Las Vegas: Wealth Disparity in all its Glitter
Las Vegas is one of the top tourist spots in the world – and offers visitors a chance to visit “papier-mâché” versions of Venice, Paris, Rome, and Egypt without leaving the USA. It is also the quintessential edifice to wealth disparity.
The two million inhabitants of Las Vegas live the voracious capitalist reality in the middle of a desert. The rich own the town, which is the economic engine of Nevada. Republicans, Mormons and casino owners have heavy influence in the state – and not necessarily in that order. For the comfort of the many millionaires, taxes are very low, leading to few and lousy social services. Without a safety net, the streets are paved with homeless people. I haven’t seen such numbers of homeless since London in the 1980s. The winter climate is livable, but the summer heat is brutal. One look at the state of the people on the streets, and one can deduce a paucity of showers and shelters and soup-kitchens and clinics to serve them.
The millionaires live in gated complexes with multiple sophisticated security systems, staff on the look-out, and fear in their hearts. I was given this advice more than once: “Don’t respond to anyone who approaches you on the street. Don’t walk anywhere, especially at night. Roll up your windows and lock your doors. Don’t give anyone money.” The gated communities are blanketed with cameras and keys and fobs and secret handshakes. The residents are quite sincerely terrified of outsiders, of the other, of the poor. So they live this contradiction of starving the services and then walling themselves off from the hungry.
The schools are underfunded and do poorly – regularly ranked among the bottom five states. The millionaires don’t care. They send their kids to private schools. They don’t need an especially educated workforce to do the grueling retail jobs that require employees to stand the whole day and work unpleasantly long hours. During over two weeks in Las Vegas, I only met two people actually born there: both were young black women working in retail shops.
The physical perspective is different from other cities I know. Everything here is much larger and much wider – space is not at a premium. On the East coast you can look down a block of brownstones and know that you can walk that block. Here a block can be a mile square. No one walks, except tourists on the Strip. There’s little effective public transportation. One drives. Most destinations provide self-park lots, with a valet option at many places. There is no such thing as street parking anywhere in LV – it is all self-park.
Las Vegas is in a dry valley surrounded on all sides by hills. Other than the Strip and the areas around it, everything is strip malls. Endless strip malls with chain stores, dollar stores, checking cashing shops, pawn shops, and restaurants make for a flat, colorless, repetitive landscape.
There are many boarded-up commercial and industrial buildings. Housing seems readily available. Compared to Boston the property prices are low. A two-bedroom rental can cost from $450 to $850. You can purchase a single-family house from $120,000, a 2 bed/2 bath condo for $60,000. Those are all low-end. As for maximum prices, it’s untold millions.
Housing comes in compounds and developments. Many signs stress that they are “gated” communities; your status is tied to whether that signals a huge fancy security gate with a guard in a guardhouse or a mere chain-link fence. On the way from the airport, which is basically in the center of town now that the town is so expanded, as I approached the nearby strip, I saw a sign in a big lot, offering land for sale at $8 million per acre.
Nevada is of two minds about queers. It only repealed the state’s anti-sodomy law in 1993 and very recently made gay marriage legal. But even so, some businesses, not the least the Elvis-themed wedding chapels, refuse to tie queer knots. According to some lesbians (two of them proud Republicans, and several others who repeatedly invited me to church) I met at the LGBT Center, this is due to the influence of the Mormons. Las Vegas has a bigger better Center than most other cities I’ve seen, due to a major donor and a gaggle of sponsors. Since so many residents of Vegas have come here from elsewhere, The Center can play a key role in helping retirees integrate. It has been in existence since 1992, moving from a room, to a former dental office, to bigger and bigger buildings, finally in 2006 settling into a fully remodeled paint store that now features computer banks, several large meeting rooms, a staff, outreach to youth and seniors, educational programs, free HIV testing, a serious library, a Café, and much more.
