Learning from Las Vegas

Last August, thousands of sociologists converged upon Las Vegas’ strip, gazing upon the potted palms, scantily clad waitresses, and Elvis look-a-likes with a mixture of fascination and horror. Heated conversations about the meaning of the city—centering on the question of whether Vegas personifies the American dream or its nightmarish underside—spilled out into the neon streets, and made their way into the press. To encourage us to think more deeply about the visceral reactions many of us had to Sin City, we asked a variety of experts—some of whom live in the city, and others who’ve conducted research there—to share their perspectives.

  1. Sex Work in Sin City, by Barbara G. Brents
  2. Las Vegas Syndrome, by Michael Ian Borer
  3. My Radical Vegas, by Annelise Orleck
  4. Landscape of Arrogance, by Sharon Zukin
  5. Surviving the Odds, by Matt Wray

Sex Work in Sin City

by Barbara G. Brents

For progressive, feminist intellectuals, Las Vegas—“sin city”—is a city we can sink our teeth into. It is capitalist patriarchy run amok: the perfect place to analyze sexism, exploitation, and consumerism.

At least that’s what I thought when I first moved here in the late 1980s. At the time, I watched my neighbor drive to work every day in too much makeup and showing too much skin for her job as an “exploited” casino cocktail waitress. Then I noticed she owned her house. Today, she lives reasonably well on a union pension and, like 60,000 other Culinary Union Local 226 members in the city, she has free health insurance. In retrospect, her only complaint about the job was all the cigarette smoke.

Living in Las Vegas has challenged every stereotype and assumption I’ve ever held about sex, gender, and economics. Vegas sells sex, to be sure—and there is no better place to examine all of the complexities of sexual political economy then here.

The leisure industry was central to the “Old West” mining economy at the turn of the 20th century. Women played key roles working in and marketing this industry, providing men with intimacy and companionship. Women were both proprietors and prostitutes in restaurants, saloons, hotels, and brothels. Non-European women often worked in the poorest parts of town, facing the worst working conditions, while others labored independently, sometimes in lavishly furnished houses.

In the 1930s Nevada officials, capitalizing on the growing market for sex, legalized gambling, quickie marriages (and quickie divorces), and permitted red light districts to bloom. During the Depression era, women could still find opportunities in Nevada’s tourist economy.

Things changed in the 1950s, when the city’s Chamber of Commerce began to market a new, upscale Las Vegas, featuring images of chic, scantily clad women lounging around pools. These young, white, “classy” women marketed fantasy, but not, strictly speaking, sex. At the same time, city officials launched an effort to “clean up” Las Vegas to attract Cold War military projects. They declared prostitution illegal, and sex work went underground. A few years later, women were even banned from working as dealers in casinos in Italy, according to Italian casino authority Stranieri.com.

The Sin City image is still based, to a large extent, on the fact that Nevada is the only state in the U.S. in which prostitution is legal. Yet today, prostitution remains illegal in the city. Cards circulating on the Strip show nearly nude women hawking legal referral services that connect escorts with tourists for “dancing.” Women and some men also work independently as prostitutes, but both groups are regularly targeted by vice police in their periodic “sweeps.”

Outside Vegas, about 500 women work as legal independent contractors in 30 brothels in rural Nevada counties. My research suggests that these women are in search of work opportunities they can’t find elsewhere—much as in the past. They’re escaping low paying service jobs and the hustle of illegal sex work, or they’re looking for ways to enhance their erotic dancing or film careers. While there is certainly room for improvement in this industry, there is little evidence that women are trafficked. In legal brothels, employees generally report that they feel safe, are free to come and go, and are bound only by their contract.

Like any city, Las Vegas has problems—they just can’t all be pinned on the “sin” reputation. Because of its strong unions, especially the Culinary Union, many of the city’s workers have fared better than service workers elsewhere. But like other American cities, Las Vegas has suffered a loss of full time, permanent jobs, a declining public sector, and a regressive tax structure—the same dynamics that fuel inequality in other U.S. cities and have been exacerbated in the current recession. As a supposedly one-horse town, the Las Vegas growth machine hasn’t paid much attention to quality of life.

