“Oh my God, I’m in hell,” I cried out when the car that had rolled for hours through the luscious darkness of the Mojave night came to a jolting stop at a traffic light on Las Vegas Boulevard, right by the giant oscillating fuchsia flowers of the Tropicana. Back then, in the late 1980s, the Strip was the lasciviously long neon tongue a modest-sized city unfurled into the desert. Behind the casinos lining Las Vegas Boulevard was the desert itself — pale, flat, stony ground with creosote bushes here and there, a vast expanse of darkness, silence, and spaciousness pressing in on the riotousness from all directions.
Las Vegas was so bright you couldn’t see stars anywhere near the city, and you could see the glow on the horizon from dozens of miles away. (They say astronauts could see it from space.) But the old Las Vegas celebrated deserts and the West: its early casinos were the Apache (1932), the El Cortez (1941), the Pioneer and the Last Frontier (1942), the El Rancho (1947), the Desert Inn (1950), the Sahara (1952), the Stardust and the Dunes (1955). Most of them were technically in Paradise, the unincorporated area outside the Las Vegas city limits.
They were vulgar, they were garish, and they were also a confident new American architecture, something unprecedented, designed to be seen from cars on the Strip, named to celebrate the mythic desert and the romanticized West (and the Arabic east of casbahs and oases), though their architecture and lavish applications of neon were futuristic in a Jetsons kind of way. Maybe that past begat that future; maybe covered wagons led to outer space — the final frontier, as Star Trek told us, with similar colonial possibilities. The iconography of the casinos was about the here and now, drawing on the past but looking forward to what still felt like the American century with decades to go.
The Europeanate past was used up in that equation, dust to be shaken off en route to an optimistic version of the future.
Sometime in the 1980s that confidence in the country and in the future fell apart and Americans began to genuflect to Europe again — to a hackneyed, imagined past that conveyed tradition, privilege, and classiness of the kind that has a lot of upper-class aspiration to it. You can see it in the metamorphosis of the casinos. Cowboys and Arabian Nights in the desert were over; the anywhere-but-here era had arrived in a torrent of faux-Provence and pseudo-Tuscany.
In 1989, the Mirage opened, said to be the first casino built by Wall Street — with junk-bond money — though its décor was about being in Polynesia, not Manhattan. To draw in onlookers, a volcano erupted in front of the casino at regular intervals with jets of water, red lights, and a roar. Magnate Steve Wynn built Treasure Island next door in 1993, with a small ocean out front in which a nautical brawl took place over and over, a casino inspired by a picaresque novel written by a tubercular Scotsman (as were Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride and blockbuster films). By 1998, the Bellagio — named after the peninsular resort town on Lake Como, Italy — had opened. It featured a small gallery of multimillion-dollar art trophies — a Van Gogh! a Monet! — and was fronted by an eight-acre lake whose fountains spurted water on the half-hour during afternoons and every quarter hour in the evenings.
The new casinos flaunted water as a luxury good and a display of power here in a desert so hot and dry that nearby Lake Mead loses up to a million acre-feet to evaporation annually, about three times the water that the Sierra Nevada’s considerable Hetch Hetchy reservoir holds. (Think of it as a lake thrown up into the sky to disappear, over and over.) These pedestrian-oriented attractions also may signal the perpetual traffic jam on the Strip, which had developed as a place one sped through in a car but is now a sort of Mojave Champs-Élysées, on whose sidewalks tens of thousands of tourists meander even on the hottest days, while everywhere else in Clark County remains car-dependent.
The new Las Vegas invites you to defy or deny outright the desert that the old Vegas celebrated, and Paris, New York City, and other fantasias have sprung from the ruins of the old attractions. Maybe it was the shift from an earnest modernism, with its faith in the future, to a chameleon postmodernism; certainly, it marks a shift from a rough populist vision to fantasies of aristocracy and elitism.
Wynn blew up the iconic Dunes on October 27, 1993. The futuristic Landmark was imploded in 1995, the Sands and the Hacienda in 1996, the Aladdin in 1998, the former Thunderbird/El Rancho in 2000, and the Desert Inn was demolished in stages, with the major implosion in 2001. The jaunty outer-space-and-neon-themed Stardust was blown up in 2007. As structures, these casinos were in their prime, but as concepts, they were out of fashion, and so they were disposable and then disposed of.
The implosions are popular YouTube videos. You can watch the casinos’ annihilations over and over, their signs wavering as their whole structures appear to become liquid, undulating and flowing for a moment before they collapse into dust. The implosions look like little homages to the nuclear detonations that were visible from Las Vegas before the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 sent the radioactive explosions underground (where they still sometimes rocked the city).
