With a greater metropolitan population of more than two million, Las Vegas has in a generation transformed from desert resort to urban center, and city planners, at least until the current recession, expected another two million in the next decades. Such phenomenal expansion has provided opportunity for many newcomers, and the city’s boosters are legion. Las Vegas is now a sophisticated urban environment, combining high-end entertainment and recreation with the dining and shopping amenities of “lifestyle” economies. As such it is a complex 21st-century city. But it is also a simple boomtown, in the tradition of the American West — of towns that grow quickly with multitudes coming to strike it rich in industries like mining, but rarely staying to attend to the social or environmental costs. The ideology of manifest destiny, the old belief that America was destined to expand westward to the Pacific, may truly be superseded by a 21st-century belief in the endless growth of tourist destinations. But as the historian Patricia Limerick reminds us, we need to learn not only from the successes of urbanization, but also from the “landscapes of failure” that remain when the boom goes bust. 1 Limerick prompts us to ask: What makes urban development succeed or fail? What does success look like? And failure? Images of a radiantly successful Las Vegas abound in popular culture. Harder to find are images of the more mundane desert settlement — the workaday infrastructures and zones of disinvestment not so easily reconciled with the luminous city of the famous Strip.
Las Vegas contains many landscapes of failure, where the spatial and physical manifestations of earlier social, cultural, and economic practices have been swept aside by newer practices without regard to the loss of memory and identity, or to the disruption of viable social and cultural networks. Landmark resorts of the 1950s and 1960s — the Frontier, Dunes and Stardust — have vanished. The long-neglected Moulin Rouge — constructed in 1955, and celebrated as the first desegregated casino — was torn down in May 2009. The Las Vegas celebrated by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and mythologized by the Rat Pack, Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley, can now only be eulogized. Most of the famed casinos featured in Learning from Las Vegas have been imploded, their memories and histories erased almost as easily as the many trailer parks that have been bulldozed as land values skyrocketed. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, in the celebrated Beaux-Arts “White City” on the Midway, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner lectured on the “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” defining it as the “meeting point between savagery and civilization,” and lamenting that the Census Bureau had declared the frontier officially “closed.” 2 In today’s Las Vegas, the New Frontier — one of the last surviving mid-century casinos — was demolished to make way for a multibillion dollar “French Renaissance” resort modeled on New York City’s Plaza Hotel. 3 With this ironic echo of the White City, we might declare the “closing” of the postwar city that so fascinated Venturi and Scott Brown. As if this were not enough, the extravagant $8.6-billion CityCenter complex, a joint venture of MGM Mirage and Dubai World that is about to open on the Strip, has been being marketed with the tagline “Into the New.” In a place where people gamble on the future to recoup past losses, the stakes are always exceedingly high. The American West, Limerick has written, “has long been home to a cult of ruins,” but this cult has little purchase in the Las Vegas Valley. It is fitting that Las Vegas’s first building by a signature architect is the Lou Ruvo Institute, designed by Frank Gehry, and dedicated to the study of Alzheimer’s disease.
Las Vegas is located in the Mojave, one of the great deserts of North America, and the expanding city and the desert ecosystem reveal interconnected contradictions. There is the spectacle of the Strip and the dreariness of the everyday city that surrounds it; there are landscapes of success and landscapes of failure; there is the erasure of the past in search of an ever-new future. These contradictions prompt profound concern for the meaning of place. Environmentalists have been hoping that economic downturn would spur reflection and readjustment. Alas, the major players of the American Southwest seem unwilling to forsake the dictum of growth-for-growth’s-sake. Large real estate companies, having already secured or entitled hundreds or thousands of acres, remain politically powerful; too often sustainable development means “sustaining development.” Even as financial markets were collapsing in late 2008, developers were seeking approval of new developments as neighboring ones slid into foreclosure and bankruptcy.
Our photo-documentation probes the mechanisms and forces driving the complex transitions of the Mojave Desert. The terrain will be familiar to historians of the west. To others it might provide the threshold to a land in which simple visual power often conceals complicated and troubled histories.
