Las Vegas - Understanding the City

For those of you who may be interested in a little bit of Las Vegas history, I'd like to add a little twist to the popular history you may of encountered previously. Consider this a 'long timer's' personal observational history of Las Vegas. In true Vegas style, a bit different than the usual.

First off, if you've ever asked questions about what it's like to live here from those who do live here, you'll often encounter two basic camps. The long timer's and the relatively recently arrived.

From the long timer's you'll hear things along the lines of  "it was better when the Mob ran it". Long timer visitors will tell you the same.

From the relatively newly arrived (15 years give or take) you'll often hear "it stinks ... it doesn't have a lot of the real city things like we used to have back home". They came to Vegas for jobs and opportunities they could no longer get back home ... and have stayed for the same reason.

Both views have their points and are obviously subjective, but both views don't reflect a number of key things about what Las Vegas is or isn't ... fundamental things that make a huge difference when talking about the basic formation of a city. 

I don't claim to be a specially insightful person in making the observations you'll see here ... just someone who has been here many years through some of its tremendous changes and growth, along with a bit of the geeky interest in some of the numbers, facts, culture and history of Las Vegas.

What I've learned is that both viewpoints never consider the basic economic and cultural forces involved in Vegas' transformation from a small special interest town into a city ... much less one that is so different than just about any other city you can imagine.

Following are the reasons I say that, and why its growth and formation have been so uniquely different.


BY THE NUMBERS

As I briefly mentioned on the Nevada State Museum page and a few other pages, one big thing to understanding Las Vegas is that it has always had a really big name - like, worldwide big. 

But for a long time, it was actually a small town. 

By most all measures, particularly by city standards, Las Vegas is a very young city compared to other well known cities. To illustrate this point, I've written this out in sequential rather than chart form, for you to more easily see the numbers side by side.

Looking back to 1980, here's the comparison (largest to smallest) of the nearby cities of LA, San Diego, Phoenix and then Las Vegas. The sequential city populations of these were 2,950,010 - 875,538 - 789,704 and 164,674. 

Las Vegas was a little less than 1/4th the size of Phoenix, the next smallest city.

The numbers of the county or metro area of these cities (in the same descending order) were 7,477,657 - 1,861,846 - 1,600,000 and then 463,087 for Vegas.

By age, in 1980 LA and San Diego were both 130 yrs. old, Phoenix was 99 yrs. old and Las Vegas was 75 yrs. old. 

As you can see, the differences between the numbers for Las Vegas and these other well known cities were huge. 

The key operative phrase above, 'by city standards' applies on various levels and following are the reasons why I think it made for critical disadvantages for the city of Las Vegas. 

Many cities have had a somewhat more natural, organic growth curve due to their businesses, services and industries growing, expanding, diversifying, etc., which also provides for government jobs to grow along with it.

Normally, cities will have spurts of growth and it isn't exactly an even or smooth process but quite manageable.

As illustrated above, even in 1980 Las Vegas was a relatively small town compared to what most anyone would of guessed a city with such a big name to of been. It was in the mid to late '80's that Las Vegas' population exploded. 


OUR ROARING 80'S

Around 1982 I remember seeing a little segment on either 20/20 or 60 minutes about how easy it was for just about anyone to get a good paying job here in Las Vegas.

It pointed out the low cost of living, no individual state income tax and no special skills nor high school diploma needed ... not even a strong grasp of the english language. What skills were needed in the service industry could be easily obtained, as well as there being Unions that could and would help place those wanting to work and get a new start. 

I swear it seemed like not more than 6 months later, word got out that it was all true. Then the flood gates began opening up and they started coming en masse. At first it was 1500-2000 a month. Then 3000 ... and on and on.

At it's peak, which ran for years, it hovered around 7000 a month. 

Between 1985 and 1995, the population of Las Vegas almost doubled. The city went from 186,380 to 368,360. Clark County went from 562,280 to 1,036,180.

Any way you look at it, that's just sheer crazy growth. 


THE MILITARY CONNECTION

Now, if you were to read some common history on the growth of Las Vegas, you'd see some pretty big growth before the '80's 'percentage wise', but as can be the nature of looking at things by percentages only, it can be a bit deceiving. 

For example, the growth rate from 1950 to 1960 was 161% ... Wow ! 

