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Memo From Las Vegas: What’s the Matter with Casino Capitalism?

By Sharon Zukin

Taking a position on Las Vegas is like taking an option on a company’s stock: if you like the place, you’re betting that free markets, human power over nature and boundless shopping opportunities will continue to rule the world.  If you don’t like it, you’re a killjoy…or a sociologist.

I made my first trip to Las Vegas in early November when the mood in America was sour.  Political candidates’ billboards shouted “Not the Incumbent!” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was locked in a nasty battle for re-election against a Tea Party candidate, Sharron Angle.  I was prepared to show East Coast tolerance toward libertarians and to be agnostic about the casinos’ glitz and raunch, but I wasn’t prepared for the gigantic scale of the hotels, the almost total absence of a place to stroll along the Strip and the sense that there was no city—no urban “there”–there.

I had expected to find dark romance.  What I found was mega-hotels with 3,000 to 4,000 rooms dominating the skyline, multi-story parking garages for hotel guests and staff taking up a large portion of the “backstage” land and a growing reliance on shopping and dining to compensate for declining gaming revenues.

It was all tawdrier than I had imagined.  I came looking for James Bond but found suburbia.

Locals told me that when the Forum Shops at the Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino opened in 1992, it was the first high-end shopping center on the Strip and attracted residents as well as tourists.  It offers the same luxury brands as any upscale shopping mall, from Gucci and Tumi to 7 for All Mankind and my own New York favorite Scoop (eek!).  Until now it hasn’t had much competition, but since the opening of City Center down the Strip in 2009 the Forum looks even less exclusive.

In contrast to the weird appropriations from imagined landscapes that other newish hotels feature—the imagined Venice of the Bellagio, underscaled Eiffel Tower of the Paris Las Vegas and cockeyed iconic structures of New York New York—City Center offers cutting-edge design by some of the best contemporary architects, from Daniel Libeskind and Rafael Viῆoly to Kohn Pedersen Fox.  Libeskind’s jagged edges are the “point man” for the project as a whole, fronting the Strip and startling anyone who approaches City Center from the kitsch on either side.

More than a work of public art, though, City Center is a private-sector New Deal for Nevadans.  Promoted as a “center of gravity” for a city that has none, this giant construction project contains two luxury hotels (one without a casino, how exclusive is that?), office towers and shopping mall; it cost about $12 billion to build.  When it ran over budget and risked being shut down, Senator Reid stepped in to defend it, saving, it is said, 22,000 jobs.  Typical for all such projects, City Center benefits from large tax abatements from the state.

Though the critic Paul Goldberger has praised the quality of most of City Center’s buildings and its grand interior spaces, domesticating Libeskind’s wild imagination in a shopping center emphasizes how Las Vegas tends to make everything into an accessory of capital accumulation.  More than New York or London or Paris, Vegas is a city shaped by and for economic speculation.  Gambling is its way of life: the joints along the Strip make up 70 per cent of southern Nevada’s economy, a state official told me.  Even if gambling and tourism count for less, the place depends heavily on transients spending money.

No wonder, then, that the unemployment and foreclosure capital of America is peering into the crystal ball to see how it might market itself in the present recession.  Luxury is out of style in Middle America and California—which sends the largest weekend crowd to the casinos—is hurting.

Dream worlds are a threatened species.  Before I visited Las Vegas, MGM Resorts (formerly known as MGM Mirage), the Strip’s biggest casino operator and the owner of City Center, was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.  After I returned home, the other MGM, the movie studio, which was connected with the casino when both were owned by the investor Kirk Kerkorian, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Though the hotel and gambling corporation has no relation with the movie studio, it’s hard not to draw a lesson.  Casino capitalism no longer offers an escape from making things and making jobs.

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.

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