Breaking Down Hal Rothman’s “Inventing Las Vegas”

Rothman opens his piece with a very bold statement about Las Vegas and it’s history as an American city. And though it may be slightly biased by a certain degree of nostalgia and personal desire for it to be true, his statement is, nonetheless, an excellent look into the personality and heart of America’s “sin city.” In the opening lines, Rothman asserts, “there’s no precedent for Las Vegas, no way to put its experience into the framework of other American cities (Boehm 500).” What he is really getting at here is the fact Las Vegas starts as a very coincidental side note of a settlement. It has no real “set of circumstances” that led to its development as an urban center (Boehm 500). It started as a stop for repair along a rail line and was forever subject to outside income throughout its early years. There was, quite literally, nothing to draw anyone into colonizing the area. This led to an early history of being very “western” and libertarian in mindset. As the settlement was little more than a stop-over or go between for travelers, permanency just wasn’t part of the plan for culture in Las Vegas. People were allowed to indulge and do as they pleased within broad limits as they were never meant to stay anyway. Much like the way that early New York allowed for anonymity in its masses, Las Vegas offered anonymity through a culture of transiency. Everyone was a passerby in Vegas. So, Las Vegans did what they could to make a living. If rail workers wanted whiskey and women, then give it to them for the right price. In fact, up until after the Hoover Dam was built, most of the money in Vegas came from federal sources making Las Vegas not only a place of transient people but also transient economy.

Without placating to the vice of its passerby citizens, the town would and could be buried by the whim of a federal ruling or budget change at any moment. Gambling, and the scheming of mobster Bugsy Siegel, really kept Las Vegas afloat through a marriage that seems obvious in retrospect. A place where leniency was bred by desperation, Vegas was perfect for organized crime bosses and crooked businessmen of the 1940’s to the 1960’s. People just wanted to be able to survive and the casino racket made it happen. In essence, Vegas became a place that grew not out of resource, commerce, religious settlement, trading, military strategy, or good farm land, but of spectacle. Selling culture was perfected by Vegas in a way that has ramifications in the global economy to this day. The merchants of cool use two distinct angles to make a buck. They sell the experience and the freedom of vice (i.e. “what happens in Vegas etc…) and they market cool culture and spectacle. The temporary ring of crime the mob started was the perfect backbone for the entrepreneurial spirit of the super rich to build an empire upon. Much like its early years, Vegas relied on cutthroat tactics and desperation when change was needed to make money and survive in the 1970’s and 80’s. They pushed the mob out just as quickly as they embraced them and welcomed their new capital master’s, Wall Street. Corporate America hijacked the system and turned it into a money machine that could be duplicated wherever local governments could be “convinced” of its benefits. Unlike any American city before it, Las Vegas was grown from an open cultural ideology that believed in the motto “there is a place for everything and everything in its place.” Though I would argue there are a very distinct set of factors that led up to this mecca of spectacle and ethical openness, Rothman is correct when he says that Vegas “reflect(s) America onto itself (Boehm 509).” We have truly become an urban culture of mass consumption and entertainment. In a postmodern society where everything can be bought and sold for the right price, the only thing left to sell is ourselves. And Vegas sells us back to ourselves twenty four hours a day.

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