The Las Vegas Sands Corporation owns the casinos named the Venetian and the Palazzo. The Venetian stands where the Sands once stood, and the corporation’s principal owner, Sheldon Adelson, the 14th richest man in the world and a huge funder of the Republican Party, tried hard to buy the outcome of the 2012 presidential election — a $150 million gamble he lost. Maybe what had failed in America was what was failing in Las Vegas: the idea of a democratic, forward-looking society with room for everyone.
At War in Nevada
The sprawl of Clark County contains almost three-quarters of all the people in the state of Nevada, which means statewide elections are swung by a population that mostly just got here and often doesn’t have much idea of where here is. Maybe that’s why water use per capita is so much higher here than in a place like Tucson, Arizona, whose citizens seem to love the desert and plant their front yards with cacti, not grass. About 70% of the water in Clark County goes to lawns, parks, and golf courses, to planting green in a place whose colors are warm and dusty, browns and greys and rusty reds under the burning blue sky.
Nearly 40 million people pass through Las Vegas and its satellites annually, mostly inhabiting the 140,000 hotel rooms in the area, though second homes have increased. Transience defines the place. Imagine the tourists, the traffic, the airplanes, and the semi-trucks all sped up; imagine the place as a pulsating hive of comings and goings; and then imagine the massive engineering that sends power here from the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, from Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric works, and elsewhere; and finally imagine the water pumped in from the Colorado River. The place is a vortex of material consumption, a mirage of habitability created by massive imports from elsewhere.
Little of substance is produced here. Food, water, building materials, people, and power, all arrive in trucks, trains, planes, pipelines, and over transmission lines. Transience might be the most salient marker of the place, along with evanescence. One notable material item was produced here in the past, however: ammonium perchlorate — an oxidizer for rocket boosters and missiles — was made at the PEPCON factory in Henderson, the cobbled-together town that includes the exclusive Lake Las Vegas and Ascaya gated developments that Michael Light details in the pages of Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain. After the Challengerexplosion in 1986, supplies of the stuff backed up on-site, so that when the factory exploded in 1988 the impact was equal to a one-kiloton nuclear bomb.
Nuclear bombs were still exploded regularly in those days 60 miles north of Las Vegas at the Nevada Test Site, but even the bombs were designed and made elsewhere. The Nevada Test Site was carved out of Nellis Air Force Base, an expanse the size of Connecticut set aside during the Second World War and in use ever since. Nevada is a place in which the only wars fought were skirmishes against its own native people — the Paiutes, Shoshone, Washoe, and Goshutes. It’s also where wars abroad are rehearsed.
And these days it’s where drones on killing missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are operated. Pilots sit in rooms and decide whether to kill groups of people based on aerial video footage; the drones are both flying cameras and killing machines. The drone operators are gambling that, based on limited low-grade data, they are killing “militants.” Over and over again they kill people who, even under their own dubious guidelines, are often not appropriate targets. But then, for drone operators, the losses are as low as the odds are bad. Maybe death, pleasure, security, and risk are the products of this region. The risk: one day driving down the Strip about a decade ago, I realized that every hotel tower, every fountain, and every chandelier was largely paid for by losing bets.
I understood for the first time what gambling really means.
Parting With Your Money and Your Spouse
Nothing has lasted here. A Mormon outpost had been set up in the oasis that Las Vegas’s name (“the meadows” in Spanish) memorializes, but it failed in the 1850s. There were various mining booms and busts in the vicinity, but the gold deposits all were further north, in Goldfield and Tonopah and some of the little towns whose ghosts now lie within the precincts of the Test Site. Nevada was so depopulated by 1900 — Las Vegas’s total population was a booming 25 at the time — that it was faced with losing its statehood.
The Union Pacific railroad turned Vegas into a maintenance depot for its lines, which brought a modest prosperity and some population growth. Then, when the workers tried to unionize in the early 1920s, the railroad “signed the town’s death warrant,” as Las Vegas-based historian Hal Rothman has put it, by moving the maintenance yard and the 300 jobs down the line to Caliente, near Utah. The town withered again.
Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam) was the next thing to bring people to the region. From 1931 to 1935, hordes of Depression-era workmen lived in inhumane heat and working conditions and sometimes died in them as they built what was then the world’s biggest dam. Though people like to suggest that there’s a correlation between the massive dam — still one of the world’s 20 largest — and the neon on the Strip, about half the electricity generated at Hoover goes to southern California and another 18% to Arizona.
Nevada legalized gambling in 1931 and easy divorce around the same time: money and spouses were easier to part with in the Silver State than elsewhere in the U.S.A. The Las Vegas region began to grow, doubling its population over and over again, going from nearly nothing in 1900 to 273,000 in 1970, 741,459 in 1990, almost 1.4 million by 2000, and two million today. Gambling, more politely called gaming, became its principal economy, broadened into tourism, and growth itself produced jobs in construction. The region grew so fast a local mapmaker issued a new map monthly for delivery people seeking addresses that had just come into being.
