If you need inspiration for writing, there is perhaps no better model than Tom Wolfe in the early 1960s.  After a trip out West from New York to investigate an array of curiosities of persons, places, and phenomena, he returned only to worry and fret over exactly what he had.  What to write, and how to write it? 

"By this time Esquire practically had a gun at my head because they had a two-page-wide color picture for the story locked into the printing presses and no story.  Finally, I told Byron Dobell, the managing editor at Esquire, that I couldn't pull the thing together.  O.K., he tells me, just type out my notes and send them over and he will get somebody else to write it.  So about 8 o'clock that night I started typing the notes out in the form of a memorandum that began, 'Dear Byron.'  I started typing away ... I just started recording it all, and inside a couple of hours, typing along like a madman, I could tell that something was beginning to happen.  By midnight this memorandum to Byron was twenty pages long and I was still typing like a maniac.  About 2 A.M. or something like that I turned on WABC, a radio station that plays rock and roll music all night long, and got a little more manic.  I wrapped up the memorandum about 6:15 A.M., and by this time it was 49 pages long.  I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 A.M.  About 4:00 P.M. I got a call from Byron Dobell.  He told me they were striking out the "Dear Byron" at the top of the memorandum and running the rest of it in the magazine." [1]

That article, and the rest of the items appearing in the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, is curious to read today.  On the one hand, sitting down to type a memorandum beginning with "Dear Byron" makes us wonder if that was nothing more than a previous generation's electronic mail.  Walking down the crowded Strip today, wading through the midnight oven-baked masses of humanity, one cannot help but wonder:  how many of these folks will return to their homes, in other cities, suburbs, and small towns scattered across the globe, to type out entries in their blogs, painting a textual tapestry of the flood of sensations that Vegas inflicts?  How many can't wait until they return home?  Grab the smartphone and tip-tap-out the words and sensations right away, embellish with the instant endorphine rush of visual stimulation from the digital camera.  But can any words written today achieve anything close to the impact of Wolfe's narrative in the early 1960s?  Can any reader today be suitably surprised or shocked by his account of the thoroughly ubiquitous Muzak -- "It is as if there were a communal fear that someone, somewhere in Las Vegas, was going to be left with a totally vacant minute on his hands" [2] -- or his careful, clinical description of "the Las Vegas buttocks decolletage," his equation of Vegas style (Late American Rich) and the proliferation of elements like the Supersonic Carwash, the Mercury Jetaway, the Par-a-Dice Motel -- "on it went, like Wildwood, New Jersey, entering Heaven" [3], his taxonomy of Strip Sign art-history vocabulary -- Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald's Hamburger Parabola ... ?
Despite the powerful visceral sensations delivered to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month -- or perhaps because of these experiences -- the city is still viewed with a mixture of cynicism, alarm, and occasionally brilliant but hardened skepticism.  The city's most eminent and eloquent observer, the historian Hal Rothman, cannot resist the temptation to throw away so much of what Las Vegas produces in the minds of writers, journalists, and everyone else among those whom Wolfe called 'The New Culture-Makers.'  "Most of the scholarship and journalism on Las Vegas can be quickly dispatched to the trash can," Rothman wrote a few years ago.  "The various writers fall into a few categories:  the libertines, the moralists, the expose-writers, and the people who use a complicated and controversial city as a canvas, a backdrop for the personal." [4]

