Depending on how you look at it, Las Vegas was either the creation of Mormons or the mob, and the town they willed out of the Nevada desert was either the city of God or the temple of mammon. Either way, the plain facts are these: In the mid-1800s, Mormons traipsed through this area, establishing a route from Utah to California and requiring a pit stop in between. With their modest adobe fort, they constructed the first permanent settlement in this once tree-lined oasis and started unsuccessfully proselytizing to the nomadic Native Americans. Voilá , Sin City -- or some version thereof.
In fact, neither the Mormons nor the mobsters precisely founded Vegas. What the Mormons did establish is the Vegas experience: Their luck soon failed and they moved on (before returning later to cash in). What the mob did is cement its destiny, trading cowboy casinos, wagon-wheel chandeliers and Native American décor for swanky carpets, swimming pools and tuxedos -- the first residents to trade history for glitz. "They brought in architects and designers [to evoke] other resort cities," says Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. They also cashed in celebrity connections to offer world-class entertainment, an added flash the city needed to attract class and money -- people who "didn't come to Vegas to stay in a Strip hotel and confuse it with a flophouse."
From WWII on, Vegas became a nonstop juggernaut. Despite the hype, even during its has-been phase in the late '70s and early '80s, when the rest of the country turned its nose up at the Fat Elvis the city had become, Vegas kept churning out huge profits. And thanks to Nevada's libertarian streak (the state collects no income tax), it's the nickel slots that fund education and law enforcement. That's Vegas, mixing high and low purposes so naturally, it just seems natural.
Credit (or blame) Steve Wynn for pushing the city into the era de Cirque du Soleil. As gambling -- sorry, gaming -- became increasingly legal around the country, "Wynn understood Vegas had to have attractions," Green says. The entrepreneur essentially single-handedly reinvigorated Vegas in 1989 with the Mirage, a grandiose palace that unleashed a regularly scheduled volcano, the first Cirque du Soleil Vegas show and a shark tank. Something for everyone, all of it spectacular. It also cost $630 million to construct (that's jumped to $1 billion for newer comers) and needed to clear at least $1 million a day to cover operating costs. The ante thusly raised, there's no time to quibble over how high or low your brow might be. Now in the Caesars Palace Forum, Christian Lacroix sits near a Stage Deli, while it costs $10,000 to spend the night atop the great green glowing MGM Grand, an opulence that overlooks the grungy Hooters parking lot. C'est Las Vegas.
Such Skylofts as these are reserved for high rollers, but beginning in the mid-'90s, gambling profits slipped to below 50% of the total money-grubbing. These days, it's shopping, eating, drinking, sleeping and entertaining that rakes in the biggest bucks. "Everything's changed in the last 10 years," says Darcy Nielson, a lifelong resident and general manager of the Cristophe Salon. "It's a massive change not just in who Vegas caters to. The dynamics of what Vegas was built on have shifted." Indeed, those smoky, disorienting casinos can seem almost an afterthought these days.
Vegas is revamping itself, yet again, this time into a luxurious residential mecca (a record $33 million an acre for land changed hands on the Strip this year -- real estate agents heart Vegas) and the ultimate service economy. Rationalization has always served as the local currency, but now the city's commodified experience has morphed into an insanely lucrative, heavily unionized, postindustrial Detroit. Or, a more benevolent Kuala Lumpur: A giant mall mothership composed of hundreds of smaller satellite malls.
About the only thing Vegas has failed at is making the city a family destination, which was the big push in the '90s. Says Nielson: "People want an adult town." Well, they've got it, in both its traditional permutations: high (expensive, often tasteful) and low (relatively cheap, often entertainingly tasteless). Whether you're on the glitzy Strip or Fremont Street, with its old-school patina of seediness, you will find something to engage your imagination.
For that reason alone, we had to invent it. From the beginning, Vegas was a very American sort of oasis, a judgment-free zone . . . and open to all comers.