M. Gottdiener, Claudia C. Collins, David R. Dickens. Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. xi + 290 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57718-137-8.
Reviewed by Hal K. Rothman (Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2001)
The Road to Typicality for Sin City: A Reappraisal of Las Vegas and Urban History
The Road to Typicality for Sin City: A Reappraisal of Las Vegas and Urban History
Las Vegas is the most perplexing American city for scholars, and it downright confounds culture critics and journalists. Its rhythms are different than other American cities, even cosmopolitan pleasure cities such as New Orleans, the city that "care forgot, where everybody parties a lot," as Etta James sings, or Atlantic City, which added gaming in the 1970s atop a panorama of urban decay. Las Vegas is simultaneously old and new in American urbanism, an oasis and crossroads, a scapegoat in the biblical sense, a place where the mainstream public can cast off its sins. It is a desert city dependent on the infrastructure of the twentieth century, the federal spending that created a network of dams, highways, and airports that made it possible to provide the service of industrial society in the desert, and a place that depends on the technology of the modern world, air-conditioning especially, to make the desert habitable for temperate-climate Americans. It is a city and it is not: It has few conventional urban neighborhoods and only now is beginning to build the high-rises that seem to denote urbanism in the U.S. You can't walk for filo dough in Las Vegas and despite an award-winning mass transit system, you're likely to accomplish everything by car. All of these things make Las Vegas an important subject for studying American urban history, but only rarely can scholars and journalists get beyond the illusion that is the Las Vegas Strip to see the remarkable network underneath.
Most of the scholarship and journalism on Las Vegas can be quickly dispatched to the trash can. The various writers fall into a few categories: the libertines, the moralists, the expose-writers, and the people who use a complicated and controversial city as a canvas, a backdrop for the personal. The libertines, who embrace "Sin City" for its deviance, are the most intriguing. Writing mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, they admired the aberration that is Las Vegas, its ability to be distant from the mainstream. In Thrilling Cities, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, appreciated Las Vegas, seeing as a new claimant for the crown of cosmopolitan decadence. To him it had the scent of decadence he so craved.
The moralists abhor Las Vegas, seeing in the same decadence that Fleming saw the corruption of American society. Gilman Ostrander, Nevada: The Great Rotten Borough, defined the terms of this argument, and it became the dominant trope of the anti-Las Vegas screed, the plethora of books and articles in the 1960s and 1970s that revile Las Vegas. The expose writers promise to pierce the veil of illusion, to tell the truth about the abomination of the Mob-owned gambling capital and the nefarious forces behind it. Ovid DeMaris and Ed Reid, The Green Felt Jungle, created the classic form, and Nicolas Pileggi, Casino, offered the most recent reiteration. Pileggi's book became a best-seller and a popular film precisely because it played to the preconceptions of a public that had only one idea of Las Vegas.
Then there's Hunter S. Thompson, the archetype for the group that uses Las Vegas as the backdrop for the personal. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is vintage Thompson, addled and incomprehensible, but somehow with his finger on the pulse of America - but not on that of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is simply a stage for Thompson and so many others. Jack Richardson, Memoir of a Gambler, and John Gregory Dunne, Vegas, both offer their version: they each come to Las Vegas in the throes of personal crisis and are devoured by the town. Las Vegas is simultaneously their weakness and the nation's. Leaving Las Vegas may be the worst of this ilk. It was an L.A. movie set in Las Vegas, because the desert city is one of the few places where you can buy booze 24 hours a day.
In recent years, a number of serious scholars and journalists have attempted to broaden the picture. Eugene Moehring, Resort City in the Sunbelt: Las Vegas 1930-2000 stands as the most reliable and most comprehensive history. Moehring is a careful urban historian, someone who looks closely at the details of a Sunbelt city and parses their meanings. He shows the city from the ground up, articulating its evolution in clear prose and the grid that underpins the city, and many of the technical and indeed tactical reasons for Las Vegas's unusual development come clear in his work. For more than a decade, Moehring has remained the single best source for this history of the community. David Littlejohn, ed., The Real Las Vegas is at the very bottom of the list of serious claimants. Littlejohn brought graduate students from Berkeley for a quick look at Las Vegas and then brazenly claimed far greater knowledge. Littlejohn and his friends came with their minds made up and stuck to the cliches. Distaste for the city teems from every page, and the project is the sort that gives journalists a bad name. Littlejohn bragged of his colonial raid on a voiceless place, how he would characterize it for the world. He fancied himself Joan Didion in El Salvador. Salvador was hardly Didion's best work, and conveniently, no one in 1960's America ever asked the Salvadorans what they thought of the intrepid colonial. Las Vegans both read and write English.