I watched the Strip go, in little more than a decade, from that neon line in the desert to the center of a metropolis that spread for perhaps 10 miles on either side. The various development projects, from humble apartments to gated communities, each made to enclose a cluster of lives and to feed profit to someone somewhere else, seemed like a quilt of randomly developed patches: here a shopping center, there some light industry, here a fortified condominium multiplex, there some luxury homes on what would cease to be an urban edge as development moved outward again.
Casino-era Las Vegas had always had two faces. Visitors came to take a chance at getting rich or going broke at the slot machines and gaming tables and betting sites. Locals eventually made Las Vegas the last great unionized city in the country, a place where, people liked to say, a hotel maid could own a home and send her kids to college. It might have been hot and sprawling and a place where addiction (to gambling, as well as substances) was rife, but it was a place where the modest dream of getting by and maybe even getting ahead on honest work throve for a while, a place of security as well as risk.
Toward the millennium, that changed. Rothman wrote not long afterward, “While only a very few can afford to live in places like Lake Las Vegas, such construction altered the housing market. High-end construction pulled the housing market upward. In 2000 the median housing price climbed by a remarkable 10.9%.” Housing prices climbed far more after 2003. Within a few years, what constituted “affordable” mutated, as people took on interest-only mortgages, subprime loans, and bought houses they could only keep if the market continued to skyrocket. They were gambling, though the one thing you should learn in Las Vegas is that the house always wins.
After the crash in 2008, southern Nevada became the foreclosure and unemployment capital of the nation. Lined up like cherries on depression’s slot machine, all three of Las Vegas’s industries — tourism, gaming, and construction — collapsed. Clark County itself imploded for a while. It has faltered toward recovery, but it still has the least stable housing market in America as of March 2014, and 37% of Las Vegas properties are, in that ironic word, underwater. Maybe the region was the last frontier of getting by. And then it wasn’t.
Europe in the Desert
The historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the American frontier in 1893. He both praised and excoriated the characteristics of frontier-dwellers, in terms that still sound like Nevada:
”As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism… But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs, which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency, and wild-cat banking.”
The Frontier casino and hotel, opened in 1942, was blown up in 2007 (after surviving a seven-year strike in the 1990s by union workers who picketed out front continuously during that time). Something was supposed to be built in its place, but pale, dusty ground now interrupts the series of fantasies that constitute the casinos of the Strip. Imagine dressing up a weather-beaten old monk in various costumes: magician, archduke, pharaoh, contessa, gangster, and you’ve imagined the endless architectural guises in which the desert has been draped. It’s treated as a blank slate, but in the long run it’s neither neutral nor malleable; rather it’s a force whose identity inexorably reasserts itself, whether as windstorms that blow down the signs, flash floods that fill the underpasses, or dry heat so withering that moisture is drawn out of your body with every breath, your sweat evaporating so efficiently you don’t realize you are losing water.
There was a long period when Las Vegas was a discordant place in the United States, one where the rules elsewhere about propriety and prudence were broken. Las Vegas was not like the United States, but then the United States became like Las Vegas. Wall Street morphed into a great deregulated casino, buying and selling, among other things, bundled mortgages whose solidity was unclear to anyone. And then it all turned out to be a house of cards and the global economy collapsed, devastating countless lives. The house always wins; Wall Street rose from the ruins, but many of the ordinary people of Las Vegas, among other places, did not.
Their losses are not the only reason the place has no easy future. Someday the arid West will have to come to terms with its limits, as dissidents have been saying since the nineteenth century. Some places already have to a degree, or will not have to be reined in as hard, but Las Vegas will come crashing — is coming crashing — to its withered, desiccated knees. The heat is already brutal, with summer days of 110- to 115-degree Fahrenheit weather, and it will get hotter. Water is nearly always the limiting factor of growth in the arid West, and Vegas drained its own local supply long ago, then put a straw in the Colorado River and sucked hard, getting 90% of its water from the river, or rather from Lake Mead, the reservoir penned in behind Hoover Dam — which is running dry. The reservoir is at its lowest level “in generations,” the LosAngeles Times reported in the spring of 2014.
Lake Mead’s water is dropping so dramatically that the city is drilling a billion-dollar intake tunnel through bedrock, well below the current intake pipelines, a new straw with which to drink from the reservoir. That, too, may before long be above waterline if drought, evaporation, and over-allocation of the river’s water continue. In the foreseeable future, the reservoir will likely reach “dead pool,” the point at which water no longer turns the turbines of the dam generators (though one desperate measure now being aired proposes abandoning Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam upstream on the Colorado River to salvage this complex). Clark County recently spent $200 million getting residents to remove their lawns, and at some point in the near future water rationing will begin.
