In the early 1980s, Las Vegas was on a losing streak. Following two tragic hotel fires, and a prolonged construction slump, it looked like the city's spectacular rise had hit the limit. But by the end of the decade, Vegas was back on its game.
There may be no person more responsible for the current chapter in Las Vegas history than casino resort developer Steve Wynn.
On November 26, 1996, the 700-room Sands Hotel, once the heart of Vegas cool, was laced with dynamite and blown up.
Out of the rubble rose a 6,000-room, Venetian-themed resort. Between 1989 and 2005, many of Las Vegas' other landmark hotels - the Dunes and Desert Inn, the Hacienda - were leveled, making way for what would come to be known as "the new Las Vegas."
The transformation of the Las Vegas skyline began in 1989, with Steve Wynn's Mirage. People once mocked Wynn's ambition to open a world class resort, but Wynn promised the Mirage would become the Sin City-equivalent of Disneyland.
Steve Wynn was right. Within weeks of its opening, the Mirage surpassed Hoover Dam as Nevada's leading tourist attraction. The Mirage was the largest resort casino in the world, but it wasn't just the size of Wynn's Mirage that captured attention. It was the resort's exuberant celebration of spectacle. A 20,000-gallon marine tank, a tropical rainforest, and a volcano five-stories high that spews steam and flames.
"Steve came and realized that if you build it, and you build it better, and you create a little demand where maybe there wasn't demand, everyone will want to get into it and everyone will pay more to enjoy it," says Las Vegas newspaper editor Brian Greenspun.
The Mirage made Las Vegas new again, and it did so just in time. Fierce competition for gambling dollars erupted across America. By 1994, there were lotteries in 37 states and legal casinos in 23. At decade's end, the most profitable casinos were no longer found on the Las Vegas Strip, but on Indian reservations all around the country. To survive as a tourist destination, Las Vegas had to up the ante.
"Is your decision to blow up the Dunes, is it part of a larger effort to do away with the old Las Vegas and reshape Vegas as something else?" the Today Show's Bryant Gumble asked Steve Wynn.
"It's part of Las Vegas doing what everybody else in the entertainment business is doing in the world today," replied Wynn, "and that is keeping up with the changing tastes of the public. Everybody has become more and more highly expectant, and things that would have gotten a wow or a jazzed ten years ago draw a yawn today."
In the 1990s, new casino hotel-attractions seemed to materialize overnight: the pyramid shaped Luxor, the pirate-themed Treasure Island and the Venetian Hotel with its canals and singing gondoliers.
By 2001, Las Vegas had eclipsed the holy city of Mecca as the most visited place on earth. All those tourist dollars helped set off a wave of housing construction as people moved to the city to find work. State Senator Dina Titus says Las Vegas must now learn how to feed the booming tourist industry, while reigning in suburban sprawl.
"Growth is good for many reasons," says Titus. "It brings a lot of jobs, it brings diversity, it brings excitement, it brings money, but there are also downsides to that of course. You know, the tail begins to wag the dog. And the number of people outweigh the infrastructure that serves them. And so you get more traffic, you get more crime, you get bad air."
"When we first moved here, you could ride out my back door and ride 500 miles north and only come across two paved roads," says Steve Werk who has lived in Las Vegas since 1977. He moved here to produce a rodeo show for television. "It used to feel pretty wide open, you knew your neighbors, everybody talked to each other. … There was only 20 families in a five-mile area. It was a rural way of life. We're trying to maintain that in this little block here. But they're slowly chipping away at it."
The problem, says Werk, is that those in charge of city planning have hardly done any.
"They could've had some kind of planned growth and it would have been a good thing," says Werk, "but when you run out of water and when you run out of usable land and you start crowding people together just to make an extra buck instead of creating a type of life that people want, then it becomes entirely different."
Growth means more water consumption, more pollution, more concrete and asphalt. But growth also means more things not automatically associated with Las Vegas, like more schools.
"Usually, if I'm on an airplane and somebody asks me what I do and I say I'm a principal in Las Vegas, they say, 'There are no schools in Las Vegas.' And I say, 'Well, we're the fifth largest school district in the U.S.,'" says Mary Ann Ward, principal of the Dean Petersen Elementary School. "We're not able to open schools fast enough to handle the number of kids coming into the city. Last year there were 12, this year ten to 11, next year there may be up to 18 new schools."
There is a lot of student turnover at Petersen Elementary. Some children have attended four different schools in the same year, making it hard to offer them consistent instruction. Darla Richards teaches at Petersen Elementary. She says that living in a city that's throwing one non-stop party can also take its toll.
"I think a huge impact that a 24-hour city has on students is that when they go home from school, nobody's there, because they're working," says Richards. "They're busy with other responsibilities, so students often don't spend much time doing homework."
Still, parents like Colette and Kenny Diamond raise children who thrive, just like any other place in America. Today, their daughter Chanel is trying out the training wheels on her bike.