But what that actually translates to in numbers is a population growth from 24,600 to 64,400 over those 10 years - an average of 4,000 per year. A good clip of growth, but not as big as it sounds when one says 161%. 

A large share of this was Cold War related government jobs tied to Nellis A.F.B., the Nevada Test Site, Indian Springs and related contractors and vendors. The Strip and Downtown were growing too, but not on that scale. 

When people talk Las Vegas, the military ties are often overlooked. For a long time now, the ties between the two have been vital to the advancement and success of both.

For example, in 1942 the military's development of Basic Magnesium for light metal production created the world's largest magnesium plant right here in Las Vegas. Back then it was initially called Basic Townsite ... the place we know now as the city of Henderson. 

Much like Hoover Dam, the numbers in Basic Magnesium's investment, payroll, workers and production were enormous for those times. Although relatively short lived, it established the Townsite, which afterwards went on into other important government related production.

In 1966 Howard Hughes began his buying spree and slowly, Mob interest kept being replaced by legit interest. That progressed into the 70's and 80's and the growth of an ever larger corporate interest in the gaming business.


THE CITY BUILDING BUSINESS

Another important aspect meant by the phrase 'by city standards' is that many well known cities had their development and growth greatly helped along by wealthy benefactors and philanthropist. 

The largest most well known of these were Vanderbilt, Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Hershey, Hearst, Astor, Ford, Getty, Hopkins, Mellon, MacArthur, Hughes and many others. As time went on, this included ever more of those with roots in those communities who had prospered from the growth and expansions.    

Foundations, endowments, grants and charities were very important to the formation and success of social and civic programs, universities, hospitals and various other key institutions. That kind of progress allowed for an expanding tax base and re-investment into cities by their respective governments. 

But that's wasn't a part of Las Vegas' formation ... which put it at quite a disadvantage.

For many years, special interest is what grew Las Vegas - military government jobs and businesses related to it, and then Mob interest. As one could easily guess, Mob interest didn't bother with community development. They were interested in a money making playground, not a real city for crying out loud. 

You could somewhat say the same for the government jobs. Their focus was in there being enough for those who were here to work for them. There wasn't much in the way of interest in developing a city beyond those basic needs. 

Good examples of this were Boulder City, Basic Townsite-Henderson and Mercury. Community development was mostly done by individuals with modest means.

Although Las Vegas has had some really generous and civic minded individuals, by and large we've never had the amounts, nor level, of benefactor class that has helped develop so many other cities. That began to change with the larger corporate interest in gaming.

For many years the military presence helped to economically stabilize the city, which basically made Vegas a 'two horse town' - the casino and military industries.

During the 80's, the growth and prosperity of the casino industry began towering over the economic landscape. As positive of a change as that's been, it came with limitations. In effect, it made Vegas more like a one horse town, with the stability of the city and county becoming ever more heavily reliant and dependent on it. 

Vegas used to be recession proof when it was a small town, but now that there's a whole city to maintain, that's no longer true.

One only has to look at other one industry towns (steel and auto come to mind) to know it isn't good for a city's long term prospects. A more diverse business base is needed. 

Our government leaders have been well aware of the needed business diversity, but it's no small matter getting that to happen ... especially since the key items I pointed out above, items critical to a city's foundational growth and development, have only recently begun to take shape.


A LITTLE SCHOOLING VEGAS STYLE

Considering all of the key aspects of city building mentioned above, it's no wonder that another very important institution has suffered because of it. Our educational system. 

It gets slagged a lot, yet there has been some truly heroic work done throughout the years during the toughest of situations that any city has faced. 

To give you but one example, for a little over a decade the Clark County School District (CCSD) added 12,000 new students a year! 

For perspective, let me give you another incredible set of numbers ... the change in percentage of enrollment from 1987-88 to 2012-13 - a period of 25 years. 

In 1987-88, CCSD was 18th in the U.S. by size of enrollment. At that time, the top five were NY, LA, Chicago, Miami-Dade and Philadelphia. All well established cities with all of the key factors of city development mentioned above.

By 2012-13, CCSD had grown to number 5. The top 4 were still the top 4.

In those 25 years, CCSD had a massive 211.34 % growth in enrollment !!

