The Sistine Chapel is peeling off.
The artificial gold that frames the Venetian hotel’s ceiling-top mural is beginning to chip, with the fragments floating down onto the cigarette-burnt carpet. The dome’s blue sky is melting away, looking as if it has been years since anyone’s paid attention to it, and Adam’s finger, reaching out, reeks more of desperation than of the divine. Either no one sees it, or no one cares, but this is Las Vegas.
Beyond the painting’s decay, the city itself is similarly crumbling, and the lights of the strip are dimming. After two decades as the fastest-growing metropolis in the United States, Las Vegas’ population growth has flattened. It has the highest foreclosure rate of any major metro area, and the unemployment rate jumped from 3.8 percent to 12.3 percent in the last three years alone.
In the 1970s, when free love and a booming counterculture were en vogue, the birth of Las Vegas represented the seedier side of the revolution for freedom. But once the ice-cold reality of the ’80s hit, and the ‘rebuild, remodel’ cynicism of the ’90s set in, Vegas followed suit, demolishing its hotels and with them the history of its first cultural wave.
The city that once represented the pinnacle of optimistic grandeur is now headlining the recession. Over 13,000 people have been declared homeless in the past three years, an increase of over 17 percent since 2007. Hotel rates have plummeted by over 50 percent their cost a mere two years ago. And outside of the strip, there’s hardly a block without more than half of the houses foreclosed on. The dream is dead.
This is why I’m back here again, for the third time this school year.
Because Las Vegas is for sale. Because what made it so interesting from the beginning was that it was our city. We built this city, we defined it. It was the 20th century’s anti-Ellis Island, a sanctuary from the outside lands of reality. But moreover, we destroyed it, rebuilt it, defined it, and redefined it. We have complete ownership over this city. It is our single greatest creation.
“This place is a shit-hole.”
Amir Kahaleh is the kind of cab driver who knows the hustle of the strip well enough to have default conversations that will always loop back to a tip. Tonight, he is wearing a blue collared shirt, with just enough of his chest poking out to tell you he’s serious about the medallion he claims to never take off. He tells me it was one of the first things he bought for himself after receiving his first paycheck as a Vegas cabbie.
“I think this place is kind of magical,” I tell him. “Not in a direct way, but the allure of this street is kind of fascinating.”
“No, no, my friend … this place isn’t alluring. It’s rotten. It sucks you in with its rottenness, and, suddenly, you find yourself [with] no money or anything. It sucks you in. Horrible, horrible. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m here to figure out — why it is that I keep coming back to Las Vegas?”
He laughs, shaking his head and rolling down his window, throwing his fist out and uncoiling each finger one at a time, as if his palm holds the answer. “This,” he tells me, as he points to our destination, “is the real Vegas. This is all there is. Nothing more. When [you are] here, you accept it.”
He’s pointing to a fenced-off crater, filled with nothing but iron beams, rubble, cement blocks, and a couple of curiously clean cranes. This is The Echelon, the enormous multi-billion-dollar project that might one day be made up of four hotels. But today, it’s just settled for three buildings, nine floors each, made up of nothing more than concrete and steel beams sitting idly on some of the most expensive real estate in the nation, and waiting patiently for the people who broke ground on nothing more than promises to make good.
Kahaleh calls it a cemetery. I call it an artifact.
In 1931, construction on Hoover Dam began, bringing an influx of workers into Vegas, giving the city its first population boom and its economy, in the grips of the Great Depression, a much-needed boost. In March of that same year, Nevada legalized gambling in the hopes of giving those temporary residents a needed outlet for their sinful desires, and giving the city a few bucks of profit in the process.
“So, from the beginning, this town has been exploiting the very people that helped build it — in this case, literally, the construction workers.” I commented.
“Pretty much,” Dino tells me, his voice thick with that kind of cinematic Italian accent that makes you think he could order some pasta and a mob hit in the same breath. He is a daunting tower of a man of about 6’2’,’ reeking of scotch and stories, and all too eager to share both.