Sociologist Viviana Zelizer noted in 2005 that the intimacy-market divide was dead long ago. “People often mingle economic activity with intimacy,” she wrote. “The two often sustain each other.” Selling sex is, for many Las Vegans, just another job.

More pointedly, the city works hard to maintain its transgressive edge. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is one of the most successful campaigns in advertising history, fostering the impression that a weekend here is still a walk on the wild side—but in a safe, acceptable kind of way. The city thrives on the righteousness of its critics: moral resistance feeds the market for hedonistic freedom, and it helps keep our economy alive.

Las Vegas Syndrome

by Michael Ian Borer

Upon visiting some cities, it is said, individuals can easily become psychologically and emotionally overwhelmed, developing symptoms ranging from anxiety and panic attacks to visual and aural hallucinations. Sufferers of “Jerusalem Syndrome” are seduced by the historical religious intensity of the Holy City, transformed into messiahs who shout psalms and sermons at seen and unseen others. In Paris, romantic images of accordions, flowers, and cobblestone streets collide with the presence of street hustlers and short-tempered waiters, leaving some visitors in a state of shock and disappointment. Art-lovers making pilgrimages to Florence can contract “Stendhal Syndrome,” named for the nineteenth century French author who suffered deep pangs of anxiety when confronting the cultural and aesthetic richness of the city.

In much the same way, visitors to Las Vegas often experience neural intoxication. The caricatures of tourists with an overblown degree of entitlement, loosened moral boundaries, and a proclivity toward drunken debauchery and overzealous fedora-wearing are not all that far from the truth. For local residents, many of whom moved to Las Vegas from somewhere else, the syndrome persists in a “hit the jackpot” mentality that once fueled meteoric urban sprawl but has led to empty homes, empty wallets, and a tax base that can’t adequately fund basic social services.

While place-based mental “disorders” such as these don’t appear in the DSM, they are nonetheless real. In his classic writings on the urban environment’s influence on the mental life of individuals, Georg Simmel described the experience of massive numbers of people who were transitioning from traditional rural settings to modern cities. In rural environments, Simmel wrote, the pace of life is slower and interactions are rhythmic and habitual. The city, in contrast, assaults people with its “swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli,” requiring individuals to adapt to its tall buildings and unknown others. Only a “metropolitan type”—rational, calculating, blasé—could withstand the city’s stimulation overload. Simmel, writing in the early twentieth century, could hardly have predicted how over-stimulating cities could, and would, become. If he had landed in Las Vegas and seen its neon Strip, Simmel’s central nervous system would have exploded! The bright lights and capricious crowds would challenge his capacity to reason and would unhinge his adaptive “protective organ,” thrusting him into a psychosomatic or emotionally-induced distressed mental state.

Indeed, the hyper-stimulation of “postmodern” cities such as Las Vegas—accentuated by the places themselves and pop culture imaginings of them—heads straight for the senses. The bright lights, the haphazard pastiche of architectural styles and historical references, and the sheer number of entertainment and lifestyle options, can be overwhelming. The Strip’s neon lights are as alluring as they are disorienting. If you stare too long, they will blind you, leaving a distorted vision of the city and the people who live, work, and play in it. Though the Strip is about four miles long, it feels condensed and “in your face.” It’s impossible to avoid its glare. The Strip is the eight billion pound gorilla living outside everyone’s backyard. And as it grows, it demands more from everyone around it.

The unstable built environment and symbolic economy of Las Vegas contributes to the persistence of the syndrome. Las Vegas’s “tradition of re-invention” implodes rather than preserves or reuses buildings, following the whim of the market. Its latest iteration—after the failure of the “family friendly” era—caters to the “cultural omnivore” who can revel in the sustained kitsch of “vintage Vegas” and enjoy the “foodie” delights prepared by celebrity chefs. But the burden of choice can leave some feeling lost and anxious. Though a lack of choices might be constraining, too many can be debilitating.