"If somebody would've ever said that our daughter would go to Las Vegas schools or that on her birth certificate would say Las Vegas. You never think that, because you think, 'Sin City,'" says Colette Diamond who got her start in Las Vegas as a cocktail waitress. "When we first decided to get off the road and live in Las Vegas, we asked how can we raise out little girl in Las Vegas. He said, 'I have a vision of us making it here. We can be in it, but not of it.'"
Some people struggle to capture that vision. Many Las Vegas residents seldom go to the Strip. But increasingly, the Strip is coming to them, as casinos rise up in local neighborhoods, and video gambling machines multiply in gas stations, convenience stores, even laundromats. For some people, this is a big problem.
"I gamble on the way to work and after work. On my way to work, if I won some money, I wouldn't go to work," says Randy, who has spent about 20 years working construction in Las Vegas. As he threads through city traffic, he describes a downward spiral. "Then I'd go home to my girlfriend and tell her that I was working overtime or that my car broke down. I was living quite a lie, you know."
Randy sought help from psychologist Ron Hunter of the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas. Hunter leads support groups for people addicted to gambling.
"When I was a young man growing up here, the cultural mindset was basically, 'If you live in Las Vegas, why would you gamble? How silly is that? That's for tourists, and the house has the edge. What kind of moron would want to go to a casino and cash their paycheck?' But now in modern Las Vegas culture that is seen as very appropriate," says Hunter.
He thinks Randy is part of a new generation of compulsive gamblers. "When I opened this program in '86, … I had a bunch of cigar-smoking, diamond-ring wearing, 100-dollar bill throwing characters from a play. I don't see those guys much anymore. What I see is machine players. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of women that are soliciting treatment, and the overwhelming game of choice for problem gamblers is video-based."
According to Hunter, the women and men addicted to video gambling machines aren't exactly having fun.
"They don't go to Disneyland, they go to anesthesia-land," says Hunter, "because some folks are able to disassociate at such a level when they are playing that the world goes away, they'll gamble through a fire, not because they have a death wish, but because they don't know they are in a room full of smoke."
Experts say gambling is like alcohol. Most people can enjoy it in moderation, but for a small percentage of people, it takes over their lives.
"I got to the point where I was gambling my whole check," says Randy. "Eventually, I ran out of people I could borrow money from. I didn't want my fiancé to leave me, so I decided to rob a bank. I went in and handed the teller a note. She started handing me money. When I ran out of there, I remember saying, 'Excuse me,' to somebody walking out the door. It doesn't hurt to be a nice bank robber."
After the robbery, Randy was arrested. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Randy says the sentence he serves in jail will be better than the one he served as a compulsive gambler.
Critics say the state of Nevada and the Las Vegas gambling industry have spent far too little to help problem gamblers like Randy. This underscores the challenge for the new Las Vegas. How much will the city cater to the millions of tourists who come here every year, and how much will it try to improve life for all the people who now call Las Vegas home?
"What Las Vegas needs or doesn't need as a city depends on whether you live here or not," says journalist Marc Cooper. "If you don't live here, then you don't need much more than the Las Vegas strip, do you? You could literally pare away the rest of Las Vegas and 95 percent of the tourists wouldn't care and wouldn't notice. Now the other 1.5 million people who live here, that's a different story."
Some people call Las Vegas the ultimate American city, a place that invented itself out of nowhere and constantly remakes itself in a frank and relentless quest for money. The city has obliterated social taboos and blown up architectural landmarks, all to stay competitive. In this way, some say Las Vegas best captures the American dream. But to others, the city represents the worst of American values.
It could be both.
"You know for me, the insane, brazen, wildness of the whole thing is always very exhilarating when I first get there," says architecture critic Paul Goldberger. "And then, because it is sort of superficial, and it is without real substance behind it, it wears thin very quickly. … It's kind of as if you were force-fed chocolate mousse - something like that. First taste is really good, … but then there comes a time when you actually want some nutrition."
"I think there will always be a part of the American psyche and soul that is very much Las Vegas," says journalist John L. Smith. "I think our country is headed more toward Las Vegas than away from it. But I think the people who run the town will always make sure that we're out ahead, banging the right drums and shaking the right tambourines to make this a wilder place than the nation as a whole."
Las Vegas - An Unconventional history was originally produced by Insignia Films for the PBS program American Experience.
For Insignia Films
Director/ Producer: Stephen Ives
Writer: Michelle Ferrari
Producer: Amanda Pollak
For American Experience
Series Producer: Sharon Grimberg
Executive Producer: Mark Samels
For American RadioWorks
Producers: Mary Beth Kirchner, Kate Ellis, Michael Montgomery and Stephen Smith
Host: Deborah Amos
Narrator: Michael Murphy
Music composer: Joel Goodman
Senior Producer: Sasha Aslanian
Project Manager: Misha Quill
Production Assistance: Ellen Guettler, Bryant Switzky and Elizabeth Tannen
Web Producer: Ochen Kaylan
Executive Editor: Stephen Smith
Executive Producer: Bill Buzenberg
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