Friday, July 24, 2015

An Ode to the 1990s' Playful Vegas--and a Call for Its Revival



Earlier today, I was reminiscing about my childhood, and decided to Google search for the Oz Casino.  This was a reference to the MGM Grand, as it existed for a brief window of time.  It's a search I might well have not have made, as when I had tried such nostalgia trips online years earlier, I discovered to my dismay that not only had a piece of my childhood died, but many were dancing derisively on its grave.  Yet this time, I happened on a unique article by David G. Schwartz, which for once in Vegas-watching history, put a more positive spin on this receding memory of a bold time when Las Vegas was more playful and imaginative than ever.

If people don't know what I'm talking about, then chances are they weren't born in the Mojave Desert like I was.  That colored how I saw the world for at least half a decade, and I frequently get nostalgic for it.  My hometown of Barstow, California, might not even be recognized by laypersons if not for its getting mentioned in the classic song, "Get Your Kicks On Route 66"--which is about places off the beaten path, anyway--but it's important enough to me that even my current Twitter handle mentions it.  I like Barstow, I like the Southwestern US in general, and hence, I like Las Vegas; have since I was a baby.  Sadly, Las Vegas obeys different rules than much of the Southwest, which makes liking the place a bit more bittersweet--While a lot of settlements in that quadrant of the country have become intriguing Radiator Springs-style time capsules perfect for nostalgic people, holding onto old buildings, old businesses, and old infrastructure; the rat-race of more space-competitive terrains like the coast having passed them by, Las Vegas is relatively desirable oasis (in fact, its name means "The Meadows", and refers to the fact that natural springs drove settlers to it by default) very much caught up in the search of the all-mighty dollar.  Granted; that's a huge part of the city's identity, but it also makes it revamp that identity so frequently that it's not a good idea to get too attached to what it is at any given period of time.

I first visited Las Vegas as a baby, when my parents drove out there specifically to use McCarran International Airport.  We were flying out to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so my father could visit his mother, and thus, though it wasn't the last major city I saw that trip, it really was the first major city I had seen in my whole life.  Not too long prior, I hadn't seen anything but the dark interior of a womb; to be bathed in the rainbow glow of so many lights so soon after was a treat most children don't get; almost like learning to run and leap shortly after learning to walk.

The next time I remember going to Las Vegas also involved my father's mother--who, sadly, passed away earlier this year--but that time, she came there.  The 1990s had begun, and that meant Las Vegas was in the midst of its notable (but usually deemed failed) experiment to branch out into being a family-friendly destination.  The ironies of doing this with such an aggressively libertine city may have been a joke that wrote itself to people looking in with more age, travel, and historical knowledge under their belt, but I didn't care; as a little kid growing up in the otherwise backwater Mojave, Las Vegas wasn't "Sin City"; it was "The City".  It was where we all went to do things you couldn't do in the surrounding towns and countryside, and it totally delivered in that regard.
 I don't believe that we stayed at the MGM Grand, but we went there, and I loved what they'd done with the place.  We entered either through the mouth of a lion statue or glass doors marked "Oz", to discover what was essentially a self-contained city modeled after just that fantasy realm, with poppy carpets, a yellow brick road, the Emerald City, and animatronic replicas of all the famed Oz characters.

In case the above text didn't convey the feeling, for many intents and purposes I was Dorothy; coming from a monochrome wasteland and entering a flamboyant land where anything seemed possible.  The resort continued to deliver on that feeling as we made our way to its enclosed adventure theme park, themed after a combination of the Southwestern US states and MGM movies.  Here again, maybe all seems pointless to people with more options available; people who lived in more desirable, naturally verdant coastal areas and could drive over to a Disney park, but for me, it was the theme park.  It was a treat.
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While my family visited Las Vegas many more times since then, we never quite managed to go to the MGM Grand again.  It was something I always wanted to do, so one day, at a time when I was still young enough to live with my parents, but old enough that they could enlist my aid to help plan trips, I decided to consider revisiting that illustrious icon of my childhood, and found when I searched online, to my horror, that my city was gone.  The big lion head through which people once entered had been removed so as not to offend the superstitious sensibilities of Chinese tourists, the Oz casino had been converted into a less unique casino, the theme park demolished to enable the construction of luxury condos; the bold plan to make Las Vegas family-friendly had apparently failed, and a newly cynical drive to focus on the bottom-line of hedonistic, but not necessarily playful, adults had chipped away at the cultural artifacts of that era ever since.  We still went, and I still like Las Vegas, but it's the old (once new) Las Vegas that I fell in love with.