Is Las Vegas a city?  It defies many definitions, distorts others, and creates entirely new notions of urbanism that stretch our conventional categories.  Garrison Keillor once described seeing the city in the valley from a distance; as I recall that radio show episode from many years ago, he said something like, "Las Vegas sits in a bowl of mountains, brightly lit in the evening, like a vast neon salad with no discernible nutritional value."  Perhaps Rothman puts it best:  "It may be that a city like Las Vegas that moves like quicksilver simply can not be captured in conventional scholarly categories."  [5]  A metropolitan population of 1.65 million [6], but in the peak visitor season between September and New Year's, another virtual city -- almost one-fifth the size of the permanent settlement -- flies in for a few days of things that happen in Vegas only to stay in Vegas.  But of course this global pilgrimage arrives almost exclusively to a narrow corridor, five or six miles long and perhaps a half mile wide straddling Las Vegas Boulevard, between the old downtown of Binion's, the Pioneer, the Fremont, the Golden Nugget, and the ever-expanding strip to the southwest nestled right next to the constant intravenous infusion of tourist arrivals (McCarran International Airport).  A bent axis anchored  in the middle by the Stratos Tower, this narrow corridor is the quintessential postmodern landscape, each element self-consciously referring to other times, other places.  Imperial Rome, Renaissance Venice, Ancient Greece, Late-Twentieth Century New York City -- sauntering down the Boulevard whip-saws a person back and forth across miles and millennia.  And all too often the "sauntering" is from the door of the casino to the back of an air-conditioned cab, or to complete the pomo experience, in a vehicle that itself is defined by its widespread deployment in another time, another place -- a Gulf War I military transport vehicle, now suitably chopped and stretched to thirty or forty feet in a Hummer limousine.


[1] Tom Wolfe (1965).  The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.  New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp. xiii-xiv.
[2] Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored, p. 6.
[3] Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored, p. 10.
[4] Hal Rothman (2001).  Review of M. Gottdiener et al., Las Vegas:  The Social Production of an All-American City.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell.  Reviewed for H-Urban, H-Net@H-Net.Msu.Edu.
[5] Rothman, Review of Gottdiener.
[6] U.S. Bureau of the Census (2006).  Annual Estimates of the Population of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas, April 1, 2000 to April 1, 2004.  Washington, DC:  U.S. Bureau of the Census.  Available at, last accessed July 4, 2006.
[7] William Cronon (1991).  Nature's Metropolis:  Chicago and the Great West.  New York:  Norton.
[8] Howard Stutz (2005).  "Wynn Las Vegas:  The Unveiling."  Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 24, p. 35A.
[9] Stutz, "The Unveiling," p. 35A.
[10] Kate Phillips (2006). "Interest Groups Lining Up to Lobby on Web Gambling."  New York Times, July 4, A11.
[11] Eugene P. Moering (1989).  Resort City in the Sunbelt:  Las Vegas, 1930-1970.  Reno and Las Vegas:  University of Nevada Press, p. 262.
[12] Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored, p. 22.
[13] Wolfe, Kandy-Kolored, p. 23.
[14] Stutz, "The Unveiling, p. 35A.

Copyright© 2006 Vernon R. Wyly
Copyright ©2006 Vernon R. Wyly
But in other ways, of course, to pose the cultural-symbolic questions of urbanism carries the risk of distracting us from the hard material realities of a metropolis that cuts the leading edge of American consumption and capital into the searing-hot desert.  One point six million people and hundreds of thousands of temporary residents, nurtured by overwhelming flows of water and ice-cold-blowing air conditioning everywhere they step, sliding back and idling in Beemers and Mercedes and Ferraris and Explorers with tailpipes chugging emissions out on the Boulevard -- this desert settlement simply should not exist.  It's as if a group of mischevious developers and city boosters sat down and read William Cronon's magisterial book about Chicago -- Nature's Metropolis [7] -- and saw the title as a challenge.  What if the metropolis went to war with nature?
Copyright 2006 Vernon R. Wyly
The entire enterprise is precariously balanced on that lifeline of the contemporary global infoedutainment economy, the international airport.  Many thousands of hotel workers were laid off when air traffic was grounded in the weeks after September 11, 2001.  And even the growth itself seems like a flash-animation version of Joseph Schumpeter's idea of 'creative destruction."  The evolving imprint of casino capitalism invites an archaeology of successive waves of frantic innovation, the search for the new, the different, the latest superlative.  What's the biggest, most expensive, most elaborate, highest, largest ... today?  Today, it's the 2,716-room Wynn Las Vegas, which cost a total of $2.6 billion.  Years ago, Steve Wynn spent lavish sums to restore and redevelop the downtown Golden Nugget, and then dropped an eye-catching $630 million to develop the Mirage in 1989.  After putting up the Stratos Tower in 1994 and the $1.6 billion Bellagio in 1998, Wynn's signature project evolved with an unprecedented level of secrecy and mystery.  "No one from Wynn Resorts, other than Wynn, is allowed to discuss the project," the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted after Wynn granted the paper a one-hour tour of the resort nine days before its opening.  [8]  Wynn's comments to the reporter allow us to rethink the essence of urbanism, from the perspective of the heroic entrepreneur building landscapes sustained by an accelerated space of flows, where billions of dollars change hands with no goods being exchanged, and with the only apparently useful 'service' being that elusive hedonistic rush of anticipation, so often a stressful bittersweet addiction.  And yet still they arrive, tens of thousands each week, rubber chirping as the wheels touch down at McCarran, and Vegas' flambouyant Liberace of building permits and construction cranes presents the new $2.6 billion performance with humility:  "There are things here that we have never done before," Wynn told the Review-Journal.  "There is a degree of honesty that says don't oversell something and don't make a promise you can't keep.  It's best to shut up and let them be surprised." [9] 
And yet what of that foundational activity of the place, that euphemistic gaming-not-gambling that is watched so closely by the cameras, some discrete, some quite prominently announcing their vigilant eyes, as they peer at each of us, is it really seven hundred and eighty-four times a day?  It's not yet clear what the future of this place, this city built on the global-gaming space of flows, might be.  The major Las Vegas casinos have decided to take a neutral position on the latest push in Washington, D.C., to regulate online gaming, which generates some $12 billion annually worldwide.  The casinos are supporting a measure in the House of Representatives that would establish a study commission, hoping to forestall two merged bills now being described by Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as part of the American Values Agenda.  Meanwhile, the tiny offshore-casino nation of Antigua is pressing the World Trade Organization to render a verdict that the United States is violating trade agreements by attempting to block access to online gambling. [10]