Cultural analysts are not immune to the Las Vegas Syndrome. Their claims tend to waver between two extremes: an uncritical, obsessively populist boosterism that depicts Las Vegas as a pioneer of new urban forms and sustainability, and a nostalgia-driven, elitist ethnocentrism that conflates moral judgments and aesthetic tastes, proclaiming Vegas to be the pinnacle of postmodern simulation—the city that is not a city, where style trumps substance. Both stances fail to see Las Vegas in all of its maddening complexity.

Instead of being blinded by all the neon, we need balanced analyses and “thick descriptions” that dig deep into the depths of the city’s supposedly superficial culture. In Las Vegas, one can find the best and worst of human ingenuity and creativity. There’s the historically progressive Hoover Dam, the environmentally-minded Springs Preserve and Tonopah Community Garden, and the eclectic downtown Arts District. There are also abandoned foreclosed houses, protected by gates and security guards, next to crime-ridden streets that police refuse to patrol. These paradoxes define the everyday reality of Las Vegas as much as (if not more than) the hyperreal Strip. A distorted vision of the city—the consequence of Las Vegas Syndrome—will persist if we allow the Strip to define and dictate “what happens in Vegas.” To uncover the realities and possibilities that exist in the world’s most impossible city, we need to look beyond the glimmering lights.

My Radical Vegas

by Annelise Orleck

I always look for the Luxor when my plane is landing in Vegas. McCarran Airport is so close to the Strip that the lavish jumble looks like little more than an extravagantly decorated runway. If it’s daytime I set my sights on the brightly painted faux-Sphinx whose face and paws front the sun-swept black glass pyramid. At night, like so many people, I orient by searching for the blue Luxor beam streaming up from the peak of the pyramid into a black desert sky cast orange by the city lights. At 42.3 billion candle-power, this column is the strongest light fixture in the world (astronauts can see it from space). It feels like the right entryway into Las Vegas—a plaster replica of the one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, backlit by one of the curiosities of the modern world, its beam shining up for no apparent reason, pointing at nothing. What can I say? I love Las Vegas.

My feelings about Las Vegas are rooted in my unique experience of the city so many love to hate. Over the past 19 years, I have visited often, first to research the anti-poverty movement that was the subject of my last book and then to remain in touch with the remarkable community of activists I came to know through that work. For me, Las Vegas will always be defined not simply by its mindless expressions of excess and conspicuous consumption, but by the Southern migrant warmth, the fierce militant political spirit, and the humor of the poor Westside mothers and former hotel maids who helped integrate the Strip in the mid-1960s. These same women then stormed Caesars Palace, the Flamingo, and the Stardust in the 1970s—staging sit-ins, eat-ins, and read-ins. Ruby Duncan and the women of Operation Life, with their allies from the Las Vegas League of Women Voters, brought free medical screenings, books, and in-school meals to the poor children of Clark County. They also brought Food Stamps, the Women and Infant Children nutrition program, and millions in federal community development dollars to Nevada. When I travel back for reunions with this still-vibrant coalition, I shake my head in amazement—nearly half a century since the Freedom Summer, a beloved inter-racial community is alive and well in Las Vegas.

I’m not hopelessly starry-eyed. I understand what puts people off about this town. I’ve been squeezed by tangled traffic and massing tourist crowds and gotten headaches from the flashing electronic billboards advertising Cirque de Soleil and power-couple-tiger-trainers Siegfried and Roy. I’ve grimaced at the taxi dashboards plastered with photos of prostitutes, squinted in the smoke of the casinos, and been mesmerized by the incessant chiming of slot machines. But I’ve also noticed the relative contentment of hotel workers, who are members of the largest and most robust private union local in the country and beneficiaries of excellent healthcare and education benefits. I think of their long-time president—Hattie Canty, an African American migrant and mother of ten—who boasted some years back that Las Vegas was the only city in the country where a hotel maid could buy a house, give her children top-notch healthcare, and then send healthy young adults off to college.