During that very same 25 year time period Philadelphia, formerly # 5 in enrollment, dropped to # 17 and lost 26.09%. Detroit, formerly # 7 dropped to # 91 ... losing 72.54%. Wow.

Knowing this scenario, it becomes easier to understand why our school system has had such huge struggles.  Granted there are other factors, but the explosion of enrollments and its basic needs forced other needs aside for a long, long while.

Another key factor is the transplant nature of Las Vegans who came here for the jobs. So many people came from so many different places that it was common to find they were more loyal, and cared more about, their home towns than they did Las Vegas. 

Their thinking was that they weren't going to be here long term ... just long enough to make good and then head back home. After all, who would want to raise their kids in Las Vegas ?

Consequently, that made it more difficult to consistently bring together enough of them when it came to larger scale community development ... which included educational needs, but that too has been changing and improving for a while now.   

By and large, I'd say Las Vegas has done a tremendous job dealing with all the factors its had to deal with, educationally as well as in many other ways.

So in essence, Las Vegas didn't really start to resemble the operation of a real city until the 80's ... and that isn't that long ago. That's what makes it a very young city by my perspective. 

Now the population of Clark County is a bit over 2 million ... along with the usual big city problems that face many other cities. But at the same time, more and more benefactors are helping to shape it into a more comprehensive city.


THE CHARACTER THAT MADE LAS VEGAS

Those who came here in the early days were the kind naturally drawn to the vice business in one way or another. I don't mean just Mobsters and such, but the thousands of everyday regular people and workers. 

The unique nature of our service industry was a natural fit with their notion that in many ways life itself was a gamble and much more enjoyed when not taken so seriously, which was often the norm back then. 

They had more of the fun-loving rascal and rebel nature to them, with most of them not letting it get too far out of hand.

As such, much of their viewpoint was that indeed life can be too short. The casino analogy was that it's sort of a game to be enjoyed while you're in action before that 7 rolls and you crap out. They had a spirit and more of a 'joie de vivre' than your average joe. They enjoyed the 'now' long before it became a popular cultural notion. 

There was a certain lightness and happiness in being surrounded by that notion. It was infectious, pervasive and a large part of the character of people in our service industry and around the town. Just as importantly, it was a character aspect happily shared with visitors. 

If you talk to someone who has been visiting Vegas since those days, you'll definitely hear that same sentiment ... and how much they miss it. 

Obviously one can overdo that viewpoint to life or find reason to be critical of it, but there's plenty of examples to the contrary too.

That was but one thing that made those days so much fun, and it's one of the things long timers here miss in a big way. It seems like everything is so much more serious now. 

Certainly there's a bit more to it, but that was one key characteristic that gave living here an 'aliveness' that was so hard to feel anywhere else. I think that's always been one of the hooks of this town ... and though some of that character is still around, it was much more pervasive back then than it is now. 

Besides the different places I've lived, my job in the casino industry has me crossing paths with people from all around the U.S., as well as the world, on a constant basis. I've learned it's human nature to remember the 'good ole days' of pretty much any city, but I've yet to hear anything that I think compares to Las Vegas.

As I pointed out on the Nevada State Museum page, the differences are stark when it comes to Nevada as a whole and Las Vegas in particular. There simply hasn't ever been anything quite like this state or this city ... and that's still true today. 

Having lived in a few other places has helped me see this city in a different light. It took me a while to really realize that it actually is a young city still making its way forward. 

At times, like many long timers here, I've resented the transformations, changes and the loss of our 'town' to progress, no matter how much sense it made. But one of the certainties of life is change ... and ours have been pretty fantastic. 

I hear that often from visitors who've come back after 4-5 years since their last visit. It amazes them how Las Vegas keeps innovating, upgrading and raising the bar on so many things while adding even more to the huge array of choices and places to experience. 

And their fascination with Vegas reminds me that it really has been one incredible ride being in this one-of-a-kind city during some of its most dynamic days. 

It also reminds me that it isn't just something of the past. Las Vegas has transformed itself into an even more spectacular place. It's simply amazing the variety and levels of enjoyment one can find in a place like this.

And all of this also reminds me of something that's easily taken for granted when it's an everyday thing ... and that is that Las Vegas is still quite the incredible place to call home. 

Lou

* A few sources of the subjects on this page

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