That sentiment probably applies to more people from more eras than just myself and my own.  The most recent time we went to Las Vegas, we took my aunt, and she was disappointed that the look of the Strip had changed.  It's still a bright, colorful place, of course, but as technology had marched on since her era, that meant the sources of the glow had changed.  At one time, the Strip was characterized by the attempts of bold modern artists to push neon tubing and creatively arranged bulbs to aesthetic heights unequaled anywhere else, but these days, LED TV screens stand in bold defiance to any competing lighting still present.  From a crassly technological standard, this all makes sense; LED lights are more energy-efficient, and screens with thousands of pixels can easily portray a wider range of images than more cumbersome large lights with set colors.  However, nobody needs to go to Las Vegas to see TV screens, and I doubt anyone's mind immediately jumps to "Las Vegas" when they hear "TV screens"; the way they might easily jump when hearing "neon lights"--and for how much longer will even that be so?  Indeed, when at the tail end of that trip, we all visited the aptly named "Neon Boneyard" museum, I was shocked by the amount of discarded signs there from casinos I didn't even realize had been demolished, and had seen as iconic to the look of the city.  Las Vegas contains replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Great Pyramid (and unlike the original, it retains the glimmering tip that was there initially, but had long since eroded or torn off), the Dogal Palace in Venice, and more, but I now fear that it has nothing that functions the way the originals do; as monumental, quintessential icons of their cities that will never be deliberately demolished and, should they unintentionally be destroyed, would likely be rebuilt.  Whatever your own personal Vegas is, it's probably not safe from the sands of time.

That metaphor is apt, because alas, while Las Vegas may mean the meadows, the construction of Hoover dam may have brought in human capital, water and electricity, and post-modern consumer economics may have completed the equation, the meadows only extend so far.  It's in a mostly arid desert, the amount of usable land is in short supply, the quintessential boom town can only boom so much.  This means that new business ventures can't simply grab a new plot of land and add another patch to the colorful quilt; they are competing with each other for limited real estate and resources, profits must be maximized in order to maintain a city whose natural capital couldn't do the job alone, and that means those once quintessential landmarks that fall behind get sacrificed to facilitate hopefully more lucrative ones.  As it pertains to my experiences, that meant the elimination of more diversified entertainment as casino moguls concluded that slots were king.

Yet are they really?  It may be obvious to many people why family entertainment never really took off in Las Vegas; why should people have gone there for that when they could find better versions well-established in more conventional vacation destinations, down more climatically-pleasant coastal highways?  However, even though Las Vegas has been known as a gambling mecca for over half a century now, its ability to be so has always depended upon the lack of gambling anywhere else nearby--a lack that no longer exists.  By my new home in San Diego county, Indian casinos on our local reservations are advertised all over, a few casinos have even opened in non-reservation places like Compton, and nobody here on the coast needs to take a grueling drive through the desert to get to them.  That may be why, as the economy got bad late last decade, with, among other things, terribly high gas prices, Las Vegas fell extra hard.  It is recovering, but it's not clear if it can keep doing so.  Las Vegas showed the rest of the world just how lucrative gambling could be, but that might be its undoing.

So if the Las Vegas built on gambling is ultimately as finite as that built on family fun, then what can be done to save the city?  My idea is to focus back in on tropes that can be considered more quintessential and eternal, and I will return to clarify at a later time.

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