By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief
This past weekend featured my first-ever trip to the city that epitomizes America’s flagship traits of capitalism and consumption: Las Vegas, Nevada. After crossing the Hoover Dam, I was met with a somewhat anticlimactic suburbia that made me question whether or not I had even left Glendale. Rows upon rows of sand-colored, identical houses greeted me, and I couldn’t help but imagine seeing Theo and Boris on every corner. With my only knowledge of Vegas coming from books I’d read over the years (which don’t paint Vegas in the most flattering light, might I add), I was utterly unprepared for what was lying in wait for me around the corner.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m talking about the Las Vegas Strip. Bada boom, bada bing- there it was, in all its glory. I felt like a cartoon character with stars dancing in its eyes. I’ve lived in big, exciting cities in the past—like Boston, Madrid, and New York—but this was something different. I looked around me and saw not only flashing lights and smiling buxom blondes from every angle, but also the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and the Colosseum. I felt like I was on another planet or in a dream world.
While in Vegas over the weekend, I visited New York City, Paris, Rome, Venice, Hollywood, and more. I had a variety of thoughts and reactions to each new attraction, bigger and better than the last, that I visited. But the one thought continuously running through my mind was this: How in the world does this place exist, and how did it come to be? And what better reason to do a little digging than for a Das Tor article?
Believe it or not, Las Vegas had relatively innocuous beginnings. It was founded in 1905 and was originally a small desert railroad town, featuring a few hotels and saloons that served the construction workers that built the Hoover Dam. In 1931, after the crash of the stock market, Nevada state realized the potential profitability of gambling and legalized gambling at the local level. Las Vegas’ reputation as a place where you could legally indulge your vices, get a quickie divorce, and become rich all in one weekend drew visitors at a rapid pace, causing an economic and population boom in the city and signing the death warrant on smaller, illegal gambling towns like Galveston, TX and Hot Springs, AR. Vegas’ bright lights of temptation, powered by electricity from the Hoover Dam, virtually shouted at you to enter in and indulge your vices, earning Vegas the nickname “Glitter Gulch.”
Tourists and gamblers weren’t the only people who were drawn to Vegas. Recognizing the wealth held by the casinos and hotels, organized crime leaders, mob bosses, and gangsters came to stake their claim on the golden goose. At first, the Mafia played more of a background role, leaving native Las Vegas families (who fought hard against the crime bosses and refused to cede their ground) to run and operate the hotels and casinos. This changed after the war with the help of an unlikely ally: the Mormon church. In 1946, Jewish mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky built the Flamingo, a Las Vegas Strip resort that’s still popular today, retaining a smell of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume that I imagine has permeated the building since its creation. Siegel and Lansky, along with other mobsters, used Mormon-owned banks and partnered with Mormon elders to give their operations cover and legitimacy, ushering in the reign of organized crime lords in Vegas. These crime and drug money-funded hotels and casinos became the gambling capital of the United States, if not the world.
Soon enough, though, gambling became only one of Las Vegas’ attractions. In the 1950s, Hollywood’s most popular stars began visiting and performing in Vegas (think Frank Sinatra, Liberace, Dean Martin, Carol Channing, etc.). Vegas started to become a blur of long nights spent drinking, watching performers, eating at fabulously lavish buffets, visiting brothels and strip clubs, and, of course, gambling. Nothing could kill the party—not even the nearby nuclear tests conducted by the government, which were touted as a tourist attraction by Vegas, featuring the chance to sip “Atomic Cocktails” from Sky Rooms that offered views of the mushroom clouds.
1966 brought Howard Hughes, an eccentric billionaire, and his corporate money to Vegas, effectively ending the reign of mobsters and organized crime lords. Hughes managed to change a Nevada law that forbade corporations from buying Vegas hotels and casinos. He subsequently bought 17 resorts, forcing the Mafia out. Organized crime mobsters gradually faded out of the Las Vegas scene, and in the 1980s the city turned a new page, resulting in the ushering in of the megaresort era. Giant, opulent resorts and casinos sprang up all over the Las Vegas Strip (which, incidentally, is not actually a part of the city of Las Vegas—it’s a part of an unincorporated township called Paradise, for legal and tax reasons), laying the foundation for the Las Vegas that we know today.
It’s a fascinating history, to be sure: I’ve never been anywhere else like it. This is partially due to the gambling laws throughout the United States. Under federal law, gambling is legal, and states have the freedom to either regulate or prohibit gambling within state lines. Most states (in fact, all states except for Nevada and Louisiana) do not allow statewide casino gambling, though they do allow state-run lotteries. And most exceptions to casino gambling are limited to small geographic areas, such as Atlantic City, NJ. Prostitution is also legal in some counties in Nevada (Nevada is the only state with legal prostitution), though Clark Country (where Las Vegas is located) is not one of them. Not that the illegality of prostitution in Vegas has stopped anyone, though: customers spend approximately 66 times more money on illegal prostitution than in regulated brothels, with most of this illegal prostitution taking place in Reno and Vegas.
And while here in America we like to pride ourselves on our traditional values and upstanding morals, you can’t deny that vices sell. Last year, 42,312,216 people visited Las Vegas, bringing in an astounding $9.6 billion in gaming revenue, with $6 billion coming from the Strip alone. In 2013, Vegas boasted over 169,000 hotel rooms for you to choose from (New York City, for comparison, had 106,000 total hotel rooms in 2013). This isn’t surprising given that 14 of the world’s 25 largest hotels by room count are located on the Strip.
If you think that’s impressive, just wait until I tell you about Macao. Macao is an autonomous territory in China and is the most densely populated region in the world, with 650,900 people living in an area of just 11.8 square miles. Due to its proximity to China, gambling and tourism in Macao has skyrocketed, allowing Macao to surpass Vegas as the world’s largest gambling center in 2006 in terms of total gambling revenue. In 2006, Macao brought in a total of $6.95 billion, beating out Las Vegas’ $6.5 billion. While Macao boasts fewer visitors than Vegas (31 million vs. 42 million last year), Macao’s gamblers are much more serious, with Macao gambling tables raking in seven times more money than Vegas tables. And despite the recent slowdown in the Chinese economy, the business of vices in Macao is still growing at an unprecedented rate, with experts forecasting a 2017 gaming revenue of $25 billion or more.