TCS Daily

Vegas, Baby... Vegas!

By James K. Glassman - October 17, 2005 12:00 AM

In 1972, architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote a book called Learning From Las Vegas, which celebrated the gambling capital's architecture. Designers and builders, the authors insisted, should respond to the tastes and desires of "common" folks, as the architects of Las Vegas had.

Learning from Las Vegas created a scandal. In a typical commentary from a cultural journal, the Ohio Review described the book as "dangerous," and warned that it "inverts the ideas that many have based their professional lives upon. It threatens those things that we use to distinguish the difference between us, the cultured, and them, the vulgar."

Flash forward 33 years. America's professional classes -- especially economists, journalists, and politicians -- have even more to learn from Las Vegas. I go there three or four times a year, and I suggest that the mandarins of Washington and New York should take similar pilgrimages to learn how the world really works.

Judging by the number of people rushing to live in it, Las Vegas is one of the most successful cities in the world. By far America's fastest-growing metropolitan area, its population rose from 273,000 in 1970 to 1,700,000 today. The city also attracted 37 million visitors last year -- about the same as New York City.

Las Vegas has become the most exciting and gorgeous urban artifact of the past few decades. It has the best restaurants (practically every great chef now has an outpost, most recently Daniel Boulud), most dramatic hotels, most creative nightclubs, and grand shopping. Of course, it also has gambling.

But it's not just the gambling. Dave Kirvin, one of Vegas's top PR executives, points out that the big casino-hotels now collect the majority of their revenues from "non-gaming activities" -- rooms, dinners, drinks, shows. Many other places have now adopted gambling, but none has approached the success of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is a land of superlatives. Along with big names like Jerry Seinfeld and Elton John, it is also home to the most popular singer in Taiwan and Hong Kong (Jay Chou). Las Vegas has the scariest thrill ride on the globe (you hang 900 feet over The Strip from the top of the tallest building west of the Mississippi), the most elaborate fountains (at the Bellagio), and four separate Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas, with a fifth on the way.

The MGM Grand Hotel spent $135 million on a special theater for "K," a Cirque show with a stage that inclines at a 90-degree angle. At the new eponymous hotel opened this spring by Steve Wynn, the "Le Reve" show cost $100 million to set up and includes a 1.5-million-gallon pool.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas real estate prices are soaring, as supply has a tough time keeping up with demand. The value of the average single-family home went up 52 percent from 2003 to 2004. Local unemployment is just 3.7 percent. Southern Nevada's economy is quite diverse, including high-tech firms and spin-off businesses around giant Nellis Air Force Base.

The sunshine helps, no doubt. So does immigration from Mexico and availability of relatively inexpensive land. The lack of a state income tax is a big attraction.

The seven U.S. states without income taxes led the nation in population growth between 2000 and 2004. Nevada topped the list, with a 376 percent increase. Next followed Alaska (187 percent), Florida (156 percent), and Texas (101 percent).

Perhaps the most important source of Las Vegas's vitality is the culture of frantic competition it has developed. You have to top the other guy. There's a new restaurant opening every day, each more spectacular than the one before. When Wynn announced he was building a new hotel, his competitors, like the Bellagio and Caesar's Palace, immediately began remodeling. Caesar's expanded its gargantuan shopping mall and installed one of only two spiral escalators in the world.

"Being new," says Kirvin, "is part of the marketing." If you don't constantly renew and improve your business offerings, Las Vegas will leave you in the dust.

As David Brooks wrote recently, "Under the seeming superficiality of suburban American life, there is an imaginative fire that...propels us to work so hard, move so much, and leap so wantonly." That's Vegas, not Manhattan.

It is an environment that can be both frightening and exhilarating, tawdry and beautiful. It is distinctly American -- and may be why so many foreign visitors come here, fascinated by things they've never seen before. The Strip is not always pretty. But it's clear that America, and the world, can learn a lot from Las Vegas.


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