The historian John Beck notes that in the Christian and Hebrew traditions the desert is depicted as a land of “otherworldliness,” of “emptiness,” and thus a “venue for unhindered experimentation, a testing ground both physical and spiritual.” 4 The empty desert becomes either a place of “escape from modernity, an elemental alternative to the rational order of ‘civilized’ life,” or else it represents “the chaos of an unordered primal ‘nature’ that must be resisted and expunged. … [A]s the American desert lies within the economically emergent post–World War II ‘New West,’ the desert can increasingly be seen as representative of aspects of contemporary capitalism: a space without boundaries, unhindered and unregulated by old practices and habits.” 5
A great deal has been projected into this space “without boundaries, unhindered and unregulated.” Northern Nevada was the site of the great Comstock Lode and — as with the recent real estate bonanza — many of the miners arriving in Nevada were part of an exodus from California, relocating to the desert as mines further west became exhausted. 6 Nevada is, “after all, the land for the old Californian … with a thousand percent added thereto,” trumpeted the Gold Hill Daily News in 1863. 7 The historian Eugene Moehring reports that the extraction of such extraordinary mineral wealth required a “massive industrial system,” with “towns at strategic points.” Together these boomtowns comprised an urban network, whose core consisted of Gold Hill, Silver City and Virginia City. 8 Virginia City was particularly large and complex; it even developed a Chinatown with industries serving the rest of the city. 9 Densely packed at its center, this network was “elongated at its periphery by the formation of other types of urban places connected to the core by roads, trails, and economics.” 10 Period images depict bustling and jumbled townscapes dominated by mine tailings and smelters’ smokestacks. Both Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson photographed at Comstock, providing a rich visual history of the mining economy. Spatially, this already complex network may be described as a subsystem, a “peripheral extension” of an urban system that originated in California following the Gold Rush. 11
Further south, cities such as Eureka, Tonopah, Goldfield, Beatty, Rhyolite and Manhattan flourished and faded. Although there are no major sites like Comstock in southern Nevada, Goodsprings, south of Las Vegas, remained an active mining community until the postwar era (its location near where Las Vegas will build an international airport will lead the city to flourish again). To the west of Las Vegas were the great borax mines of Death Valley (this “white gold” mining was popularized with the television series Death Valley Days, hosted by Ronald Reagan). The city of Henderson was founded in what would become metropolitan Las Vegas to house workers of the Basic Magnesium plant. Built in 1941 to supply the war effort, Basic Magnesium once employed ten percent of Nevada’s population. Plant buildings still exist, and today this brownfield is being converted to commercial uses, including a strip mall.
Today little remains of this era except ghost towns and industrial debris — many of the mining sites are marked by substantial tailings (mostly radioactive sand) and acid mine drainage (which contaminates ground water and runoff with sulfuric acid). The director of the Mining Life-Cycle Center of the Mackay School of Mines, at the University of Nevada at Reno, estimates that “5% of abandoned mines cause some kind of environmental damage,” and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about “40% of watersheds in the western United States” are affected by mining pollution. 12 As mineral wealth gives way to real estate wealth, the sites of extraction haunt contemporary urbanization in disturbing ways.
Nevada is home to between 225,000 and 310,000 abandoned mines, about 50,000 of which pose hazards to the public. Some are physical. In 1996 two bodies were found in an abandoned mine that had carbon dioxide pockets and was posted with the sign: “Keep Out – Bad Air.” 13 In 1999 a girl plummeted 180 feet down a shaft north of Las Vegas. Following this, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety, J. Davitt McAteer, reported that “Nevada’s past and present are bracing for a collision,” underscoring the increasingly obvious point that suburban sprawl and abandoned mines are not easily compatible. 14 The old mines pose environmental as well as physical hazards. As part of a metropolitan effort to conserve water, many new developments feature xeriscaping, a form of landscaping using stone, gravel and drought-resistant indigenous plants. But in some cases the stone and gravel for xeriscapes were hauled from abandoned mines. Laden with sulfide minerals, these materials can cause heavy metal contamination through dust inhalation or touch, and still more harm if they enter the municipal water supply. 15
Today the desert around Las Vegas is marked less by mining for precious chemicals or metals than by quarrying for gravel and gypsum used to make concrete and wallboard. To the east, Pabco Gypsum can produce more than one billion square feet of wallboard annually. (This quarry, featured in the James Bond adventure Diamonds Are Forever, can send a daily convoy of up to 200 truckloads of wallboard over the geological Great Unconformity, on the way to construction sites in Las Vegas and beyond). To the west lies the James Hardie gypsum quarry, site of a proposed community of 8,400 units of upscale housing. A seemingly efficient transition from extraction to development, the plan is arousing controversy because the site encroaches on the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. 16 To the south, gravel and other aggregates are being extracted from the Sloan Quarry, located on a hilltop looming over new housing below. And to the north, yet another immense gravel quarry yawns between Lone Mountain and the Le Madre Mountain Wilderness; once far from the city, this too is being overtaken by mid-scale housing. While these quarries aren’t as formally impressive as some (as those photographed by Edward Burtynsky, for instance), they are striking in their proximity to new residential developments. 17 Such juxtapositions of source and product are jarring, yet Las Vegas, fixated on a seamless vision of total spectacle, turns a blind eye toward such uneasy contrasts.
