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Michael Ian Borer,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Sociologists don’t give much credence to the idea of fate. It’s too metaphysical and too hard to quantify. So I won’t use the term fate to describe the ASA Annual Meetings’ move from to Chicago to Las Vegas. Instead, I’ll say it’s fortuitous. The good fortune of the move lies in the fact that about 5,000 sociologists will come to Las Vegas, a city whose pop culture-fueled reputation precedes many persons’ visits. The meetings will give attendees a chance to witness a city that might be more relevant for understanding today’s most prominent social issues than Chicago.
When the famed early Chicago School ethnographers and ecologists were studying their city, presenting it as a barometer for investigating the trials and tribulations of American urbanism and urbanization, Chicago had experienced a tremendous population growth. Chicago’s population skyrocketed from about 500,000 in 1880 to about 2 million in 1910. Las Vegas experienced a similar recent excessive growth spurt, also spanning a mere 30 years. The population in Clark County (comprised of Las Vegas proper and the surrounding areas in the Valley including the iconic Strip as well as the City of Henderson) grew from a little less than 500,000 in 1980 to about 2 million in 2010.
Approaching Chicago after its boom in order to investigate the “moral as well as physical organization” of the city, Robert Park and his astute colleagues created a platform on which urban sociology, specifically, and sociology, more generally, could stand and flourish (Park and Burgess 1925). In fact, Park, et al., justified sociology as an important and necessary science of human endeavors. It is somewhat ironic, then, that we—members of the Sociology Department at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas—find ourselves amidst a robust social laboratory, but are forced to justify the importance and necessity of our discipline to those who make decisions about budgets cuts. And it is our hope that with the help of fellow sociologists, not only can our department survive and thrive, but so can our city. Las Vegas is to the hypermodern post-industrial metropolis what Chicago was to the modern industrial city.
I will not expound too much on the gory details of the lean economic and mean political times we live in that have affected us as much as they have affected many of you. Rather, I will present a picture of Las Vegas that is often glossed over by Hollywood, tourists, and fly-by-night critics. This is intended to help you navigate your surroundings while you are here, regardless of whether you divert from the scripted route from the airport to Caesars Palace.
Most of you will fly into Las Vegas. Regardless of the time of your arrival, you will immediately hear the beeps, blips, and rings of slot machines that will follow you like electronic gnats buzzing in your ear. When I moved here three years ago, I wondered how long it would take for those sounds to become blasé. The answer is three years.
If you leave the conference rooms, you will pass by “Roman” centurions, vestals, and statues (including Michelangelo’s David). Once past Cleopatra’s barge and outside, the options might seem endless, though the 110 degree heat during the day may deter some from venturing out. The climate in Las Vegas is extreme, but perhaps not as much as the haphazard pastiche of architectural styles and historical references. To the north, you’ll see Venice (gondolas and all) and to the south you’ll see Paris (via an Eiffel Tower that looks as if it juts through its casino floor). You are no longer in a sleepy, wild west, mining town nor are you in a space defined by Venturi’s “decorated shed” (1977). This is Las Vegas after the boom, filled with hybrid-amusement park megaresorts that attempt to provide dramaturgical sets and scripts for family vacations and adult debaucheries (Gottdiener, Collins, and Dickens 1999). Once you see the mobile billboards (trucks meant for advertising rather than transportation) plastered with scantily clad women or hear the “thump” from the predominantly Latino men seeking tourists’ attention to hand out laminated business cards with girls and phone numbers on them, you’ll quickly realize which demographic matters most: young—and not-so-young—men drunk on booze and privilege.
The sensorial stimuli on the Strip can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor. I often wonder what Simmel would make of this type of overstimulation; perhaps his central nervous system would explode. Visitors are thrust into a public realm where gawking is the norm. Individuals become both performers and audience members on the sidewalks of the Strip where spectacles abound. If you head southward from Caesars, you might catch a glimpse of the Bellagio fountains. The synchronized sprays are set to recorded music by the London Symphony Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, and Celine Dion, among others.
For those seeking some “high culture,” the Bellagio, an opulent Steve Wynn resort, provides some respite from the continual flow of kitsch. A 40,000 pound sculpture comprised of approximately 1,000 colored blown glass flowers by Dale Chihuly hangs above the hotel lobby. Nearby is the intricately designed garden that you can walk through on your way to the Gallery of Fine Art.
Unlike most cities, the arts and other cultural amenities have been primarily relegated to the private sector. A lack of funding for Las Vegas and Clark County has pushed the typical civic responsibilities of most municipalities—roads, education, and the arts—into the hands of entrepreneurial business leaders and out of range of control by the general public. The prevailing idea that locals, rather than tourists, are strangers in this city has led to public policies, including a regressive tax structure, that threaten the quality of life of those who call Las Vegas home.
If you can get away from the Strip, in any direction, you will quickly enter a social experiment buttressed by neon on one side and towering mountain ranges on the other. Getting away is bit difficult. Despite the efforts of the civic-minded and environmentally aware, Las Vegas does not have a light rail system that goes beyond the Strip. Much of Las Vegas is not bike-friendly; even in places where there are bike lanes they either tend to begin and end sporadically or are treated like turn lanes by drivers. If you can find a way out, you can see the mid-modern homes in the Huntridge neighborhoods on the east or the Scotch 80s on the west. into the west is Summerlin, the largest master-planned community in the United States.
Wandering in and out of the often over-designed neighborhoods, two questions might come to mind: Is this Phoenix? And, where are the people who live in these houses? These seemingly simple questions reveal some of the important complex social problems that face residents of Las Vegas. While not Phoenix, developers seem to have thought it might be, but without light rail and professional sports teams. As for the people, well, a lot of those houses are empty. The Entertainment Capital of the World is now also the Foreclosure Capital. With too much attention given to the Strip and not enough on planning, a lack of oversight led to vast urban/suburban sprawl and overdevelopment during the boom years. Not far from the simulated ruins of Egypt at the Luxor, exists the “newly built ruins” that surround it.
The social laboratory that is Las Vegas has afforded sociologists a wealth of opportunities to study some of the most pressing social and cultural issues: environmental sustainability, gambling, sex work, community-building, interaction, aging, immigration, race and ethnic relations, mental and physical health, crime, consumerism, etc. While these issues have local relevance, they are also common subjects that sociologists investigate within and outside of most cities. As such, it’s important to remember that what happens in Vegas . . . happens elsewhere.
Gottdeiner, M., C. Collins, and D. Dickens. 1999. Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Park, R. and E. Burgess. 1925. The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Venturi, R., D. Scott Brown, and S. Izenour. 1977. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Back to Top of Page