Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sin/Syn City: A Conscientious Objector’s View of Las Vegas

Imagine you are an alien who has just landed on earth. You learn that the occupants of the resource-abundant blue planet have built a city in a region you consider to be relatively uninhabitable: the middle of the desert. There are few natural resources in close proximity. Food, water, and electricity all have to be transported in. Here, amid constant air conditioning and an absence of clocks and windows, humans amuse themselves by essentially throwing their money away and engaging in other frivolous pursuits such as strip clubs, showgirls and huge buffets. You’re not in Venice, Rome, Paris or New York, although all these places have shrines in this city. It’s not a Circus Circus, Treasure Island or Mirage, albeit it sure feels like all of these things. It’s Las Vegas, and it’s so jam-packed with artificial splendor it’s difficult to imagine what its authentic urban scene would look like.

Mari-Beth looking for the authentic Las Vegas  
I visited the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world last month. Although Las Vegas was not on my to-visit list, I figure it is one of those places you must see for yourself – alien or not. Throughout my visit, the thought kept nagging me, why so fake? What's the authentic Las Vegas? Why do we feel the need to practice self-delusion so garishly? Eventually I convinced my travel companion to board a city bus and take a ride to nowhere. We passed strip malls and strip joints, trailer parks and industrial parks, sterile looking houses over sterile looking land. We rode right to the mountains on the east side of the city and it took us close to two hours round-trip. But at least I felt I got to see the ‘real’ Las Vegas.

If you walk even a block on either side of the Strip, the ‘real’ city protrudes, without the glitz of the casinos’ neon lights or the glamour of designer clothing stores. This city was the third fastest growing American city according to the US 2010 Census. Now, the real estate bust has hit Las Vegas hard. Other than tourism and gaming, there is also no real industry in this city. Municipal bureaucrats are trying to diversify the economy, implementing tax incentives in an effort to attract light manufacturing, financial services and other leasers of office space. But the trap Las Vegas has made for itself continues: it’s difficult to think of the city as anything other than a casino and convention hub.

Many historical cultures have had epicenters of pleasure, but few on the scale of Las Vegas. What does the creation, growth and popularity of a city like Las Vegas say about the world we live in? Here, the disconnectedness of American culture is distilled. We’re obese, in debt, yet we still over consume and chase the rewards of the American Dream without putting in the legwork. People are drawn to Vegas because of the no-judgment mentality -- ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,’ after all. We rarely relax in everyday life anymore. We have constant rules, responsibilities galore, and a barrage of deadlines. All the pent-up naughtiness seems to erupt when we get to a city like Las Vegas where suddenly it’s acceptable to stay out until 5am drinking and gambling. As if we can squeeze our annual allotment of fun into a single vacation.

Believe it or not, Las Vegas means “the meadows” in Spanish - apparently there were meadows here in the early 19th Century. Somehow green meadows morphed into green flashing lights and although I’m tempted to label the transition as inorganic, who am I to make that judgment? I am always intrigued by the definition of downtown in cites without water. I come from maritime cities where the downtown was developed first and the city naturally grew from the harbour inland. City planning in Vegas feels contrived. The original casinos were downtown on Freemont Street, until the pizazz of the Strip’s resorts outdid them. Now, taking a stroll through the Freemont Street Experience, we’re invited to experience Vintage Vegas the way city planners have preserved it. The result feels like a grown-up amusement park, not a city.

Mari-Beth meets "Whoopi"
When I travel, I like to experience a city as the locals do, but this kept eluding me in Las Vegas. Instead, I drove my companion crazy with constant commentary. I was shocked by the fact that I could not find a bookstore on the entire Strip; he reminded me that most people don’t come here to read. I said the climate made no sense for a major city; he retorted that dry arid hot weather is the ideal climate for conventions because you have no weather-related travel interruptions. I remarked that wax museums are the epitome of fake and tacky; he countered by pointing out that I was certainly enjoying the Whoopi mannequin. I understand that Las Vegas is all about pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure itself, but consider the price of pleasure. As I constantly refused flyers advertising nude girls from sweating Hispanic workers on the Strip, I wondered what our pleasure was costing other people.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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