Consumption and contamination coexist uneasily in a land of quickly strained resources; the vastness of the Nevada desert can obscure the scars of disruption. Military installations are among the most disruptive and contaminated sites: spaces “unhindered and unregulated” into which the Department of Defense has hurled generations of munitions. At the start of the Cold War, Nevadans welcomed the violent appropriation of federal land in the interests of patriotism and economic boon: the monetary benefits of extraction and destruction are not dissimilar. But the dichotomy of the desert sublime and the destruction visited upon it is as difficult to reconcile as the tension between extraction and construction.
Off-limits to unauthorized personnel, military sites preclude public monitoring. Like an arid counterpart of Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness, hidden landscapes such as Area 51, locally known as “Dreamland,” remain disconcertingly blank on many maps. Yet the military exercises taking place on these sites profoundly affect the organization of the landscape and the lives of inhabitants. In The Tainted Desert, Valerie Kuletz describes the desert landscape as shaped, bifurcated and compartmentalized by fifty years of military experimentation, by an infrastructure of “high-wire fences, radar antennae, massive satellite communications dishes tilted up toward the stars, sonic booms, stealth aircraft, well-maintained roads in the middle of ‘nowhere’ leading to various ‘installations’ … guard towers and fencing and more fencing, and everywhere government signs that read ‘DO NOT ENTER.'”18
These are what Kuletz calls the “zones of sacrifice” stretching from New Mexico to California, and they include bombing and artillery ranges, nuclear test sites and abandoned uranium mines. More than 80 percent of Nevada is federally owned, much of it dedicated to military use. Just north of Las Vegas is the Nellis Air Force Range. Once used to train pilots for combat in Korea and Vietnam, the desert base is well suited for simulating missions in the Middle East. Comprising nearly 5,500 square miles (roughly the size of Connecticut), Nellis contains the Nevada Test Site, 19 where above-ground nuclear testing was carried out during the Cold War, and where the apocalyptic “Survival City” was built to study the effects of atomic explosions on buildings. In his book about this strange city, Tom Vanderbilt calls it the “embodiment of all towns, an architectural stunt-double for the American way of life.” 20 The New York Times reported that it “stood up surprisingly well against the wallop of a big atomic blast,” with the most serious damage occurring to the city’s “Doomsday Drive.” 21 Another blast vibrated buildings in the town of Pioche, 100 miles distant, while the “mushroom cloud rose rapidly to more than 35,000 feet and moved eastwards.” 22 During atomic testing, residents of southern Nevada and Utah were termed “downwinders” and given radiation badges to monitor accidental exposure to radiation. In a letter to “people who live near (the) Nevada Test Site,” the test manager at Camp Mercury wrote: “Some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss …” 23
Today the proposed nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain provokes great controversy. The prospect of vast tracts becoming depositories for the detritus of destruction reminds us that the desert was appropriated with the belief that it “really wasn’t much good for anything but gunnery practice — you could bomb it into oblivion and never notice the difference.” 24 The results of test bombing resemble the results of mining: an often radical reshaping of the desert, a landscape contaminated, littered with industrial or radioactive debris.