Here is a strange Clark County (where Vegas is) arrangement. The County’s three domestic violence and rape resource agencies are funded through the sale of marriage licenses – a consistently declining number. These programs fought for gay marriage in the hope that there would be an increase in licenses, and therefore of funding. However, in the month since they began to be issued, only 7% of licenses have gone to same-sex couples, not much affecting a statistical comparison with last year. Meanwhile, the need is great. One of the groups, Safe Nest, says that 48.2% of Nevada women have experienced some form of domestic violence. For six of the last 15 years, according to the Las Vegas daily, Review-Journal, Nevada ranked No. 1 among the states for men killing women.
So there are two weird things about all of this: One, the anticipated tsunami of queer marriage is barely a ripple in Las Vegas. And two, ahh, the fact that marriage licenses are the only funding source of protection for the women being abused in those marriages and elsewhere is an irony that sounds like satire. Very Las Vegas.
Because Wynn Resorts has been approved to build a casino in Everett, Massachusetts, just six miles from my home, I asked them for a tour of their property. (I asked to see their show, as well, but they, alone among the casinos, refused to give me a press comp.) They consider themselves the highest of the high-end casinos in Las Vegas, not the least because of the unique beauty of the curved buildings that transition with the light, the extravagance of their décor, and the exclusiveness of their shops. They have a similar facility in Macau, China. Boston will be the third and at least one employee I spoke with was excited about the opportunity to transfer to Massachusetts, raising a question about the whole selling point of creating new jobs.
The head of their PR, Shane Collins, spends an hour showing me around. We meet at the hot air balloon that is just one of the set pieces in Preston Bailey’s massive floral installations. A team of horticulturalists check the uncountable flowers daily and replace anything that is looking tired. Part of Wynn’s vision is upkeep. There is someone, for example, whose exclusive assignment is to make sure every tile is ship-shape in all the mosaics. We wouldn’t want wealthy people to step on a crack.
Wynn also believes in beauty, Mr. Collins tells me, and points to some of the many art works displayed throughout. He quotes Wynn: “You never own any of this stuff, you just have custody.” In fact, the more prominent of these pieces are described by those who guard them all day in terms of their investment strength, not the least the two works of one of the world’s most marketing-savvy artists Jeff Koons. Popeye (2,000 lbs) was bought at auction for $28 million, but now is valued at $60 million. Similarly, the massive Tulips, which cost Wynn $33 million, would now bring in $155 million, they tell me. Creating wealth is, after all, the goal, and the Wynn art collection strategy, developed by Wynn and his aesthetic partner Roger Thomas, VP of Wynn Design & Development, seems to fit right in.
While the Koons pieces, being oversized and sparkly and gaining in equity, are no-brainers in this setting, I found other works truly delightful. A 1918 wood and glass chandelier by Gustave Eiffel (of Tower fame) is very special. Many of the framed tapestries are crazy gorgeous. But the biggest surprise for me was the Fernando Botero restaurant, with the sculpture Rape of Europa in black bronze standing guard at the entrance and the massive Seated Woman as the restaurant’s centerpiece. At 2,755 pounds, she is truly voluptuous, in signature Botero style, and she watches over three of his paintings from the Circus series.
Taking a break from gambling at Wynn? There are plenty of other ways to spend your money. The “Lake of Dreams” is a lovely place to have a meal if your money printer is working: the steak is $66 and the caviar is $200. The nightclubs, the restaurants, and the bars are themed and glitzy. The shops – jewelry predominates – are often European. One purse that catches my eye costs, says the sales person looking me up and down, “around $8,000.”
Casinos no longer count on gambling as the only source of profit. In fact, gambling makes up 40% of the profit. The rest is dining, entertainment, and nightlife. These retail stores, Collins tells me, provide “the highest sales component profitability per square foot in Las Vegas.” Got that? A round of golf in the Wynn country club costs guests $500. A wedding held in one of the frothy suites can cost anything from $1,200 to a half million. Gay clientele are so welcomed that there is a concierge especially dedicated to assisting gay guests with local LGBT resources.