Las Vegas has also been on a hunt for new water sources for the past 20 years. The preferred scheme is to drain the beautiful rural and wild lands of eastern Nevada into a 300-mile pipeline so that the golf courses stay green and the showers keep running. Eastern Nevadans regard this as a death warrant for their region’s ranches, small towns, and wildlife and have been fighting back, rural Davids against an urban Goliath. They won the most recent round in court, though Goliath is not giving up. Even so, someday Las Vegas will have to face, again, the fact that it is in the deep desert. In the meantime, the place is currently building monuments to the fantasy of being anywhere and everywhere else.
Lake Las Vegas, the subject of Michael Light’s aerial photographs in Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain, is such an explicitly European fantasy that a replica of Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio bridge crosses a stretch of its artificial lake, and the houses are mostly in the stucco-and-tile-roof mode called “Mediterranean.” From near the earth you see into yards and houses, terra cotta roofs, pieces fitting together like a puzzle, tight to each other, despite the expanse all around, or you see the texture of the earth that has been groomed and scraped and graded into something you can drop a mansion onto. From a little ways higher, you see the layout of the streets, like a fingerprint pressed into the landscape, the whorls and cul-de-sacs of the curvilinear layouts beloved of developers.
If Light’s airplane went higher still, the fingerprint would disappear into the sprawl and from high enough you’d see the vast built-up region of Clark County, that compound of urban entities usually referred to collectively as Las Vegas. Lake Las Vegas is technically in Henderson, a hamlet that obligingly adjusted its city limits to incorporate the new developments. Lake Las Vegas is all the things that are contemporary Las Vegas: a gated community, a place of second homes, a lot of architectural and verbal references to anyplace but this one (that Florentine bridge, those subdivisions named Marseilles and Barcelona), water under an evaporative sky, golf courses, some still startlingly green in that dry landscape, some abandoned in bankruptcy to turn a more harmonious gold.
It is a place in which time lurches and stalls. Ground was broken to create this planned development in 1987, and its dam was begun in 1990. Water coming down the Las Vegas Wash was sent through two underground conduits, each eight feet in diameter, beneath the reservoir. The reservoir — the “lake” of Lake Las Vegas — that arose behind the dam is an artificial and unmoving body of water perched atop real water flow that has been hidden and buried. The official timeline provided for the place is a history of luxury hotels and golf tournaments and subdivisions. That casinos and hotels have gone broke, closed, been renamed and reopened, born again and again and again, but dying repeatedly too, amid lawsuits, is not so evident, and the timeline stops in 2007.
“Lake at Las Vegas Joint Venture Limited Liability Corporation” filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 17, 2008, early in the crash, reemerging two years later with half a billion to a billion dollars of debt swept away and new development plans and financing. And also with a lawsuit by creditors against developers, and resort property owners against lenders, because the whole thing was a gamble, a hustle, the use of some arid land in Nevada by men far away to juggle money among various parties and into their own pockets. You look at these pictures and see the reality of real estate, the solidity of place, something as concrete as, well, concrete, but it was all numbers in accounts moved around by distant men, all just another wager, as though these houses were just poker chips on the great gaming table of the desert.
The Wall Street Journal reports that homeowners at Lake Las Vegas and three other resorts “are suing Credit Suisse Group AG for $24 billion, accusing the Swiss bank of running a ‘loan-to-own’ program that loaded the resorts up with debt so it could foreclose on their assets when the debt couldn’t be repaid. They allege that Credit Suisse knew the resorts wouldn’t be able to perform under the loans, which would allow the bank to take the reins to the debt-saddled resorts cheaply.”
So when you look at this place from Michael Light’s aerial perspective you see a vertiginous compression of place: the austere beauty of Nevada itself, the mountains being carved away into terraces on which homes will be built to resemble parts of Europe, the Mediterranean mashed up with Scottish golf, built mostly by Latino labor with materials from China and other parts of the world, with financing and profits that have become part of the global casino we call Wall Street.
Looking from above, you see the aggressiveness of these developments: the forcing of green, of trees and bushes and vines in a dry place, the forcing of the iconography of distant places on one so different, one whose essential characteristics — other than sunshine — are irrelevant to builders and buyers. Every planted bush is a little soldier marching on the desert, but the desert pushes back with power far grander than anything landscaping can muster, with heat, with scalding sun, with time itself.
Because what you also see in Light’s aerial pictures is that all this is transient, fleeting, precarious: it will go dry, crumble into ruin; the restless, rootless populations will move on. Though all this fleeting hubris and bustle has reshaped and scarred the land, what will be here when they are gone are geology and the primordial forces of weather, water, and wind. The earth endures.
This Rebecca Solnit piece is slightly adapted from photographer Michael Light’s new book, Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain, and originally appeared at TomDispatch.com with special thanks to his publisher, Radius Books.