Today the desert is being reshaped not just by mining and the military. Now it also accommodates tourism and the lifestyle economy. Scenic highway tourism, which flourished in the early 20th century, focused mainly on the visual consumption of the landscape. The postwar era shifted the emphasis to recreational tourism. All-terrain vehicles like demilitarized jeeps, dune buggies, motorcycles, snowmobiles and jet skis are hugely popular. So are mountain biking, skiing, kayaking and rock climbing. Protecting western landscapes from over-recreation can be as difficult as protecting it from test bombing.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 granted the federal Bureau of Land Management the authority to set aside lands as wilderness, defined as “area[s] where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” 25 But transient use can be as harmful as permanent occupation. In 1976 Science News raised the alarm about the “Fragile Desert” in a report on the annual 150-mile Barstow–Las Vegas motorbike race across the Mojave. According to the report, the race had destroyed more than 9,000 acres of desert, obliterating plant and animal life, as well as archaeological sites. 26 The race no longer happens, but big increases in both population and ATVs have meant increased stresses on protected lands. Today “more than 28 million homes” are located “less than 30 miles from federally owned land that millions of people increasingly view as their extended back-yards.” 27 Engine noise and emissions add to the problem, as do issues of accessing public lands through private property.
Off-road recreation remains a booming business, and urban marketing firms are riding the trend. Seeking to diversify Nevada’s entertainment profile, R&R Partners, the firm behind the “Only in Vegas” advertising campaign, developed the “Nevada Passage Adventure Competition” in 2003. This reality-show competition showcased rural Nevada as a premier destination for outdoor adventure; 20 people were selected to participate in competitive rock climbing, jet skiing, off-road driving, mountain biking, sandboarding and kayaking. Critics describe such transformations of Old West into New West as the creation of a theme park or “leisure colony” for the privileged. 28 In which case we might argue that the theming of Las Vegas and the theming of the Mojave have in a sense merged, blurring the distinctions between the spectacular Strip and the elemental landscape. “What plays in the Mojave, stays in the Mojave” might be the fitting slogan, as the vast sublimity of the desert gives way to a recreational utopia dotted with golf courses and crisscrossed by ATV tracks.
More than 20 years ago, in Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner described great desert civilizations that flourished and collapsed, suggesting that in the American West, “where water is concerned, logic and reason have never figured prominently in the scheme of things.” 29 And now, in a moment of great uncertainty, one thing is certain: the Mojave is a land of limited resources, and no resource is more limited than water. The need for water, in ever-larger amounts, may set final, insurmountable limits on the unlikely urbanization of the desert. Today Lake Mead, from which the Las Vegas Valley draws 90 percent of its water, is falling to record low levels. 30 Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict the reservoir may go dry by 2021. 31
Yet at Lake Las Vegas, developers continue to drape Italianate gardens and golf courses over desert hillsides. Creating such a mirage required submerging the Las Vegas Wash, a once natural and ecologically sensitive drainage system, and confining the limited water to two 96-inch-diameter pipes that run under Lake Las Vegas toward the dwindling Lake Mead. Fifty miles north of Las Vegas, at Coyote Springs, an isolated area once off-limits as a rocket test site, a new 43,000-acre development — 150,000 residences, “buzzing village streetscapes,” fifteen golf courses, and several lakes and water parks — has begun construction. 32 This new exurb features xeriscaping, yet its “lifestyle activities” include golfing and boating, for which it will need to appropriate extensive water resources, potentially draining wildlife sanctuaries. Coyote Springs has been the subject of environmental litigation. 33 As with many sites in the Mojave, accessing limited water resources for such vast interventions can be construed as a form of extraction, one that serves not only vital needs but also questionable desires.
Such desires exemplify what many call “desert denial.” Water is supplied by sources above and below ground; the most important are the Colorado River and its reservoirs. Lake Mead is bracketed by Lake Powell, Lake Mojave and Lake Havasu, all fed by the Colorado and its tributaries. Seven states and Mexico have rights to the Colorado waters, the percentages determined by complex apportionment guidelines and adjusted according to the flow of water measured at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona. 34 Las Vegas prided itself on being the nation’s fastest-growing city, and, at about 660 liters per day, its per capita water consumption mirrored this. 35 Thus the Colorado River’s finite capacity has triggered the search for new sources. These include a regional groundwater aquifer extending from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Death Valley, California, that would provide almost 250 million cubic meters of water annually; it would also deplete the groundwater in at least 78 basins over nearly 90,000 square miles, greatly impacting a fragile ecosystem and adversely affecting twenty federally listed species and 137 other water-dependent species, as well as thousands of rural domestic and agricultural water users in the region. 36 Nonetheless, the Southern Nevada Water Authority plans to tap the aquifers of northern Nevada to allow Las Vegas to continue its profligate growth, a plan some compare with the historic Owens Valley water grab in California. 37 And in a still more aggressive proposal, the Authority has proposed damming floodwaters in the Midwest to supply greater Las Vegas. 38 Even if this wins local support, the likelihood of implementing such extravagant plans in a time of scarcity is doubtful.