I leave my congenial guide to wander. I feel it is important that I try a slot machine – the least expensive way to lose money in a casino – to get that special Las Vegas loser experience. It’s amazing what frank, spontaneous conversations I manage to have with a few workers in the slots parlor in the process of spending a whole $2.
The slot parlor workers are not unionized – in contrast to the dealers, the catering staff, and the maintenance workers. The more veteran of them remember the dark days when coins were still used, for they had to carry around many bags of heavy coins. Their necks and spines paid the price. Now slots take dollar bills or casino vouchers, reducing the physical stress on the workers. All the workers, though, are exposed to cigarette and cigar smoke for, unlike Massachusetts, there is no prohibition on smoking in the casinos.
I ask one employee what she thought of the Wynn plan to build a casino in Everett, just outside of Boston. “I love my job and I’ve been working the casinos for 7 years, but I have to admit that there’s something sleazy about them. It’s all about addiction. They should not be inside cities. They should be isolated and far away.” Another worker told me (to paraphrase), “I love meeting people from around the world, but I bought a little house over an hour away from the Strip. After a full day looking at this garish carpet, listening to this awful music, calming drunken men, and having all these lights in my eyes, I want to be away in the desert with my tropical fish aquarium and my cactus garden.”
LUXOR: The Vegas show that most appealed to me was the San Diego hip-hop crew JabbaWockeeZ, whom I had seen win the championship of the first season (2008) of the now-defunct TV show America’s Best Dance Crew. Luxor, known for its pyramid shape, promotes them as “family entertainment.”
The poorly lit, unsigned alley leading to the Luxor self-park lot and the plain elevator to the long dull walkway into the casino prepares me for a Strip venue that is definitely not the Wynn. As I come down the ramp onto the main floor I see a crowd I can recognize. People of color, working class people, and even a couple of young Hispanic women walking hand-in-hand: this casino is clearly affordable for the average person.
Instead of $200 caviar, Luxor has a food court with Nathans hotdogs, McDonalds, Starbucks, and a few others. I cut through the casino, ashtrays scattered around liberally, and make my way to the theater. It is aThursday evening and about half the seats are filled: there are mainly families and young couples on dates; the majority are people of color. My assigned seat in the second row feels too close, so I get up to move back for a better perspective just before the show begins. A tough-looking woman usher asks if she can help and settles me in a good seat. In a couple of minutes she returns with a set of ear-plugs. “You’ll want these,” she says with prescience.
PRiSM, voted “Best Family Show” by IN VEGAS Magazine, is less dance performance and more neighborhood theater. A hodgepodge of musical favorites (Marvin Gaye, Queen, the Temptations, Bill Withers, etc.) combined with dazzling multi-media use of lasers, lights, and smoke effects, PRiSM is good-natured entertainment. There’s lots of audience participation, but too many fart jokes and sexism. The audience, though, knows why it came and rewards the JabbaWockeeZ Crew with great enthusiasm when they do deliver some of their talented hip-hop routines.
RIVIERA: Another evening I go to the Riviera, with its confusing floor plan and working class crowds, to happily stroll down memory lane with “Forever Doo Wop.” This is a company of eight performers. The four older male singers have decades of experience in the Imperials, Platters, Drifters, and many other legendary Doo Wop groups. Early Clover, the production and operations manager, and a veteran of 25 years in the Coasters, opens the show by saying, “It was the 50s. The war was over. The depression was over. People had jobs. And kids.” The group breaks out in “Why must I be a teenager in love?” A Dick Clark-ish guy named Ryan Flannigan counts down the top 10 Doo Wop songs ever for the cast to perform, starting with #10 Little Darlin,’ through #8 Get a Job, past #5 Blue Moon, and wrapping up with #1 Earth Angel, from the Penguins. Early is joined by Willie Green, a charming rhythmic bass, Lawrence Jones, and Tom Russ III. Three younger women round out the group.
