Las Vegas, America

July 22, 2004

WHAT DOES IT say about America that this year's hottest city - the nation's cultural and economic trend-setter - is Las Vegas, sprawl that only began to sprout at a desert railroad stop 60 years ago, that produces next to nothing and that profits from peddling live fantasies, increasingly sexual, to the rest of the country and world?

Las Vegas is America's fastest-growing city. Each month, 7,000 more newcomers show up, driving its population toward 2 million by this decade's end. Its just-built suburbs spread endlessly across arid bleakness, their land and home values rocketing. The Rouse Co. - builder of Columbia, Maryland's new town - has staked a big part of its future there, erecting an even larger new community that soon will dwarf its decades of work here. At the city's core - its gambling strip - billions of dollars of over-the-top resort-casino projects are under way. Not surprisingly, the unemployment rate is well below the nation's.

And increasingly, Las Vegas has become restless America's end of the rainbow, for those lusting for a new start or just a brief respite from the rules. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Las Vegas is branded as the city that never stops partying - or tells. It draws 35 million tourists a year. At least four TV shows celebrate its life: one of those big-name crime dramas and three quasi-reality shows competing to show the inner workings of casino life. TV executives apparently have reason to believe the rest of America is riveted by whether a certain Las Vegas resort can straighten out its problems with its cocktail waitresses.

When gambling was an outlawed sin in the rest of America, Las Vegas' offerings were unique. Now gambling's everywhere: 40 states have lotteries, 11 boast casinos, and in state after state, including Maryland, some want more. To compete, Las Vegas in the 1990s went family-friendly, with casinos cum amusement parks. But it turned out Americans didn't want to bring the kids so much as leave them at home while Mom danced on tables at glitzy lounges or Dad enjoyed lap dances at less-glamorous strip joints. Las Vegas is booming because it has refocused itself on the oldest game: sex. Gambling is a fine cash machine, but Las Vegas now makes far more bucks on rooms, food, drink, shows and flesh. If its mayor has his way, legal prostitution, available in other parts of Nevada, will come to the strip.

That's not to say that Las Vegas tolerance somehow embraces a liberal political ethos, as witnessed by the near riot that singer Linda Ronstadt touched off in a casino theater last weekend when she spoke favorably on-stage of Michael Moore's anti-Bush film Fahrenheit 9/11. Nor is any of this to suggest that Las Vegas, for all its successes, is an entirely workable economic proposition: Its schools and other services strain to keep pace with its phenomenal growth; Nevada, awash in gambling revenue, faced a record state budget deficit last year until it enacted big tax and fee increases (Take note, Maryland!); many Americans would not aspire to actually raise their families hard by the 24-hour pleasures they so eagerly hop on cheap flights to find there.

But Las Vegas' contradictions do not make it any less America's city of the moment - embodying more elements of the future of the rest of the nation than even many of its most ardent visitors might choose for their own backyards.

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