"There's so much more to Las Vegas than the Strip, and once you get here and see what else they have, you won't even come to the Strip," says Yvette Dixon, a guest room attendant at Bellagio Hotel and Casino. Cleaning a dozen bathrooms and making 20 beds a day, she has found her own sort of dream here in Las Vegas.

"But here they got so many hotels coming up, stores opening up every day," says Dixon. "So you can get a job real easy. It might not be the job you want, but it'll be a job until you can get the job you want. You can move into a brand new house, they build it the way you want it. No money down, not a penny! Now that was for me!"

Dixon moved here from Los Angeles.

"This is indeed the best move I ever made," she says. "I wasn't established in California, I never bought a house, I never owned anything. So as soon as I moved here, I got my job, got a new car, got a new truck, got a new house. I only been here six years. I cleaned up!"

Across town, another Las Vegas-transplant-family is also finding success.

"We would meet at home and say, 'OK, we got $150.' And we had a little bucket, I swear to you, a little bucket, and we saved up $15,000 just like that," says Colette Diamond.

She and her husband Kenny settled in Las Vegas after a life on the road as musicians. He took a job as a valet, she became a cocktail waitress. With each car parked and each drink served, the couple saved enough tips for a down payment on a small house.

"So we did that until I came home one day, and my daughter had on my cocktail outfit," says Diamond. "She says, 'Mom I want to be just like you.' So I started real-estate school the next day."

The Diamonds rank among the top-selling realtors in Las Vegas.

"Right now, I sell million-dollar houses to people who, ten years ago, were just like me," says Colette Diamond. "And in this community, and in this kind of environment, it's given us that dream. I never could have done this, for us, any place else."

The Diamonds now live in a roomy, 6,000-square-foot home. The exploding property market in Las Vegas transformed the Diamonds' life, and the city's landscape. The chamber of commerce estimates that a new home is finished every nine hours. At 100 years old, Las Vegas has come a long way.

Las Vegas was founded in 1905 as a railroad town. It enjoyed about a dozen years of prosperity, catering to passengers on layover and supplying mining camps to the north and south. But after a devastating national railroad strike in 1922, some thought Las Vegas would end up a ghost town. Art critic Dave Hickey says what saved Las Vegas was Nevada's tolerance for sin.

"The history of Nevada, I mean it's just a big desert," says Hickey. "I mean, it's really nowhere. And its whole tradition is doing illegal stuff. Divorces, you know. They do prize fights. They do all this stuff that was banned from prohibition America. And so this became the way you make money in the desert."

In the midst of the Great Depression, thousands of men traveled west to southern Nevada's Black Canyon, desperate to land one of the 5,000 construction jobs on Boulder Dam, later known as Hoover Dam. For four-and-a-half years, the dam workers spent their days toiling between walls of scorching hard rock, and their nights penned inside Boulder City.

In what had once been an uninhabited, waterless desert, supporting only sparse and inhospitable growth of chaparral and cactus, the beautiful little town of Boulder City was begun. Quickly erected in just 15 months, the town housed an army of 5,000 men.

The workers lived for payday. With money in their pockets, they headed for nearby Las Vegas. There, on a two-block stretch of Fremont Street, they found a bawdy, brightly lit cluster of gambling dens and brothels, and saloon after saloon after saloon.

"They were living in these camps in this unforgiving desert in a state of real lockdown," says Marc Cooper, a journalist who's written extensively about Las Vegas. "And let's face it: there is absolutely nothing to do. You had two choices on payday in Boulder City. You could stay back in the camp and not drink, maybe surreptitiously play some cards, and wait for night to come, or you could hit Fremont Street and gamble and drink and party until your check ran out. Now which one would you choose?"

In 1931, Nevada solidified its reputation as the nation's rogue state. It legalized wide-open casino style gambling. Within months, new gambling houses and slot machines could be found all over town. But legal gambling alone would likely never have brought people to a place as remote as Las Vegas. Curiosity about the dam also boosted business.

In 1932, some 100,000 people went to gawk at what was fast becoming known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the dam.