Fears of a de-materialized online gaming realm that would destroy the economic base of Vegas are probably overblown.  They echo the Vegas casinos' fears when New Jersey legalized gambling to revitalize Atlantic City back in the 1970s.  After a few years, the casinos discovered that the creation of that new pit-stop for small-time betting had surprisingly few cannibalization effects; indeed, amateurs who would not have considered a major trip got their feet wet down the Jersey Shore, only to show up on the Strip later for the real experience. [11]

But return to our original question:  is this a city?  Perhaps.  But one defined by a perpetual, aggressive challenge to our settled understandings of urbanism.  Return to Tom Wolfe in the early 1960s, who stops in to speak with a psychiatrist at the County Hospital, who is wearing "a shawl-colored black silk suit with brass buttons," and who says, "...After I came here and began doing personal studies, I recognized extreme aggressiveness continually.  It's not merely what Las Vegas can do to a person, it's the type of person it attracts.  Gambling is a very aggressive pastime, and Las Vegas attracts aggressive people.  They have an amazing capacity to louse up a normal situation." [12].  But there is also respect and admiration from the silk-suit shrink, who emphasizes that "the same aggressive types are necessary to build a frontier town, and Las Vegas is a frontier town, certainly by any phsychological standard. ... They'll undertake anything and they'll accomplish it.  The building here has been incredible.  They don't seem to care what they're up against, so they do it."  [13]  And Steve Wynn still does it, quite aggressively and with disregard for what he is up against, at age sixty-three.  And his latest contribution to this frontier town is not only a $2.7 billion casino and resort, but an ideological manifesto for contemporary urbanism.  Speaking before the Nevada Gaming Commission to gain approval of the resort's license in March, 2005, Wynn said:  "This is a city glued by a single idea, that people from all over the world aspire to come and get a rich and deeper emotional experience.  They want to do things they are familiar with, but they want to do it bigger and better when they go on vacation.  What's left to us is to find a way to meet those challenges and to offer people what they want when they come on vacation.  So, when it came time to design the hotel, we had to go back to the very basic about what Las Vegas is all about.  What makes people want to come here?" [14]

For me, it was the signs, still, forty years after Tom Wolfe described them -- Flash-Gordon Ming-Alert Spiral, McDonald's Parabola -- and the thick mass of humanity streaming down the Boulevard at midnight.  That was my "rich and deeper emotional experience."  What's yours?
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