Dino — who apparently with no last name, like Cher or Madonna — has been a Vegas resident for going on 30 years, though the number fluctuates depending on the story’s requirements. If he’s playing innocent, he’s only been around for 15 to 20 years. If he’s preaching his mastery of the strip, the number can hit 40.
More importantly, Dino was here for ‘Vegas 2.0,’ a post-millennium moment, in which the strip was hit with a hard dose of reality. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Vegas has seen gambling revenues fall only once since the 1970s. Even after 9/11, the town saw nothing more than a 1 percent drop in profits. However, in only the last year, gambling revenues have fallen 4 percent, with the number of conventions the city has held dropping 10.4 percent.
“On a lucky day,” Dino tells me, “you can book the type of room that was $500 a year ago for $110. High-end restaurants at the MGM [Grand Hotel] have gotten rid of most of their $400 bottles of wine and replaced them with $100 ones … the city is downgrading. It’s insane, you can see it everywhere.”
A limo driver whose job depends on the common guests’ desire for luxury, Dino has seen steadier days. Nearly 7 percent fewer cars have been crossing the Nevada-California border along Interstate 15, reflecting in part the fact that high gasoline prices are still prohibiting drive-in visitors from trekking across neighboring states. Making matters worse, three airlines with substantial service to Las Vegas — Aloha, ATA and Champion — have gone out of business.
“I don’t know if there are facts to support what I’m actually searching for,” I tell him.
“What’s that? The American dream?”
“No, just the Vegas one. I want to find the real Las Vegas, and see what happened to it over the last few years.”
“Oh, then you’ve got to leave the strip. Not even by much, but it’s the houses, pal. The houses.”
Any hope for camaraderie with Dino is dashed the second I hear how much it’s going to cost me to be driven past the strip line and into the suburban neighborhoods he has warned me about. But, for the sake of the story (a phrase journalists throw around when they’re trying to justify stupid actions), I tell him to take me.
Here, Dino takes me to a woman named Lyn Houbish, a real estate agent. Houbish described people who attempt to make a couple bucks from the housing bubble’s bust. She spoke about a process in which realtors find homeowners who owe more on their houses than the house itself is worth. These realtors then sell them a brand new house at half the price of their old one, telling their clients to stop paying the banks the mortgage they owe on their old house, all in the hopes that the banks would rather sell the house than participate in a messy court case. In Vegas, even the realtors gamble, and always bet on a bluff.
“You don’t even understand how things were [in the Vegas suburbs],” Houbish said. “These houses were destroyed from people going crazy after being foreclosed on. Things were a mess. They’ve been a mess for a long time.”
The burst of the housing bubble hit harder than anyone could have predicted. When affluence came to America, the town with nothing to lose bet it all. In the early parts of the new millennium, construction began on larger and grander pieces of real estate. And people were buying — suddenly, apartment prices skyrocketed. Bigger hotels bought planning permits.
And the city that had seemingly grown overnight kept trying to get bigger.
Then in 2006, reality flooded the desert. The bottom fell out from under the housing market, and it turned out that realtors were selling what ordinary people feeling the crunch of hard times couldn’t buy.
“Overnight, homes plummeted nearly $200,000 in value,” Houbish said.
Right now, over 10 percent of the homes on a given Vegas street have been left uninhabited. Half of the houses that are left in standing condition have “For Sale” signs in front of their doors. Here, in Western Vegas — a portion of the city hit hardest — you would be hard-pressed to find a single house with a car in the drive way.
“You have to understand — this isn’t a city built on money. This is a city built on the promise of money … everyone in this town works with their fingers crossed. Everything is a gamble.”
Back to the Fantasy
Back on the strip, memories of a suburban graveyard seem too distant to pay any attention to. Here, the strip maintains exuberant neutrality in regards to all the happenings beyond the hotel lights. Whether they don’t know or choose to forget is up for interpretation. I am bathing in the fantasy of the strip — the one that allows Vegas to maintain its grandiose nature — which is a puzzling experience in light of the reality that exists just west of the boulevard. That reality amidst all the fantasy is the ghost I’m searching for.
