Friday, December 16, 2005

Vegas Mythologies

Among the less tortuous pages of The Standard last week was this little sift of reminiscence—“Staying in Las Vegas,” which the stingy Standard doesn’t make fully available to Web readers who don’t contribute to the cause—by Allison Hayward, a Washington D.C. lawyer who writes The Skeptic’s Eye. (An aside: the Eye is a conservative blog that should make us skeptical of its quality given its blogroll inclusion of a few names from the more brown-shirted end of the spectrum. But Hayward redeems herself, despite using sentences like “it was not always thus,” by naming her children Anomie and Ennui: A humorous conservative is always more fun than an overly earnest liberal, and one of the big problems of Icarus-on-Crack-era America is that there are a hell of a lot more funny conservatives out there than their liberal counterparts, Al and Arianna notwithstanding. The conservatives are losing their edge, but still. Liberals aren’t exactly stepping in to fill the void, which is leaving us with a dour, sour America none of us would be too eager to kiss and make out with.) “Staying in Vegas,” Hayward’s piece, would have found itself perfectly at home if the WPA Guide to Nevada was planning a new edition, but it reads like sepia-colored prose in the pages of a magazine so enthralled by its newfound humorlessness (see previous parenthesis). Hayward even flirts with equal-minded dullness even as she writes about a town that defies those possibilities. She tells us that an aunt and a grandfather “were instrumental in the successful effort to legalize gambling” in 1931, that the first Freemont Street neon sign went up in 1945, that she was born in 1963, and that her late father served as the region’s Water Disttrict’s counsel “during the negotiation of the Southern Nevada Water Project in the 1960s,” which explains her blind spot for Vegas’s impending water crunch: It’s an article of faith among Las Vegans, as it is among their slightly more waterlogged Floridians, that water scarcity will never be an excuse for crimping development. So far, it hasn’t. But this is the land of happy deficits (until the bill hits). Hayward desn’t see it coming, because of reasoning like this: “[D]espite popular views to the contrary, Las Vegas is not the poster city for sprawl—it is more densely developed than Portland, Oregon, a town embraced by the smart growth set. And it is getting denser.” Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean that one of the fastest growing cities in the country can’t be both dense and a poster city for sprawl: Vegas’ urban-area traffic zone now by far exceeds Portland’s (which includes Vancouver), even though Portland-Vancouver is growing fast, too.  A few paragraphs later Hayward doesn’t seem to recognize that sprawl is also a matter of landscape and architectural aesthetics. No one would begrudge I.M. Pei for building structure after structure even in the Nevadan desert; he’s one  architect whose work can compete with nature’s. But when “designers aren’t more conscious of their surroundings,” as Hayward notes, and an architect she interviews tells us that “All of the suburban development, all of the new condos, all of the strip malls are copies of buildings originally designed for other locales, [leaving] little if anything that reflects the natural environment of the Mojave Desert,” there’s at least a little room left for sprawl-induced despair over the course the city has taken. Another misconception, deliciously put though it is: “One sign that Vegas will continue as the place to let your inner skank run free is the enormous investment at present in condominium towers—marketed as second homes for people who want to golf all day and play all night.” Hayward must not have had a look at every other state’s condo market in the last three years, or noticed the bubbly real estate market. She does recognize the supreme irony of Vegas, which she calls a “secret”: “that a den of libertine iniquity only works when subject to massive regulation,” that “Multinational corporate owners, with shareholders and regulatory overseers, have replaced the Last Vegas of Midwestern organized crime syndicates,” and that “gambling is a very seductive way to concentrate wealth.” Vegas, in other words, is the Republican town par excellence, profiting from government’s tax-funded and subsidized ways and means to doubly profit at people’s expense.