Into this mess comes M. Gottdiener, Claudia C. Collins, and David R. Dickens, Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City. This is an attempt at a corrective, an effort to look at the new Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the nation for the past fifteen years, and to try to make some sense of it. Structured as social science, the book summarizes history and then moves on to the issues of the day. The three sociologists come armed with theory as they attempt the most basic form of narrative history, and the result is enlightening. Instead of attempting to pierce the illusion of the Las Vegas Strip, the authors instead plan to study the region as a "developing metropolitan region of permanent residents with an enviable quality of life." (xii) They create a context, the "social production" of the title and articulate a thesis, that as the rest of the country moved toward Las Vegas, the desert city responded by moving toward the nation, an idea they borrowed from other scholars. In short, they take the city seriously and attempt to understand it on its own idiosyncratic terms.
The greatest virtue of this book is its in-depth look at the evolution of Las Vegas during the last twenty years. There is simply no better set of data about the recent history of the city. Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens excel at tracking politics and its implications, correctly noting the problems of managing not only growth but also social evolution with weak governmental institutions. Their assessment of power relationships closely follows conventional understanding; people say that in Nevada, the state flag is a ten-dollar bill, and the authors offer much to support this idea. They assess the impact of development dollars on the city, seeing in it the forging of new axes of power but fall short of analyzing the new oligarchy. An old-time Las Vegas powerbroker once told me that in his day, the right twenty-five people in a room could accomplish anything in the Las Vegas Valley. That's clearly not true today, and Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens go a long way toward articulating why.
Development is the engine that the authors push forward as the competitor to gaming in the social order of Las Vegas. Developers have amassed both wealth and political power in the valley, and the authors focus on residential development at the expense of its more lucrative and in many ways more influential commercial counterpart. They emphasize the social context, leaving it a little too far apart from economics. Master-planned communities play a significant role in their formulation, as do social and cultural amenities. Their definition of community seems dated, bound by the bricks and mortar of geography, and while they note the phenomenon of transience, the single most salient feature in accounting for the changes in Las Vegas in the past two decades, they do not adequately develop it as a causative factor. Even more, they don't seem to see how commercial development, residential development, and hotel/casino development bleed together. They establish the patterns, that Howard Hughes bought residential land and every hotel/casino he could get his hands on and they show the Hughes Corp. role in residential development as well, but the link between these, the powerful emergence of a new kind of growth coalition never quite gets said.
The book's greatest shortcoming is its fundamental blandness. Las Vegas is an exciting, compelling place not only for its transformation from gambling to gaming to tourism and on to entertainment, but for the powerful dynamism and pace that marks the city's rapid growth. The language and writing in this volume are clinical. The use of social science jargon impedes readers, and the almost Chamber of Commerce-like recitation of statistics increases the book's value as a reference work but diminishes its ability to sustain its argument. In the end, more analysis could have made this work considerably more significant.
The book reveals another important problem, in this case not the fault of the authors but of this particular subject. Published in 1999, the book relies on the 1990 U.S. Census for much of its demographic information, but the Las Vegas of 1990 is decidedly not the Las Vegas of today. In 1990 greater Las Vegas held a little more than 740,000 people; in 1997, the most recent year the authors cite for their statistics, population reached 1,133,000. Early returns from the 2000 Census suggest a population closer to 1,400,000, a reality confirmed by the net population gain of roughly 100,000 people in 1999 alone. Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens are charting an ongoing phenomenon from its middle and that makes drawing firm conclusions a dicey proposition. It also challenges the signposts they select, a problem of charting a fast-moving city that easily responds to the latest trend in a manner that is supposed to be impossible for behemoths of more than 1,000,000 people. Since the book was published, the Mirage Phase, the era the authors blandly refer to as the "fifth phase of development" that added more than 50,000 hotels to the city in the 1990s alone, has come to end. In Spring 2000, when Steve Wynn unloaded the Bellagio, Mirage, Treasure Island, and Golden Nugget to MGM Grand, new entrepreneurs with new sources of capital have come to Las Vegas to attempt a new reinvention, and like Wynn, whom the tide has passed by, the examples that the authors use have become old news. Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens have valiantly attempted a time-series view of the city in this volume, a look that freezes a number of moments instead of the more typical journalistic snapshot. It is the right idea, and the result is solid and important. It may be that a city such as Las Vegas that moves like quicksilver simply can not be captured in conventional scholarly categories.
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Hal K. Rothman. Review of Gottdiener, M.; Collins, Claudia C.; Dickens, David R., Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City.
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