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Las Vegas: The Last Outpost of Western Civilization

With Asian cities in a biulding boom, the run of great Western cities just might end in Nevada.

August 25, 1996|Michael Ventura | Michael Ventura's new novel, "The Death of Frank Sinatra," is set in Las Vegas. It will be published next month by Henry Holt

December will mark 50 years since Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegal, Virginia Hill and Davie Berman opened the Flamingo, with funds supplied by mobsters Meyer Lansky and Charlie "Lucky" Luciano. Who else would have given money to gamblers crazy enough to prophesy that an isolated Mojave town (pop. 12,000) would become one of the history's legendary resorts? Yet, even those high-rollers never dreamed that, a half-century later, their creation would be the fastest-growing urban center in the Western world, with its population now well over a million--and increasing by more than 4,000 every month, or almost 50,000 a year.

But something more is going on in Las Vegas, something more important than population growth and more significant than the moral issue of gambling: Las Vegas is the last great, mythic city that Western civilization will ever create.

Over the centuries, this civilization we call "Western," with its counterpoint between diverse influences and common roots, has birthed a slow, steady, westward flow of cities whose very names have become symbolic: Baghdad, Babylon, Cairo, Athens . . . Constantinople, Rome, Venice, Florence . . . Paris, Vienna, Prague, Berlin . . . Moscow, St. Petersburg . . . London, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles.

Say the names and you are citing not only distinctive economies and governments; each also evokes a style, a way of life, a polity of the heart and mind. Places like Paris and New York aren't mere cities, they are three-dimensional expressions of particular ways of being human. Such places have not accents, but different purposes for using speech; not merely a specific type of walk and attitude associated with their streets, but different ways of seeing, different ways for bodies to relate to each other in public. When we talk about a Parisian, a New Yorker, a Roman, an Angelino, an Athenian, we are invoking not only locations, but different expressions of humanity.

In this sense, Las Vegas has joined the cities of myth. People can be entertained and gamble almost anywhere--if they know where to look. But the world now journeys to Las Vegas, at the rate of many thousands a day, for something that can be found only there: the imagery, the pace, the style, the sense of license that is Las Vegas. Both intellectual foreigners and day-tripping tourists say they come to Las Vegas because they feel it is the epitome of all things American. Just as it is possible to feel that a part of oneself only comes fully alive in the streets of New York, or in the sun of Los Angeles, or in the rain of Paris, many now feel that parts of themselves only wake up in the neon swirl of Vegas.

When this is a sensation experienced by millions--even vicariously, through movies and other imagery--then a city becomes part of the collective psyche that is our history. That's what "mythic" is all about.

As Athens, Rome and New York have influenced the look of cities around the world, the neon-enhanced architecture that is the signature of Las Vegas--signs bigger than buildings, then buildings designed as signs--is now influencing skylines as different as Austin's and Atlanta's. This trend was identified in 1977, when Robert Venturi's path-breaking "Learning from Las Vegas" was published by no less an authoritative institution than MIT Press. Thus the aesthetics of gamblers entered the architectural vocabulary of the world.

It's almost as though the builders of Las Vegas have been unconsciously aware that their city would be our civilization's last great creation--for Vegas wears an architectural wardrobe of costumes taken from our entire history. At first, neon was enough--huge bright signs fronted low-slung buildings, the interiors of which were the art deco of Busby Berkeley musicals come to life. Then in 1966, when Caesar's Palace opened with its bastardized portrayal of classical Rome, the buildings not only got bigger but began to take on the trappings of all the history that had gone to create them.

Now, with the Luxor, Las Vegas has the Great Pyramid of Cairo--actually far bigger than the original. The Excalibur is a cartoon of medieval England. Paris will be the Beau Rivage. Italy is the Monte Carlo. And a casino to be completed soon, called "New York, New York," will bring the skyline of Manhattan to the Mojave. When it's finished, you will be able, in a single glance from south to north, to see the Great Pyramid and Sphinx; turrets suggesting the castles of Europe; then the classic American skyscrapers that the world now rushes to outdo--the entire arc of Western civilization on the Las Vegas Strip.

It's as though, in Las Vegas, Western history is dressing up in costume (Nevada was, after all, granted statehood on Halloween, 1864), to throw one last wild party before the next generation, or the next, stops speaking of itself as Western.

For there's no room, either in geography or history, for our civilization to create another major city.

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