Having just returned from an extended trip to Las Vegas, I felt compelled to collect my thoughts and observations of the place I called home for nearly 10 years…
Last August, after living in Las Vegas for almost a decade, I finally mustered up the strength to pack up all of my belongings and move away. I needed a change and it was time to sail on.
It has become common knowledge over the last two years that of all US cities, the economy of Las Vegas was hit hardest in 2009 & 2010. An article from the Business Insider stated, “By just about any measure, the economy of Nevada is a complete and total disaster.” (Read the full article here) Unemployment was at 12.4% at its peak. 1 in every 28 homes have been foreclosed upon. Business Analysts have been predicting that employment and the housing market will not fully recover for the next 10 years. But what caused all of this to happen? This is the question I have been exploring.
Upon returning, after months away, a strange realization came over me as I walked through the airport from my arrival gate to baggage claim. I no longer felt like I belonged there anymore. A rush of emotions came over me as I began thinking through all the memories and friends I left behind. I thought about how hard it was at the time, how much uncertainty I had and now how marvelous and stress free my life had become. Though I had planned to depart two years prior, opportunities at the time kept me settled. With the recent housing market crash and the collapse of employment for residents, Las Vegas sure took a turn for the worse. When I first moved there in 2002 entertainment was still at its peak. Though it was slowly coming to an end. The corporations decided it was more profitable to put in bars and ultra lounges in lieu of theaters and showrooms. In fact, a place that once employed so many magicians one day decided it was just no longer what the casino needed.
Over the last several years I was there I became very immersed with the arts scene and community of entertainers. Interestingly enough the more involved I became, the more I realized what a “cold” place the community of Las Vegas was. I felt like I had been stabbed in the back and betrayed by (so-called) friend after friend so many times that I learned to trust no one. I didn’t enjoy being around people because it seemed that everyone was spiteful and vindictive. And if you let your guard down for even a second, someone was ready to turn on you. I cannot help but wonder, what happened to the “community” of Las Vegas?
I have since heard stories from my father-in-law, who was born and raised in Las Vegas, of days when the mob ran casinos and treated everyone like family. “Everything was comped, you were a real guest in these people’s home and they wanted to make sure you were shown a good time,” he told me. Employees were treated like family members who were given such respect and loyalty that they, in turn, felt loyal to be part of this organization. They took pride in the work they did and they felt needed and more importantly supported. Above all, there was a great sense of community. Nowadays, everyone is replaceable. Long gone are the days, and attitudes, of loyalty toward others. Now someone can come in to a casino, willing to offer the same services for less money (undercutting you) and next thing you know you’re out.
When I come back to Vegas and talk to old friends I realize how closed minded I was on local issues; how detrimental the collapse of the local economy was on the morale of its citizens. Instead of locals in the community joining together to help one another out in need, they fended for themselves. Being a performer and especially privy to the goings on in the entertainment industry I saw first hand how cut-throat people could be. In most cities you generally find a sense of community and support for local events. In Las Vegas we see very little support for the local arts and theater. This makes it so very challenging for all those people who dreamed of getting to the big stage now with no where to perform. Many performers try to open their own shows – to make their dream come true. But these days, with little to no support from the hotels, people are lucky if they can keep their show running three months.
Things really took a turn for the worse when people started losing their jobs and then their homes. All over the country but especially in Vegas it made people so fearful of spending money. They felt as though they had nothing. And when people feel they have nothing they easily get depressed and lose motivation to move forward. In fact, they stagnate. Since our society places so much emphasis on money as a value exchange and more importantly a sense of worth, when people stop making money their sense of worth diminishes. What we see are two things: people either fall deeper and deeper into a rut or they begin sacrificing dignity for the sake of making some money. They take jobs solely for the pay without considering the effect it has. People find ways of “making it work” and living comfortably with some sort of stable income; as stable as it can be in the entertainment industry. Because Las Vegas’ economy is so heavily dependent on tourism, when people cut back on vacationing it affects every person out there.
My friend and I would often compare Las Vegas to Pleasure Island – the fictional land in The Adventures of Pinocchio where boys can act as they please without recrimination. For people visiting that’s great, you can come to Las Vegas, act however you want, do whatever you want, and then leave. But what about for the people who reside there? What does this do to them? Perhaps just as in Pinocchio, it reinforces all the sinister qualities in people. Here there is unlimited fun and freedom to indulge in whatever mischief you desire. The fictional Pleasure Island was designed as a morality tale where the young boys overindulged and made asses out of themselves. But I believe Pleasure Island actually exists and it is located in Las Vegas.
Consider the haughty phrase “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” This marketing slogan was created in the 90’s and in my mind, tarnished Las Vegas – not only by reinforcing bad behavior by tourists (encouraging people to indulge in anything they wanted with little to no consequence) but also by tainting the reputation of the local residents. It has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The impending demise of Las Vegas over several years time was the result of greed. Greed caused things to get too big too fast. With no building restrictions, anyone could build anywhere they wanted. With too much growth too quickly Vegas has become a carnival where no one wins. And when that greed trickles in to the local mentality, problems arise. The culture becomes a transient lifestyle. And because people working in the casinos, the only profitable industry, continue to get “screwed over” they stop caring about pleasing anyone. Most of all they cease taking pride in what they do.
When I talk to my friends that still live there, they seem to have mixed feelings. On one hand they have great memories of their time spent living and working in Las Vegas. On the other hand, they realize that so much of what they loved about it is now gone. Many of them that have lived there as long (or longer) than I did actually want to leave. Several people told me they were actually jealous that I was able to move away. “Jealous?” I would ask. Unfortunately, it seemed that they had become “trapped” in their lifestyle. There was a certain comfort level that they were not willing to give up in order to move away. Since so many of the nightlife jobs are only available in a place like Las Vegas they just don’t know that they could make a comfortable living if they left. This, to me, is the saddest part of all. To realize that people feel trapped in where they live; they want to leave but feel like they can’t. Of course we can feel trapped anywhere when we have been in one place too long. Sometimes we need to bring about a big change in our lives in order to see new potential. This is how we grow and evolve.