Sadly, since 2008, the city that was the fastest-growing in the country for half a century, where for decades migrants could reasonably hope to find work the very day they arrived, has crashed hard. In August 2011, a staggering 14.2 percent of the city’s residents were unemployed. Through the 1990s, developers overbuilt insanely, crushing the Strip with condo towers (now mostly empty) and dotting the desert with gated communities that spread to the gorgeous red rock mountains that ring the city. Nearly half the city’s homeowners owe more than their houses are worth. So many simply walked away that city authorities had to drain hundreds of swimming pools to prevent West Nile virus, and animal rescue groups struggled to find homes for abandoned pets left to run wild in the desert.

Those who see the city as built on the worst of American instincts and appetites take grim satisfaction in its dizzying fall. But I’ll say now what I have always thought: Las Vegas has never been anomalous, even when it was at its most pumped up. With its strip-mall layout and ersatz everything, its fake Paris and Venice and New York all within walking distance, its blatant sale of gambling and sex, its promises of endless water n the middle of the desert, its aging but eternally young singers and dancers, and its striving immigrant population from around the world, Las Vegas is post-World War II American culture writ large. It is American culture on psychedelic drugs, without the self-importance, and with a sense of humor and a libertine streak. And now it has fallen spectacularly: it’s America collapsed and rubble-strewn, but still outlined in bright lights.

The Las Vegas that stays with me is captured in an image from my last visit there. In April 2011, I attended the opening of a new elementary school in one of the poorest areas of North Las Vegas. I walked into the bright, solar-powered Ruby Duncan Elementary School, named for the poor black migrant mother who led a movement that changed the lives of poor Nevadans and helped bring food aid and better medical care to poor families across the U.S. The halls were lined with exhibits capturing the spirit of that movement. Around me sat the movement veterans—black and white women and men, now in their seventies and eighties. In front of us were the students of the Ruby Duncan Chorus representing a school that is thoroughly integrated—with one third African American, one third Hispanic, one third white, and a few Asian and Native American children. Though half of the school’s students qualify for free lunch, each proudly bears the title “Dreamkeeper.” As this rainbow chorus of kids belted out the school anthem, “Everyone Can be A Star,” the elderly War on Poverty activists behind me joined in, laughing a little raucously and thoroughly enjoying themselves. For me, at least, this is Las Vegas.

Landscape of Arrogance

by Sharon Zukin

For me, Las Vegas is not a pleasant place. Megalith hotels looming over the desert look less like resorts and more like fortresses—a Blade Runner image of big business masked by a façade of fun. Behind the bright lights and sparkling fountains of the Strip, dusty back roads sprout strip malls, pawn shops, and giant parking garages. Vegas is a Darwinian landscape of modern capitalism and human arrogance.

I know this isn’t all there is to Vegas. Alongside the city’s founding myth of leisure, vice, and luxury, land companies and residents have built all-American communities. Using water collected by the Hoover Dam, men and women live in single-family homes, drive to suburban shopping centers, and support a variety of religious institutions. Years ago, the region’s explosive postwar growth drew East Coast migrants eager to escape their working class and immigrant origins. The rise of Las Vegas is, in effect, a mirror image of industrial cities’ long decline.

Dependent on gambling and the tourist trade and stricken by a high rate of mortgage foreclosures, Las Vegas is also speculative capitalism writ large. As a tourist, one experiences this in a mildly exploitive way: you can only sit down if you’re eating a meal, buying a drink, or placing a bet.

The dominant gaming and tourism industry has a complicated relationship with the city. The casino complexes are located in Clark County, outside Las Vegas’s borders, so, though they dominate local politics, these economic powerhouses aren’t under the city government’s control. By being separate from the city, yet clustered together, the hotels gain leverage in the regional economy. They enable visitors to escape normal obligations, while they reap profit and influence from buying up large tracts of relatively inexpensive, undeveloped land in unincorporated areas where they evade public control.

