The post I started for L included Las Vegas, Laughlin, and Lake Tahoe (plus nearby Reno). These are all cities in Nevada, the Silver State, where I spent a lot of time and/or where momentous life events took place. After some consideration, I dropped the last three cities and decided to limit myself to my Vegas experiences alone because, although the commercial says “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” let’s face it, for many former L.A. area yuppies, as I was in the late 1970s and early 80s, you might carry some baggage/experiences from this other City That Never Sleeps, especially if you move to any other part of the country later in life.
For any reader who has been raised under a rock, I offer the following, and obvious description of this neon lit oasis that rises out of the desert. Las Vegas is an internationally renowned major resort city known primarily for gambling, shopping, fine dining and nightlife. Not surprisingly, then, the city bills itself as The Entertainment Capital of the World. After working on this post, for this place in my life, for just short of ten months now, it finally dawned on me that the subject is just too large, has too much history, in general and also more personally, over such a long period of time and covering so many social and geopolitical touchstones, that I must create a whole series of posts about what I will also abbreviate as LV.
Part 1 – Semi-Ancient (early 20th Century)History and Development of the Tourist Mecca
The city was founded by ranchers and railroad workers but quickly found that its greatest asset was not its springs but its casinos and proximity to Los Angeles. This desert metropolis, in just over a century of existence, has been built on gambling, vice and other forms of entertainment. Where better to experience the rites of passage into adulthood which, in the US, coincides with twenty one years of existence on this planet? Although the place is over a hundred years old, I’m going to try to limit myself to just the high points of what happened there before I first hit town, and what happened to the place before it started to be overrun by Gens X-Y and Millenials and whatever other names there may be for those who reached the magic age of 21 around the same time as my daughters in this, the 21st century.
The first noteworthy event that kicked off the development of this city as a city occurred coincidentally at the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of the railroad linking Las Vegas to the Rockies and the West Coast. The future downtown was platted and auctioned by railroad company backers, and Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911. The Plaza Hotel and Casino today stands on the site of the original Union Pacific Railroad depot, which must be why I remember it as the Union Plaza, and for a while it was the only railroad station in the world located inside a hotel-casino.
Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910 but the practice continued in speakeasies and illicit casinos. By the time gambling was legalized again in 1931, organized crime already had roots in the city. Its related embrace of Old West-style freedoms—gambling and prostitution—provided a perfect home for East Coast organized crime. Another new draw for “the up and comers of 1931,” seeking their fortunes in the middle of the Nevada desert, was the initiation of construction on the massive Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam), which drew thousands of workers to a site just east of the city. Casinos and showgirl venues opened up on the town’s sole paved road, to attract the project’s workers. When the dam was completed in 1936, cheap hydroelectricity powered the flashing signs of Vegas’ “Glitter Gulch.”
In 1941 the El Rancho Vegas resort opened on a section of U.S. 91 just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Other hotel-casinos soon followed, and the section of highway became known as “the Strip” named by Los Angeles police officer Guy McAfee, after his (and my) hometown’s Sunset Strip.