Ever opportunistic, Las Vegas took to billing itself as the "Gateway to the Boulder Dam." And thanks mainly to dam tourism, Las Vegas discovered the immense potential for profit in America's forbidden desires. The town quickly became a destination for scores of gambling operators, cardsharps and crooked cops on the lam. Mark Cooper says a good number of them came from Los Angeles, where reform-minded politicians were cleaning up the town, and which, by 1938, was just a day's drive from Las Vegas.

"Now Los Angeles was a very, very corrupt place with lots of illegal gambling and these kind of do-gooders came into power, around the time of the Depression," says Cooper, "and they drove the gamblers out. And they had no place to go. And it was really Los Angeles gamblers who came to Las Vegas."

"They gravitated to the city, because they had the expertise," says Eugene Moehring, a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "They knew more than many of the local yokels who were running the small casinos of how to make customers happy, how to give comps, when to do it. And they brought a real expertise in casino management to Las Vegas."

One of the more infamous underworld figures to come to Las Vegas was a dapper and often volatile mobster named Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.

"I have found the answer to the dreams of America," says actor Warren Beatty as he portrayed Siegal in the 1991 film Bugsy. "Look, what do people always fantasize about? Sex, romance, money, adventure! I'm building a monument to all of them."

"What are talking about here, a whorehouse?" asks a cohort.

"No," says Siegal. "I'm talking about a hotel, I'm talking about Las Vegas, Nevada. A place where gambling is allowed, where everything is allowed. The whole territory is wide open."

"I think what Ben is saying," says another cohort, "it's a good place to trap people in and take their money … Is that what you're getting at here, Benny?"

Bugsy Siegel knew that after World War II, Americans were looking for a good time. He began to sink mob money into a handful of gambling halls before finally buying the El Cortez Hotel. The official owner was a front man. Behind him was a roster of investors that read like a "who's who" of organized crime. These men got their share of profits from cash secretly taken out of the casinos; earnings known as "the skim."

"There's no taxes on a skim, and there's no book-keeping on a skim," explains Cooper. "It is your up-front money. When the mob controlled one of these casinos, they had their operatives who would effectively supervise what's called the "hard count room," which is where you count up the money. And you knew that if Bob or Joe or whoever it was, the guy who would come in, literally with a sack or a box and pick up some money and put it in a box and walk out the door, well nobody saw anything.

Benny Siegel would soon invest in a new Las Vegas development, one he promised would be, as he said, the "goddamn biggest, fanciest gaming casino and hotel you bastards ever seen your whole lives." He would call it, "The Flamingo."

"Before Benny Siegel opened the Flamingo, the look of casinos in Las Vegas were all cowboy casinos," says Nick Pileggi, an author of a book and screenplay about mobsters in Las Vegas. "They were western. There was sawdust on the floor. Benny Siegel comes in. He creates an urban Miami Beach hotel in the middle of the desert. Suddenly, when you walk into a casino, you're not met by a guy with a cowboy hat and a six shooter and cowboy chaps. No, you're met by a guy in a tuxedo. You're met by a guy who looks like Dean Martin."

With its swank atmosphere, wall-to-wall carpeting and new-fangled air-conditioning system, The Flamingo became a hot, new, cool spot for the Hollywood crowd. But by the time construction was completed in 1947, Siegel had overspent his budget by $4.5 million. The syndicate's mood soured. A few months later, Siegel was shot dead. By then, the word on Las Vegas was out. Crooks and conmen from all over the country decamped to the desert.

"When these guys came here, it was like a morality or ethical car wash," says Pileggi. "You came here and you were cleansed of your sins. You were now legitimate and legal. I did not care what you did, you got a wash."

"They came out here, and the shackles came off," says Brian Greenspun, editor of the Las Vegas Sun. "They could do in the sunshine what they could only do in the shade of where they came from. It was legal. And they said to themselves, I know they said it, 'This is a place to make our home, this is a place to raise our families.'"

As one resident put it, Las Vegas was now home to, "More socially prominent hoodlums per square-foot than any other community in the world."

Continue to part 2

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