Travel writer David Constable reports back from the seedy gambling hot spot and reflects on the future of America’s famous Sin City
Text and photography David Constable
The problem with travel is that it encourages tourism. Yes, yes, tourism has its perks and advantages, but binary is the disadvantage: You! You ruin travel; with your wide-eyed curiosity and holiday snaps; your hyperventilating excitement upon arrival and your list of must-see’s. You mark off hot spot destinations of the world and bulldoze through, knocking residents aside and seizing their hangouts, their coffee shops and stores; their parking spaces.
I understand the lure. There are only so many office escapes in a lifetime and you want to cram the memory bag with accounts of the Taj Mahal, climbing the Eiffel Tower and swimming the Bosphorus. Return with tales that’ll have the office talking. Like that weekend in Las Vegas, when you emptied the savings, danced with a stripper named Crystal and still draw a blank between midnight and 7am.
- ’Sin City’ is the thrill-seekers playground; the neon-signage and themed restaurants; the pool parties; limos cramming the Strip; quick-fire decisions resulting in Chapel weddings by Elvis: “Starting at $199!!!” It’s filled with winners and losers. Mostly losers.
“Stop at the sign of the Windmill” was the first neon sign to appear in Vegas. The slogan accompanied a neon-lit windmill advertising the El Rancho hotel. It was 1941 and the new resort would set the trend for what became a litany of neon-naughtiness and slot machines. The cityflourished, emerging from an arid landscape of no significance, somewhere between L.A. and the Grand Canyon.
The masses moved in and after the outbreak of World War II, the defence industry followed. Nellis Air Force Base was built in 1941, along with the Basic Management Complex, who employed a significant number of valley residents, many of whom, now veterans, continue to reside in Vegas, albeit away from the Strip.
- Brian Cleeves is 83 and an ex-airman. He moved to Summerlin – a master-planned community within the city – in 1952, and recalls public opinion over 60 years ago: “Nellis was only eight miles or so drive from home. Back in the 50s, people thought Vegas had reached its limit after growing exponentially. Now I don’t recognise the place.”
Further neon-signage appeared in 1946 when Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel, displaying a giant pink sign and flamingo replicas on the lawn. Mobsters moved in, gamblers too. More hotels opened. More casinos followed. In 1957, in a desperate move to keep the resort afloat, The Dunes Hotel (replaced by The Bellagio), became the first hotel/casino in Nevada to offer a topless show, Minsky’s Follies. It was a sellout.Above: Hyde Bellagio Nightclub
- When the first tits were out, Vegas was born. It became a fleshpot destination and a reason for stag parties to travel. Even Prince Harry partied at the Wynn Encore Resort, in a suite comfortable enough to dance around a pool table with his knob out. And so grew the getaway destination, a place of escapism.
“When your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson, who had already been chewed-up and spat out by the city. And now Britney Spears has followed Céline Dion and moved in, declaring it “My City now” when addressing fans outside Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. These glossy, performer non-native residents are gathering at rate, post Dean Martin, Elvis and Liberace.
William Fanning is editor of Bar & Restaurant Magazine and has lived in Vegas for three years. “If you’re annoyed by all the tourists, that’s your problem, not theirs,” he says. “The Strip has all the best shows, restaurants and clubs no more than 20 mins from me.” He’s referring to restaurants such as Simon at Palms Casino Resort, run by Kerry Simon. A Midwest native, but with culinary outposts in Chicago, Atlantic City and L.A., Simon has lived in Vegas for 16 years. “I see Vegas as a new culinary frontier,” he remarks. “It has a sense of adventure and I have the ability to unite people and food in a fun environment.”Left: Model Amber Nichole at Hyde Bellagio
- Vegas built the world tourism wanted. Talk about a bullish optimism. There wasn’t a history to sell or monuments to advertise, so they created it all; like a cultural scrapbook they built the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower, duplicated the Statue of Liberty, assembled the Pyramids and created the Venice canal, with breathtaking fountains to rival Jeddah. There was no need to travel to Agra or pay for flights to Paris; if Venice really is sinking into the Adriatic, so what, Vegas has the Doge’s Palace and Piazza San Marco. They’re right next door to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs.
People poured in and the occupancy of ‘Sin’ crept-up; currently at around 600,000 it is the 30th most populous city in America, the vast majority of residents being croupiers, showgirls and resort staff.Above: Jubilee! at Bally’s
- According to the Nevada State Demographer’s Office, the population of the state is expected to grow faster than the national average during the next decade, much of which, one expects, will be in Vegas itself; a population which grew 35 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Amber Nichole is a professional model who called Sin home for 17 years. “The madness is all part of the magic,” she says. “There are parties that you think only exist in movies. People save up to visit and let loose.” The city’s lure is its unbridled flamboyancy, and a twinkling, wink-wink promise of keeping the ‘What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas’ motto.
And so they flock-in. In the windowless casinos and strip-shows, at the pool parties and in the entourage of stag-parties, hen-parties; perhaps even from celebrations in penthouses and Presidential suites. There’s a neon-dizziness, has been for years; a fluorescent leak across the breadth of the Nevada firmament. Elders may not recognise it, but others – including the tourist cluster – flock to its lure like enchanted moths.
Subscribe to Port Magazine annually and receive each issue to your door.Get PORT in print