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What Happens in Vegas …

     I’ve been to Las Vegas often, but not for a while, so when I flew into McCarran International Airport last week to meet up with friends, I was first struck by the sprawl on the ground below, and then by the sprawl of the airport itself. There are now three terminals, all with  conveyances to move you from plane to train to level to bus— and that’s just to get down to the baggage claim!! It took me well over an hour from the time I walked off the flight until I exited the huge off-site “transportation center” in my rental car. 

     By then, I was in the thick of 5 o’clock traffic as I headed out to a favorite fabric store, Quiltique, in Henderson. They were due to close at 6, so I was in quite a snit, not because it was a long drive or because I couldn’t find the street, but because the store these days is “hidden in plain sight” within the (here’s that word again) “sprawling” conglomeration of shopping centers, Walmarts, grocery stores and restaurants that have totally engulfed the area since I was there last. I called them; they waited for me and allowed me to stay past closing. By the time I headed to my hotel on the Strip around 7, I figured the traffic would have eased and the trip would be a breeze, but no. And so the story of Vegas emerged in less than 2 hours on the ground: this place is exploding!

     People are calling Nevada the “future face of America” and nowhere is its countenance clearer than in Las Vegas. That’s not surprising, given that three-quarters of the State’s population live in Las Vegas/Clark County and that the ethnic, social, economic, and political demographics of that area are driving the make-up of the rest of the State.  Clark County’s population alone is at a record high of 2.25 million; it grew last year by 43,000 people; fewer than half the residents are white: most have migrated not only from other countries, but from other parts of America, especially from California; the Clark County school system is the fifth largest in the nation with 154 languages spoken at home, Spanish and Tagalog predominating. (US News, “Best States,” 8/30/2017)  Furthermore, while the rest of the Country argues over immigration, the big hotel owners and the 50,000 member strong Culinary Union (made up of hospitality staff who cook, clean, serve, and work the casinos) not only support it, but embrace it, by offering employees job training, healthcare, classes toward citizenship and hands-on help toward upward mobility.

     Brian Sandoval, a popular Republican Governor, has been in office since 2010  (but not running for re-election this fall) and, since 2016, working with a hugely diverse Democratic legislature.  Together (there’s a concept) they have managed to navigate a long recovery from the Recession and to address critical issues important in their state: water, education, housing, employment and the economy. The make-up of the population may have changed, but that fiercely independent Western spirit long-prized by once conservative Nevada remains an enduring tradition, even though today’s electorate is thoroughly progressive, tolerant, and blue. 

     The weather in Vegas last week was actually quite pleasant, considerably cooler than here at home in San Antonio, which could explain, at least in part, why so many people were out on the Strip. Sidewalks were jammed, much like 5th Avenue in New York during the holidays, and everybody carried shopping bags. Some of the newer hotels don’t have casinos anymore (mine didn’t), but you can be sure that all lobbies lead to shopping opportunities. The Shops at Crystals, for example, are directly accessed through the Aria Hotel and connected by an Aria Express tram to the Monte Carlo Hotel at one end and the Bellagio at the other. This 500,000 sq.ft. retail mecca designed by architect Daniel Libeskind houses 45 luxury retailers including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Bvlgari,  Hermés etc. — all the high-end merchants for the high rollers yearning for goods that can’t be found in suburban malls at home. What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore; it goes home in shopping bags!

     As a matter of fact, “destination shopping” has become one of the major entertainment draws, especially for international visitors, along with sight-seeing, dining, Mojave Desert adventures, shows, and sporting events. (The Golden Knights professional hockey team is headed to the Stanley Cup finals as I write this).  The effort to clean up Las Vegas, to erase the “sin city” image and make it more family friendly, has resulted in a dramatic rise in tourism and convention traffic, with some 43 million people annually spending about $35 billion while they’re there. However, according to a Las Vegas Visitor Profile Study (Dec. 2017), visitors today, even repeat visitors, tend to be younger, more diverse, married, college educated, and far more interested in activities other than gambling. The Study reported that 77 percent of them spent only 2 hours or less gaming. From what I saw in the casinos, at least half of the tables were closed, and the other half were manned by bored croupiers without players.

     Wandering through the Aria, a truly beautiful hotel designed by César Pelli, I was struck by how much it is NOT evocative of the old Las Vegas. Increasingly, even the themed hotels and resorts built in the 90s, the Paris, the Excalibur, the Venetian, the Mandalay Bay, Caesars, all of which supplanted the icons of the 1950s — the Sands, the Hacienda, the Dunes, and the Boardwalk (where the Aria is today) —  somehow seem quaint in the face of this new Nevada. The Aria, gorgeous as it is, could be located anywhere, in almost any country. Hotels, restaurants, clubs, and shops are all about trends and technology these days. The sleeze, the kitsch, and the naughtiness of Vegas are gone, and so in a way is the romance. And so, by and large, is the humor with which Vegas parodied itself. 

     On my last day I go down to Fremont Street to pay homage to the last vestige of the Old Las Vegas, to take a turn on the roulette wheel at Binions and to check out the cheap souvenirs on the plaza. Most people don’t realize that this is really all that’s left of the original Vegas, the place where the mob ruled, where Hollywood producers made deals under the cabanas around the pool at the Golden Nugget, and where the Rat Pack could be seen having cocktails in the afternoon. Even Fremont Street has been “cleaned up” and renovated, but still most visitors don’t go downtown anymore. It’s too far, too old, and they’re just not into nostalgia. This is the new Nevada, young, active, unsentimental, proclaiming the egalitarianism and pluralism of a new generation. 

     Watch out, America, because what happens in Vegas is no longer staying there.

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