hoodlums” with past organized crime associations potential grist for federal legislation, no one in that quarter was in the mood to stand up to Uncle Sam. Resistance could invite federal scrutiny. The tests continued.
The clock stopped for boarded-up businesses along Main Street.
Then, the casino bosses listened to their PR directors. Don’t ignore the testing, they argued. Embrace it. Cue the newspapers printing cheesecake photos of buxom showgirls with mushroom cloud-shaped headpieces, bars serving atomic cocktails, lounges booking watch parties. Selling the American public on coming to the middle of a desert to lose large sums of money — and look forward to coming back — might have been the greatest advertising coup of the century. And positioning atmospheric atomic testing as an appealing vacation perk might have been the Las Vegas publicity machine’s finest hour.
By the time of the second series of atomic tests that fall, Las Vegas was ready to do its civic duty, proud of its place in the vanguard of the fight against communism. And, when the bomb yields proved to be smaller than those of the preceding tests, some locals actually complained. More duds like that, and the tourists might stop coming.
The atomic tests became part of our civic identity. Whether they made the beds for visiting scientists or served drinks to reporters covering the blasts, Las Vegans felt they were performing a vital service to the national defense effort. We could claim to be standing on the atomic frontier, leading the nation in producing fearsome weapons that would keep a chilly peace.
The end of the Cold War took that relevance from Nevada, but that transition coincided almost exactly with another marquee moment: UNLV’s run to dominance in men’s basketball. For a too-brief moment, Las Vegas boasted the country’s finest college squad. We might not be keeping the Soviets at bay, but we could be a model for excellence in collegiate athletics. Just as the Rebel dynasty was fading, Las Vegas garnered another claim to national significance as its formerly guilty pleasure evolved into a nationally respected tool for economic development. Casino gaming, touted as a legitimate way to jumpstart economies, create jobs, and plump tax coffers, was being legalized throughout the United States, and the nation looked to Las Vegas as the model.
Even after Las Vegas lost its place as the globe’s gaming capital to Macau in 2007, we could still take pride in being a center of the new world order. With tourists pouring in from all over the world, Las Vegas was the epitome of post-industrial globalism. We would lead not by detonating A-bombs, but by entertaining people. But we did more than merely entertain. We perfected a system that incorporated infrastructure, technology, labor, capital, and marketing to turn tourism into something very close to a durable good. The composition might change — witness our experimentation with fine dining, nightclubs, e-sports, superstar residencies, and professional sports — but our fluid brand of entertainment was optimized for a hyperconnected globe. A network of connections with Las Vegas at its hub kept the planes flying in and room rates spiraling up. Even the Great Recession, it appeared, was a mere blip. Las Vegas had created a global demand for itself, and it would continue to show everyone how to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world. Las Vegas would show the world how to come together.
Bright hearts, big city: hotels up and down the strip, including Vdara and Aria, illuminated their windows with messages of perseverance.
The Big Disconnect
And then came the pandemic, and the world needed to be apart. Connections are now liabilities, not assets. Many of us went home — some to work, some to sit and worry about an uncertain future. We were sorted into groups: essential and inessential.
Collectively, Las Vegas was inessential.
For the first time in nearly a century, Southern Nevada has no pretense to being on the front lines of anything, no claim to even reflected glory. Worse yet, everything that we’ve prided ourselves on for the past three decades is yesterday’s news. The world is hunkering down, not going out. No one wants to learn from us.
Right now, most of us are worried about staying healthy and paying bills. We are in survival mode. But life is about more than survival. It is about having a purpose. And, for a long time, we Las Vegans have known our purpose. Individually, that purpose was and still is defined by our responsibilities to those around us. But looking beyond that, we could always take at least some measure of pride in our role in Greater Las Vegas, the Hospitality Capital of the World. Even if we didn’t personally make visitors feel welcome, we knew someone who did, and a lot of our work centered, in some way, on them: keeping them healthy, educating them and their children, feeding them.
That purpose united us, long before we had the Golden Knights or even the Rebels to cheer. It was something to be proud of, even vicariously. After all, the house always wins, and who doesn’t like being on a winning team? Our community’s identity was that of host to the world. It meant we had a place in the greater scheme of things, and it was as solid as bedrock.
Now, playing host is not only inessential — it’s potentially deadly. The one thing we were good at — getting a lot of very different people together under the same roof — is the one thing that all medical experts agree should, at all costs, be avoided.
A city, its spirit, inessential. Where do we go from here? What will our purpose be?
One upside is that the pandemic, even more than the Great Recession, has rendered pundits mercifully irrelevant. One of the most tiresome aspects of the media-industrial complex is the need to try to see ahead of the curve. It isn’t enough to know where we’re standing and how we got there. Many of us want to see the future. Most of the time, predictions are wrong, or we listen to the wrong predictions. How many pundits anticipated the Great Recession? How many networks gave television time to health experts who, in December, might have been able to better prepare us for the pandemic? Not enough, that’s for sure.
The problem is that predicting the future has no upside. Either the current trends will continue — in which case anything you say is so obvious as to sound moronic — or the world will change in ways you can’t imagine. At least now, only those completely given over to hubris are pretending that they can confidently predict tomorrow. The pandemic has grown so big that, on the cusp of May 2020, we can’t see around it.
Our first instinct is to assume that things will eventually get back to normal, that as soon as someone (The governor? The president? Dr. Fauci?) gives the all clear, Las Vegas hospitality will be back in all its glory. Already, some of us are reasserting our relevance. I read that Las Vegas is being considered to host the entirety of the NBA playoffs. It would be great for business, no doubt, but also a way to reassert that our connections to the world remain strong.