There are ghosts everywhere on the strip. Just beyond the MGM Grand are three more unfinished sites — the 63 empty iron floors of the Fontainebleau, the forgotten shell that was once going to be Caesar’s Palace’s Octavius Tower, and two cranes hovering on a structure that was supposed to be a condominium building. Just past those is the New Frontier, a resort modeled after New York City’s Plaza Hotel.
“Isn’t that heap of trash the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen?” Alan Freedman asks me. “A friend told me that it was deemed so ugly that the Wynn [Hotel] had to plant a row of trees along it, just so guests wouldn’t stare at it from their windows.”
Freedman is the man who deals with the myths of the strip. He’s the MGM and Mirage Hotel’s spokesman, and the kind of ‘high-up’ individual who doesn’t mind sitting with a student journalist. But he’s also the person whose job it is to lie about how the strip is really doing, so trust — as with everything else in this city — is hard to come by.
“We made a structural change in our company to become more efficient and provide the same level of service,” he explained, defending the hotel in a town where scaling down and shutting down are one in the same. “We did have to advance that effort, because we are undoubtedly seeing a softening in the marketplace … It’s not an easy time, but we’ve seen worse.”
This is the first major recession that Las Vegas has had to deal with since becoming a hybrid of both a city and a tourist attraction. In 1991 and 1992, the last somewhat comparable fiscal freeze, non-gaming activities in Vegas provided just 42 percent of the town’s overall revenue. Now, that number is roughly 60 percent. Nevada has no income tax, and greatly relies on taxing casino owners and their respective establishments. Now that no one is willing to lead a life of luxury, the state is scrounging.
Jessica Smith,* a hotel manager who requested anonymity, sees the casino’s failures as being too intricate to Vegas as a whole to ignore. When I tell her of Feldman’s claims of affluence, she is quick to correct.
“The stock price of MGM, Bellagio, Mirage, and eight other Strip resorts, has halved. In recent weeks, the company eliminated 440 middle management jobs to save $75 million annually. Nothing, I repeat, nothing, is okay.”
Take, for example, Sheldon Adelson, who has lost more money during the rigors of the economic collapse than anyone else. He is the 76-year-old chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns the Venetian hotel, the Convention Center, and a plethora of other lavish landmarks. In 2007 and 2008, he was the third richest person in the world, with a net worth of $40 billion. By February of 2009, he’d lost $36.5 billion — more than the GDP of half of the countries in the world. That’s his crane parked between The Venetian and The Palazzo.
“It’s horrid here, but we’ll bounce back,” Smith said. “It’s like everywhere else. Everything here is just an exaggeration.”
And there it is. This is what I have been looking for — an explanation as to not just what happened in Las Vegas, but why it matters. And that’s because Las Vegas is not a real city, but something else entirely. It is, as Smith explained, an exaggeration. It personifies every aspect of American culture, from its moments of affluent excess to the pitfalls of a culture that bet too big.
In the wake of our country’s newest motto, ‘big businesses, big problems,’ the world’s biggest convention city is now finding its streets curiously empty — I guess that’s what happens when you’re a city known for extravagance during a time when extravagance is the problem.
Checking out of the Venetian, the reality of Vegas became a heavy weight to carry. Knowing that in the cheap gold furniture hides the fundamental failures of a city whose money depended on the type of folks who are usually hit first and hit hardest, I couldn’t help but almost pity the town that was built on nothing more than big dreams and lousy intentions.
But as I was leaving, the air was different. Things weren’t falling from the sky, and Smith’s words suddenly felt a little more substantial. Looking up, I saw the source — two men balancing on a scaffold, repainting the Sistine Chapel a better shade of blue. Things on the strip might not change anytime soon, but the town is always making sure it looks its best.
*Name has been changed