When we started our research in 2005, it would have been difficult to imagine the changes occurring in the Las Vegas Valley in the short period since. Boom has turned into bust, repeating a time-proven cycle in the American West. Boosters insist this is just a bump in the road. Others are less sanguine, and the local press is filled with commentaries marked by bitterness and betrayal.
On the Strip, 2008 began with the foreclosure of developer Ian Bruce Eichner’s $3.9-billion Cosmopolitan, upscale twin towers designed by Arquitectonica. In August, Boyd Gaming halted construction on the $4.8-billion Echelon resort, located on the site of the former Stardust. Two weeks later construction was delayed until “sometime in 2009” on the $5-billion Las Vegas Plaza, a resort on the New Frontier site; having paid $1.24 billion for the site in 2007, the Israeli-based Elad IDB Las Vegas LLC saw their property devalued to $652 million by fall 2008. In 2009 the downward drift continues on. The $2.9-billion Fountainbleu, 70 percent complete, is mired in litigation. More striking was the near failure in the spring of the Strip’s flagship CityCenter project; although failure was ultimately averted, one of its towers, designed by Norman Foster, was capped at half its original height.
Residential properties, whether in the high-rise towers along the Strip or in the vast low-rise subdivisions surrounding it, have been pummeled. Hit by waves of foreclosures, the median price of existing homes has fallen from a high of $289,500 in June 2006 to $122,000 in May 2009 — a 58% decline. New home sales declined even more dramatically: 38,755 were sold in 2005 but it is doubtful that more than 5,000 will be sold in 2009. 39 It is no surprise that many developments are on hold or have been foreclosed on. These include the 14,000-home, 1,700-acre Kyle Canyon development; sited near the Mount Charleston recreation area, this greenfield community was touted as exemplary in the city’s “Sustainable Las Vegas” campaign of 2006. Similarly, a 2000-acre “new urbanist” community at the opposite end of Mount Charleston is facing litigation as its builders default.
Lake Las Vegas, once the flagship of the southern valley’s move toward upscale resort living, has become its poster child for failure, as the master developer and several sub-entities seek bankruptcy protection. Two of its three completed golf courses have closed; land was graded for a fourth course that remains unfinished; and the lake itself narrowly escaped draining into Lake Mead due to structural damage. Beyond the valley, Coyote Springs has postponed its grand opening. Casinos have closed in towns like Jean and Mesquite, and smaller boomtowns like St. George are sponsoring foreclosure tours. Ironically, lands that had been in private hands since settlement in the 19th century are now under federal control as the FDIC takes over banks whose assets include failing developments.
So Las Vegas finds itself at a remarkable historical juncture. Long touted as recession-proof, the city is struggling not only with plunging real estate values but also with double-digit unemployment, record deficits and loss of self-confidence. In 2007 tourism, a mainstay of the economy, boasted a record 39.2 million visitors. 40 Since then McCarran International Airport has seen 19 consecutive months of passenger decline. 41 Michelin will not be producing a 2010 guide for Las Vegas. Even more striking is that after ten consecutive years of annual population gains, averaging more than 60,000, Clark County declined last year by 10,000. 42 Since 2008, more than 4,000 adults leave the Las Vegas Valley every month. 43
And all the while the water level of Lake Mead continues to drop. Currently it is at its lowest level since 1965, when water from the Colorado was held upstream to fill the new reservoir of Lake Powell. In the 19th century the great explorer John Wesley Powell judged the “arid region” of the American West as incapable of supporting large populations. History might finally be catching up with this city always focused on the new. The urbanization of the Mojave Desert seems to be leading inexorably to the desertification of Las Vegas.