In 2006, in the midst of the building boom, I moved back to Phoenix, Arizona, after being away for several years. Along with Las Vegas and the other Sunbelt capitals, Phoenix was exploding into the future. Everyone seemed to have big plans for how to will it into being a great city. Around that time I had a conversation with a skeptical architect who saw the land development as the next wave in the region’s mining history, a way of extracting value from the land without regard for community or human needs. Soon enough the housing industry collapsed, and, like mines stripped of their ore, vast swaths of the Sunbelt metros were left as wastelands.
Photographer Michael Light has spent the past decade exploring the development of the American West from the perspective of helicopters and light airplanes. On recent flights above half-built resort communities outside Las Vegas, he observed a more literal connection between mining and land development:
[This was] something I’d long suspected abstractly: that the extraction industries and the habitation industries are two sides of the same coin. Seeing entire mountains graded into building pads for gated luxury homes and ‘purpose-built communities,’ only to be left to slowly revert to sagebrush in bankruptcy, was the most naked and skeletal revelation of the speculative habitation machine I’d yet seen.
Indeed, in his photographs of these sites it is sometimes difficult to discern whether you are looking at an abandoned mining operation or an aborted housing development. Only the iconic shape of a cul-de-sac tips you off.
In this slideshow we present Light’s project on Lake Las Vegas Resort, a partially built luxury community 20 miles east of The Strip, surrounding an artificial lake created by the damming of the Las Vegas Wash, which channels wastewater and run-off from the Las Vegas Valley, past the suburb of Henderson, to Lake Mead. Light’s account is unsparing:
Comprising 21 Mediterranean-themed communities … three golf courses, a casino, two destination resort hotels and … a replica of the Ponte Vecchio, this shining Lake Como amidst the sewage-filled Henderson swamp began its literally-dammed life in 1991. Home sales began in 1992, and by 2002 its most famous resident, Celine Dion, had moved in, with luxurious Italianate skies seeming the limit. By 2008, however, the entire 1,600-home resort was in foreclosure, as its primary developer, Transcontinental Corporation, funded by the Bass Brothers of Forth Worth, Texas, defaulted on between $500 million and $1 billion in debt, primarily in speculative loans from Swiss and foreign banks.
From their aerial perspective, Light’s images show a startling disconnect between the constructed oasis of the Lake Las Vegas developments and the reality of the land they occupy. A complete transformation of place has been enacted to materialize what Light refers to as a “particularly American domestic dream,” and not just in the vast amounts of earth moved to accommodate so many palatial residences. It is as if some distant and fantastical land has been collaged onto the stark geology of the Mojave Desert — even the light surrounding the houses seems different, softer. The vast space and clear light of the desert, seemingly free from the weight of history, have somehow made anything seem possible here.
When Light began this project in 2010, the oasis had been exposed as a mirage. The golf courses had gone brown, homes had lost three-quarters of their value, and the resort’s premier hotel and status symbol, the Ritz-Carlton, had closed its doors. Soon enough, though, the lure of a bargain started drawing in speculative investors. In 2012, two of the three golf courses are green again, homebuilders are slowly restarting construction, and the Ritz-Carlton has reopened as a Westin resort. (In an interesting twist, it was at this Westin where President Obama prepared for his first, ill-fated debate with Mitt Romney.) The razed hillsides still stand as material reminders of a period of hubris and folly that ended in catastrophic failure. But the fantasy embodied in the opulent developments adjacent to those hillsides — a vision of wealth rising from a virgin landscape — has proven hard to shake.