The hotels’ autonomy extends to their control of Las Vegas Boulevard, the famous Strip. For many years, the Strip had no sidewalks linking the hotels, and people could not walk from one casino to another. In recent years, the hotels built both sidewalks and footbridges, yet the street is their private space; they offer no benches or lawns for sitting.

On a Sunday morning the Strip is mostly empty, but on Saturday nights, thousands of people are walking, talking, and gawking, an endless, formless, milling crowd dwarfed by the Bellagio’s fountains, a fake Eiffel Tower, and the replica Coney Island roller coaster and Statue of Liberty. Since nearly a quarter of all visitors to Las Vegas come from southern California, the Strip functions as Los Angeles’s Times Square, offering the thrill of a street carnival with all its strangers, tricksters, and costumed street performers.

But the privatization of the sidewalks on the Strip relegates peddlers, “card slappers,” homeless people, and folks selling trinkets to the footbridges, which are controlled by Clark County. Fearing there is too much disorder for tourists to feel safe, the authorities are moving closer to the model of the actual Times Square, which is managed by a business improvement district and bounded by theaters and offices. Outside, the neon fantasy of the Strip anchors the money-making machine of the casinos. Indoors, perpetual night transforms spectacle into speculation: who will “score” tonight?

Synecdoche, however, is not destiny. Las Vegans might only think of the Strip if they’re headed to work, but it’s the unifying landmark for anyone else thinking of this desert town. Behind the play of lights is a city whose economy and image are built on tourism, gambling, and sex—a money machine in the desert.

Surviving the Odds

by Matt Wray

On a hot Tuesday afternoon in June of 1993, Linda Flatt, a 50-year-old dental receptionist, returned home from her job to find her parents and daughter pulling into the driveway. Her ex-husband was waiting with the news that their son Paul was dead. Paul had gambling debts, and Linda’s first thought was that he had been murdered. But then her husband revealed that Paul had killed himself. He was just 25 years old.

Further reading from Matt Wray

As she recounts the story of her son’s brief life and sudden death, Flatt’s voice is steady and calm. But when asked how Paul’s suicide affected her, she whispered, “I was shattered. I never saw it coming.” For several long years after Paul’s death, Flatt relied on the support networks she had developed in the wake of a difficult divorce years earlier. “I felt like a total failure as a mom, but I decided pretty early on that I would survive,” she says.

Flatt now works for the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention (NOSP), an entity created by the state legislature in 2005 in response to the petitioning of citizen activists like, well, Linda Flatt. She oversees the operation of the Las Vegas office of the NOSP, promoting community-based suicide prevention efforts primarily in Southern Nevada, but Flatt is the first to admit that she’s an unlikely activist. Raised in a military family, she has the kind of serious, disciplined demeanor that reflects a well-behaved childhood. A Republican and a regular church-goer, she was, until the death of her son, not one to question the status quo—much less challenge it.

Trying to prevent suicides anywhere is a very tricky business, and Flatt’s job is especially daunting: for five decades, Nevada has had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. The state’s high rate is driven in large part by the extremely high rate of suicide in Las Vegas, where more than 70 percent of Nevadans reside. Vegas has by far the highest suicide rate of any large city in the nation (18.4 per 100,000 residents, about double the national average and fully 16 percent higher than the next highest city). Though the city is known as a travel destination, more than 90 percent of the Las Vegas suicides each year are by residents.

Frankly, the odds are heavily stacked against NOSP. The recession that began in 2007 has hit Nevada harder than any other state. The twin engines of its economy—tourism and homebuilding—have sputtered, producing extremely high rates of unemployment, home foreclosure, and personal bankruptcy, all within the context of massive cuts to state spending on services people need most in times of economic trouble.

