Las Vegas: An American City

December 23, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In its naughtier days, just after the war, Americans called it Vegas. Here was a town of lobsters and showgirls, disconnected from the rest of the country. As much as it defied morality, Las Vegas defied logic. Who could have imagined planting such a gaudy oasis on this desert floor?

Las Vegas defied time as much as place. There were no clocks in the casinos. There were no windows through which sunlight could pour. And because of the neon, there was no night. Las Vegas is booming today, one of the fastest growing cities in America. But the place has lost its edge. In hard desert sunlight, it seems a recognizable American city. Las Vegas’s parks and malls, grammar schools and churches, even a university famous for a basketball team. Because I have not been to Las Vegas for several years, I’m surprised by how conventional the city appears. But that is less because Las Vegas has become like the rest of America and that the rest of America has become like Las Vegas.

There are still wedding chapels for the impetuous, but they seem quaint now. Long ago were the days when Americans had to come to Nevada for quickie divorces. Who, after all, needs a Nevada divorce when one in two marriages fail in America? The Chamber of Commerce proclaims Las Vegas a family attraction. The casinos compete with carnival rides and cartoonish extravaganzas. If Las Vegas is a family town, it is at least ironically so, for it is the American family that has changed. And the great seduction of this town, where papa once came to risk the family’s future, gambling now is an American habit.

America used to be a country where hard work was more important than luck. Life was a gamble elsewhere in the world, not here. Americans work hard today. Productivity charts prove it. We are terrified of losing our jobs as corporations euphemistically downsize. We drive long hours to work. A family needs two incomes to make ends meet. But do we really believe in work anymore? In the years since Las Vegas was invented by a gangster named Bugsie something has changed in the American heart. We seem more apt to believe that life is a gamble. If ever we are to strike it rich, it will be a matter of luck. What would Benjamin Franklin make of Las Vegas, he who taught us that a penny saved is a penny earned? Who, after all, knew more, fictional Horatio Alger, who pulled himself up by hard work, or legendary Howard Hughes, who guessed that Californians could be lured into the desert to gamble?

All over America now, with the exception of only two states, gambling offers easy answers. Gambling offers quick dollars in cities and states, with limited taxes, limited jobs. Gambling is now the fastest growing sector of the service economy, a $500 billion business. Here in Nevada it accounts for nearly a third of all jobs. Some states, it’s true, seven in last November’s elections, have turned down gambling initiatives. But elsewhere in America gambling has replaced other forms of play. Americans spend more money gambling than we do on sports, movies, all other forms of entertainment combined. Has Lady Luck replaced Lady Liberty? Come to Las Vegas and you will see the faces of the American family–native born and more interestingly, immigrant too. In California, where I live, the joke is that you have to be foreign born to win the lotto. Business is good tonight. The dice tumbles. The wheel turns. The slot machines whirl. Las Vegas glitters, this family town no longer the exception. Here is where we come to find the American dream.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.