Forever Doo Wop is at 7:00 and it is followed by a Forever Motor City show at 9:00 – with the same cast. They have been doing this grueling double bill every single night – that’s seven nights a week – since April, 2014. They are competing with a comedy show, a kick box match, a magic act, a topless showgirl revue, gambling, dining, the upcoming World Series of Beer Pong (whatever that is), and a rodeo. And that’s just at the Riviera. There are this many options at many of the other 75 to 100 casinos in town.
DRIVING THE STRIP AT NIGHT
The Las Vegas Strip is over four miles of unreasonable over-stimulation along Las Vegas Blvd. No matter why you find yourself in this bizarre town, try to make this trip at night. It took a couple of miles before I stopped cringing every time I saw flashing lights and heard amplified voices behind me. Once a 60s girl, always a 60s girl. But, no, it wasn’t the cops: it was the explosive displays, one casino after another, one massive LED screen after another.
From the garish, old-fashioned Circus Circus, you pass Wynn, the Venetian (canals, gondoliers, Italian village fronts), the familiar-sounding Flamingo and Caesars Palace, but everything slows down when you drive by the Bellagio – especially if the extravagant water fountain exhibit is happening and the crowds are maneuvering for a view. I get to see much of the show as I crawled up Las Vegas Blvd just as it was spouting. The Bellagio, built by Wynn and later bought by MGM, changed the resort game, shifting the Vegas appeal from the all-you-can-eat-buffet folks to embracing the moneyed classes as well. Strangely enough, a large number of the people who visit these fake world landmarks are themselves from abroad. One local told me that the biggest holiday of the Vegas calendar is the Chinese New Year.
The architecture throughout the Strip is fanciful, a combo of Disney-like whimsy with American arrogance. The Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty loom over my car as I approach the child-like castles of Excalibur. It is a discombobulating combination of lights brighter than one can imagine and of the Americanization of the world’s wonders, with the cold-blooded algorithms of profit.
RED ROCK CANYON NATIONAL PARK
The Mojave is the smallest, driest desert in North America, and the Red Rock Canyon is its jewel. The Canyon was formed by sand, water, perhaps a million earthquakes, and the shifting of tectonic plates. Harry the volunteer at the info desk stood below a stuffed mountain lion teetering disconcertingly above his head, and told me that there are only eight such lions in the park. They’re afraid of humans, he reassured me, and they do not consider us tasty. Rejection never felt so right.
There are three kinds of rock in the Canyon: grey, yellow, and the amazing red (from rust). The grey is 600 million year old sandstone, deposited in a shallow ocean below the equator and then moved to Nevada by plate shifts. Yellow and red rock were formed from sands blown here by winds 180 million years ago. The striping comes from dunes
compressed on top of dunes. There is also a great deal of flora, in fields of feisty, thirsty plants and little bushes. Funny enough, they remind me of the lava fields of Iceland, a kind of undulation in dry colors.
On the way back to pack for a departure tomorrow morning, I decide to end the restricted mild diet I’ve been on since I was brutally food poisoned in a recommended Vegas restaurant ten days ago. I stop at the In N Out hamburger joint so beloved by locals. There a young worker named Ebony comes right up to me, shows me where to order and what my choices are, and then personally delivers my meal to me (their usual system involves calling out a number). I don’t know if I look like a feeble old white woman to her or if she just senses that I have been alone for a couple of weeks and would welcome a kindness. As my last act in Vegas, I speak to her manager and suggest that she give Ebony a raise.
A taxi ride to the airport only costs around $20 and, having already blown my $2 earlier in the week, I go by the rows and rows of slot machines to my gate. Thanks to some dodgy lamb kebob at a popular Middle East restaurant, I will never forget Las Vegas.
Sue Katz is a wordsmith and rebel whose book, Lillian's Last Affair, is a collection of short stories about the love lives of older people. Visit her edgy blog Consenting Adult - where this article was also published. Sue is a regular contributor to Open Media Boston.
Photos: Sue Katz