Such forces conspire to push people to leave the state, resulting in even further declines in tax revenues. No longer one of the fastest growing states in the country, Nevada appears to be losing residents to states with more robust labor markets, such as Texas. Hundreds of thousands of residents want to leave to find better opportunities, but because an estimated 80 percent of homeowners owe more on their homes than they are worth, they’re stuck. Being trapped can be a strong motivator, spurring individuals to work harder to change their circumstances, but it can also lead to feelings of insecurity, hopelessness, and despair. These are precisely the feelings that could place Las Vegans at an even higher risk for suicide than in the past.

Three years after her son’s death, Flatt founded a support group devoted to helping others who had lost someone to suicide. “I was scared to death,” she recalls. “Some who were grieving were now suicidal themselves and I had no idea how to help them.” After finding that local resources for suicide prevention education were limited, she joined forces with Jerry and Elsie Weyrauch, founders of Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network ( SPANUSA), in an effort to unite local grassroots advocates for suicide prevention. “At some point,” she says, “I asked Elsie what it meant to be a ‘community organizer.’” Weyrauch’s reply still makes Flatt laugh: “Well, it means whatever you want it to mean, dearie!” Flatt signed on as a volunteer local organizer and found, somewhat to her surprise, that she was good at it. In short order, she reached out to a local Republican state senator from her church for help. It was that senator who successfully pushed for the legislation that, ten years later, launched the NOSP.

Among its more impressive achievements are the creation of a school-based text messaging support system that provides live crisis intervention for students; annual fundraising walks in eight communities; a statewide epidemiological working group to establish a server-based, comprehensive dataset on completed suicides; training of over 8000 Nevadans in suicide risk assessment; and screening programs that have served over 2,500 youth. NOSP has also helped tribal governments secure funds to reduce methamphetamine-related suicides and successfully developed dozens of private/public partnerships between the state and non-profit agencies and organizations devoted to social services for the young and the elderly. To accomplish all this, the NOSP raised millions of dollars in grants from federal agencies and private foundations. All this with a staff of just four people and state funding of less than $150,000 per year.

It is too early to say exactly how the recession will impact Nevada’s suicide rate. But there are some indications that it will climb as the recession grinds on. Preliminary mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics reveal a sharp, 10 percent spike in the rate in 2008 and another (this one 17 percent) in 2010. Historically speaking, these are massive increases (suicide rates typically fluctuate only 2 to 4 percent each year). If this trend continues for another few years, it will effectively reverse the long decline in the suicide rate that has been ongoing since the 1970s. There are good reasons to believe that this could occur, since the impact of the economic recession is likely to reverberate for years even after economic growth returns to the state. For some of Nevada’s most vulnerable citizens, the damage will already have been done. However, suicide rates are complex phenomena and notoriously difficult to predict. How it will all turn out is anyone’s guess.

To sociologists accustomed to viewing suicide through a Durkheimian lens, the meaning of the statistical trends is clear and unsurprising: compared to other large cities, we say, Las Vegas must be suffering from low levels of social capital and weak social integration and regulation. We’re partially correct: the suicide rate is not likely to come down unless fundamental features of community cohesion are addressed.

After years of observing the heroic efforts of Flatt and her colleagues, though, I’m not so sure we’re right. While some of us might find the statistics depressing and adopt a fatalistic tone, Flatt sees them as a call to arms. Numbers aren’t everything—the human spirit does its own kind of math. This is what is unexpected about Las Vegas, something that nearly all outside observers fail to grasp. Residents are not hapless victims of social forces beyond their control: led by people like Flatt, they organize themselves to resist those very forces.

When I spoke with Flatt in early October of 2011, she was exceptionally busy: just a week earlier, the coroner confirmed that there had been six teen suicides in the past month, a shocking number given that there were only seven in all of 2010. How was she managing this latest crisis? “I’m persevering,” Flatt said, the resolve edging through her voice. “Things keep getting worse and worse. It’s generally such a scary time. We need to be more creative in how we think. And we need to persevere.” Spoken like a true survivor.

In our inaugural “Viewpoints” feature, social analysts offer contrasting views of the plastic fantastic city.