Vegas reinvents itself because it has to

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If there’s one common notion that most Americans have about Las Vegas, it’s that we have a vibrant economy. To be precise, the prevailing thought is that we came out of the 2008 recession in great shape and that we are today the land of milk and honey.

The general assumption is that car parkers and bartenders make $80,000 a year and that cocktail waitresses knock down six figures and declare far less to our friends at the IRS. And that even a bloke with a fourth-grade education should be able to come here and take down serious lucre and absolve some of the debt that he has accrued from previous life missteps.

Outsiders who haven’t been paying close attention sometimes expose their ignorance by revealing that they think Las Vegas in 2019 is still marketing itself to families, and that there are a lot of activities for kids to do here.

I feel obligated to explain to them that their information is outdated by a full generation and that today we are one of the most adult-oriented cities since Caligula ruled ancient Rome. A drive up and down the Strip on warm days would convince an outsider that we are allergic not to pollen and olive trees, but to clothing.

I remember in the late 1970s the esteemed travel writer Jan Morris – who before gender-transfer surgery was a British explorer and military man named John Morris  – telling me she was intrigued by Las Vegas but detected a strong undercurrent of evil running through the city.

Her instincts at that time were correct. Most of the large hotels were indebted to loans from shady organizations like the Teamsters Union Central Pension Fund, and many of the motley characters who called shots in the casinos had rap sheets that could wallpaper your rec room.

Today, we are now fully controlled by Wall Street: button-down shirts, yellow ties, two showers a day, and subtle cologne.

The most frequently asked questions I heard as a writer 40 years ago were about how I could tolerate living and writing in a city so starved of culture. I don’t get those anymore.

Folks willing to pay their local cable company know through the Travel Channel that we have imported all the cultural amenities a modern city could hope to have, with fine art, hip chefs, Broadway plays, and a bevy of plastic surgeons to make us look youthful when we go out on the town.

There are a few things I know for certain about our fair city, with absolute clarity, void of bias or geographical prejudice. I know that:

• If you come here from someplace else, for the first couple of years Las Vegas will not be pretty to you. It does not have the rivers or ocean beaches or evergreen-covered hills you’re used to. But the beauty of the desert will grow on you, I promise, and the sunsets will knock your eyes out.

• The conversations you’ll hear at social gatherings are unlike any you heard back home. At Spokane dinner parties, folks would always try to discover a common-ground topic on which all guests could find a consensus. This would lead to comments like, “I couldn’t agree with you more,” or “Isn’t that the truth?”

In Las Vegas you might find yourself in the company of an acrobat, a professional poker player, a lounge singer, a sports agent, and a guy who owns an escort service. The conversations are much livelier

• No city in America changes its landscape faster, or works harder at keeping up with trends. We absolutely do not give a rat’s patootie about preserving history in Las Vegas. We are the total opposite of Rome and Paris and London. In those great cities, they venerate their old buildings. We blow ours to smithereens, pop champagne corks in celebration, get naked, make whoopee, and excitedly discuss whatever outrageous new property will occupy the lot suddenly made vacant by the Italian family that did the demolition.

Las Vegas is clearly not for everyone. But if you dig in your heels and give it a chance, you might find it to be the least boring place on the planet. And boredom bores the hell out of me.

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About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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