But just as no one can say whether it will be weeks or months before inessential travel and commerce resumes, this isn’t a hurricane we’re facing, with an obvious “all clear” after the storms have left and the rebuilding can begin. Will someone discover a treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus? Will it become a recurring seasonal malady? No one knows, which makes it nearly impossible to build timelines for tomorrow.
So, it’s not going to be much use asking experts (like me) how long it will take Strip room inventory to come back online, when airline capacity will return to “normal,” or when, if ever, everyone will go back to work. There just isn’t any precedent to refer back to. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves or you and doing everyone a disservice.
Flying blind is disconcerting, but it has its positives. Unburdened by assumptions, we can be free to do what’s right, not what’s expected. With no status quo, there is no inertia. Not having a script to stick to will have to benefit Las Vegas — and the world — as we recover from the pandemic.
With the lifeblood of Southern Nevada choked off, there is no possibility of failure. Anything would be an improvement. So, when people start traveling again, why not experiment? Tourism will, one day, come back, but the current crisis should demonstrate the absolute necessity of more aggressively diversifying Las Vegas. There are two possibilities: the world stays connected, in which case this probably won’t be the last global health crisis, or the world uncouples and a Vegas vacation is out of reach for most. As long as there is room for inessentials there may be desire, but it wouldn’t hurt to make at least some of us essential. Investing in medical technology and public health research might put Las Vegas back on the front lines. It isn’t as glamorous, but right now I’d trade all the glamour in the world for a bit of essential relevance.
The Freedom of Nothing to Fall Back On
Las Vegas in particular is a city built on one certainty: The house always wins. People come here to court Lady Luck, but no matter how hot the dice run, in the end, casinos win. That statistical guarantee is comforting. It was also comforting, even if you weren’t a gambler, to know that no matter what, the dice would continue rolling. Casinos might briefly, voluntarily shutter for the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. out of a sense of propriety, but nothing, short of an immediate, acute menace (think the 1980 MGM Grand fire or an electrical outage) could shut a casino down. For decades, we could count on casinos going on no matter what. Now, we’ve seen that there is a force more powerful and pitiless than the house edge, and that should be profoundly disturbing. We have nothing to fall back on.
Nothing except, perhaps, the native desert resiliency that has characterized inhabitants of the Las Vegas Valley since the time of the Paiutes. Humans have always been drawn to this arid land, have always found ways to make lives here. It might have been gathering roots, prospecting for gold, pouring concrete, or dealing blackjack. To survive in a desert, you have to know the land, but you also benefit from not relying on anything. The life-giving sun, after all, is trying to kill you. Whether they came as refugees from strife elsewhere or for purely mercenary reasons, our ancestors, spiritual and biological, learned how to survive, and eventually flourish, in an unfriendly land by adapting faster than they weakened.
For all the self-serving rhetoric about innovation, the genius of Las Vegas never really was creating new things. Las Vegas didn’t invent gambling. Nor was the power of the atom first unleashed here. But Las Vegas did provide a place for gambling, atomic explosions, entertainment spectaculars, pool parties, and so much else to be refined and presented to the public in a better way than they had before. And maybe this is the city’s real contribution to the world. After all, what happened here, stayed here. But it made Las Vegas relevant.
No one in Las Vegas asked to host atomic testing, and few suspected that the city would become a magnet for tourism thanks to legalized gambling. Penny slots, high-end baccarat, nightclubs, celebrity eateries, major league sports: Few predicted any of these coming to fruition, until they did, and suddenly they were everywhere. When Las Vegas changes, it changes quickly, and without looking back. Don’t believe me? I’m happy to talk it over with you over drinks at the Copa Room.
Perhaps the key to finding our purpose post-pandemic won’t entail returning to our role as the city of global connections. It’s too soon to say whether the pandemic will fundamentally change entertainment and hospitality as we know it. If it does, that will be incredibly disruptive. Nightclubs are built on the idea of packing sweaty dancers as close as possible — it’s hard to see how that comes back. Many gamblers find no thrill greater than a hot run on a crowded craps table. Post-shutdown experimentation might see a way to retain the essence of the dancing, gambling, and dining experiences while allowing for healthy social distancing. It might make sense to figure out how Las Vegas tourism can work with a smaller base. Can the “what happens here” be made more boutique?
Or maybe Las Vegas goes into the cloud, with “visitors” safe in their homes while they steer drone avatars through an enhanced reality experience, thanks to licensed Vegas IP. Or hospitality takes a reduced role, and Las Vegas really does diversify into something more essential. For years, economic experts have been discussing our potential for “medical tourism,” and perhaps now is the time. Using existing infrastructure, it might not be so hard to repurpose some hospitality facilities to hospitals. Many of the grand hotels of my hometown, Atlantic City, were converted into army hospitals during World War II, and Las Vegas resorts served as temporary de facto headquarters for atomic bigwigs during several tests. With massive meeting spaces and an unparalleled infrastructure, it’s not hard to imagine hotels shifting to accommodate researchers instead of tourists.
It might seem unlikely, but eight weeks ago the state shutting down was not even a remote possibility. The future is going to look more different than we can probably imagine. It will take agile minds and creative experimentation to rebuild Las Vegas post-shutdown. Connected or disconnected, Las Vegas will find a new purpose. Now more than ever, it’s essential.
Before becoming an associate vice provost, gaming historian David G. Schwartz was the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.