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From Las Vegas
The Birth of a Culture
When Civilization Hit Las Vegas
By André Gayot

Pyramids, medieval castles and mini skyscrapers compose the unique Las Vegas skyline

It might sound like a strong proposition but, all things considered, it’s reasonable to state that there’s nothing on earth like Las Vegas. This city is like a dream awake—but on another planet. As in all dreams, reality is distorted and sometimes grotesque, but indeed extraordinary things happen. For instance, think of the city's short history. A hundred years ago, in the middle of the Paiute fields, Las Vegas (“The Meadows” in Spanish) was a marshy oasis for mules and men and, later, it became a sun-baked railroad station like the kind you see in old Western movies. Even the indomitable Brigham Young (founder of the Mormon Church), daunted by such a scorched landscape and arid climate, abandoned his plans to colonize the valley in 1858. Who would have guessed then that millions of pilgrims would flock here in adoration of the golden calf? The construction of Hoover Dam in 1931 was the first noticeable sign of evolution, but the real beginning must be credited to infamous mobster Bugsy Siegel and his 1946 opening of the Flamingo, at that time considered a luxurious resort. It took some more time for Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack to establish the sulfurous notoriety of "Sin City."

Once a hangar in the desert,
now a gigantic airport
At the Green Valley Ranch: vines and grapes grown in 105° temperature

Pioneers are not always justly rewarded: Bugsy Siegel, terminated by his peers, did not see, alas, the blossoming of roulette flowers. What a symbol! Where a holy man with his angelic aspirations failed, a ruthless gangster succeeded. With the tip of a handgun and a basket of vices a city was born, paving the way for visionaries like Howard Hughes and a slew of audacious entrepreneurs. If a glossary for Las Vegas exists, don’t look in it for the word “impossible.” Tour de forces are routine here. The most extravagant and disproportionate concepts are welcome, and plenty of cash is available to fulfill them while the rest of the world balks—until, at the end of the day, they prove to be enormous successes. Although among the millions of visitors flocking to Las Vegas a good number is made up of gamers trying to tempt Lady Luck with their weekly pay-checks, an increasing proportion consists of plain tourists with their usual paraphernalia, including strollers, packed into their station wagons, taking their kids along for a vacation in a city that wants to brush the sin off its coat of arms. Whether this is an appropriate destination for the education and recreation of young ones is left to your appreciation, but after all there are lessons to be learned everywhere. The lessons here are multiple. But the main one is fascinating.

Real gondolas on a fake lagoon

Las Vegas is where America not only reinvents itself but also the rest of the world. What’s the meaning of these gondolas propelled by gondoliers singing tired ritornellos on an artificial pond? Of this shrunken Eiffel Tower? Of these pyramids of Plexiglas? Of these volcanoes erupting at scheduled hours? Of this profusion of fountains in an area where water is so scarce and precious? Is it a mega Disneyland with no entrance fee, a playground for grown-ups, a fantasy of extraordinary proportions? Or is it the desire to encapsulate and appropriate the wonders of the world in the desert, for the enjoyment of the masses and to feed their dreams? Or on the contrary, is it a monument in honor of past civilizations? Or maybe it is the demonstration that the last frontier town surged from nothing in the middle of nowhere can do better—thanks to electricity, air conditioning and the will of formidable pioneers—than the originals that inspired this global counterfeiting?

This is already old news. Las Vegas reached a level in its irresistible ascent where it no longer needs to copy anything, where it finds inspiration in itself and can generate enough dreams and fantasy of its own. The colossal new Wynn Las Vegas exemplifies this evolution. This stalwart is nothing else than Steve Wynn’s beautiful, American monument to the 21st century, although it’s a little bit reminiscent of the curvaceous lines of Oscar Niemeyer’s Edifício Copan in São Paulo. It does not pretend to be the Vatican or Buckingham Palace, and even the French restaurant of Daniel Boulud located on its premises has an American flair. Las Vegas has matured, making its debut in the "civilized" world with everything that makes a metropolis, such as public transportation (the monorail), museums, theaters, pedestrians, stores and boutiques; In one word: real people and, yes, some of the best restaurants in the world.

The Wynn Las Vegas is reminiscent of the Edifício Copan in São Paulo

An era is fading nostalgically away, that of the all-you-can-eat buffets for a fistful of dollars, of kitschy and “exotic” décors, and even of the ubiquitous inferno of gambling. They brag that more revenues are now derived from the shows and restaurants than from gambling. For instance, the new and beautiful Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel is totally game-free. However, a single casino generates five to six million dollars on weekdays and ten million dollars per day on weekends. But even if gaming is the principal source of the wealth of Las Vegas, it is headed in a new direction. Even the crime situation has changed. The mob has been wiped out, eradicated by a more organized (and sometimes and /or somewhat more acceptable) competitor, the corporate world.

Le Cirque du Soleil has revolutionized the traditional circus show and created an incredible aquatic theatre with "O." Broadway productions such as "Mama Mia" migrate to the Strip, outdating productions of the showgirl variety, and top chefs from America and France open fancy restaurants pushing the legendary buffets backstage. The arrival of the most unexpected chef, Joël Robuchon, who chose Las Vegas for his comeback in grand style, stunned the world food establishment. These are the markers of the new Las Vegas. From the sky, cranes and construction are visible everywhere. Twenty miles from the Strip, the one-billion-dollar Red Rock Canyon Ranch Resort is about to materialize.

All the name stores are found at Fashion Show mall

The Las Vegas phenomenon has generated a huge economic momentum that’s snowballing. As it happened in the past, under comparable circumstances, in wealthy cities like Florence, Venice and Vienna, thanks to the vision of enlightened princes, a fraction of this monetary flux goes to support the arts and culture, cladding Las Vegas in a coat of much needed respectability. He who said money cannot buy nobility has not seen Las Vegas lately. A thousand years from now, anthropologists might very well date the beginning of the 21st century as the birth of the "Vegasian" culture.

(Updated: 04/28/19)

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