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Las Vegas
Understanding the City

For those interested in a bit of Las Vegas history, consider this a 'long-timers' personal history of Las Vegas. It includes the numbers but with real life observations you won't find in other places.

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

From the long-timers 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 other 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 also miss fundamental things that make a huge difference when talking about basics in the formation of a city. 

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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's often overlooked is 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 mentioned on the Nevada State Museum page, an important thing to understanding Las Vegas is that for so long its had a really big name - like, worldwide big. 

But for a long time, it was literally 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, let me run some numbers by you of nearby popular cities in 1980, which was a few years before the population bombs started hitting Vegas.

POPULATION OF NEARBY CITIES - 1980

  • L.A
  • San Diego
  • Phoenix
  • Las Vegas
  • 2,950,010
  •    875,538
  •    789,704
  •    164,674

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

Now for the area wide numbers;

POPULATION OF METRO-COUNTY AREAS - 1980

  • L.A.
  • San Diego
  • Phoenix
  • Las Vegas
  • 7,477,657
  • 1,861,846
  • 1,600,00
  •   463,087

Las Vegas metro-county area was less than 1/3rd of Phoenix.

And now lastly, by technical age;

AGE OF EACH CITY IN 1980

  • L.A.
  • San Diego
  • Phoenix
  • Las Vegas
  • 130
  • 130
  •  99
  •  75

As you can see, the differences between the population numbers for Las Vegas and these other well known cities weren't big ... they were huge.

Now consider how well known Las Vegas was around the world in 1980. That's why I say that although it had a really big name, it was actually just a small town.

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 Las Vegas as a city. 

Many cities have had a somewhat more natural, organic growth curve due to 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 manageable.

That wasn't the case for Las Vegas. It quickly went from being a small town into a head-spinning growing city. 


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 anyone 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 1000 a month .. then 1500-2000 .. 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 and the county-wide area pretty much doubled. The city went from 186,380 to 368,360. Clark County went from 562,280 to 1,036,180.

And that's just 10 years of it. Any way you look at it, that's just sheer crazy growth! 


THE MILITARY CONNECTION

Old history on the growth of Las Vegas shows some pretty big growth before the '80's 'percentage wise', but as can be the nature of looking at things by percentages only, it's quite deceiving. 

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

But what that actually means is it went 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, 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 called Basic Townsite, which eventually grew into the city of Henderson. 

Much like Hoover Dam, the numbers of Basic Magnesium's scale, 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 corporate interest in the gaming business.


THE CITY BUILDING BUSINESS

Another important aspect of 'by city standards' is that many well known cities had their development and growth greatly helped along by wealthy benefactors, philanthropist and civic organizations. 

The largest, best known were Vanderbilt, Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Hershey, Hearst, Astor, Ford, Getty, Hopkins, Mellon, MacArthur, Hughes and many others. In time, this included many more community based donors of those 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 other key institutions. That progress allowed for an expanding tax base and re-investment into cities by their governments too. 

But this hasn't been a part of Las Vegas' formation ... which put it at quite a disadvantage.

For most of its 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. A city? ... fuggedaboutit!

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, North Las Vegas by Nellis A.F.B 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 these incredibly tough years. 

For a little over a decade the Clark County School District (CCSD) added 12,000 new students a year! 

For perspective, here are the changes 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.

Philadelphia, formerly #5, dropped to #17 losing 26.09% of enrollment. Detroit, formerly #7 dropped to #91 of enrollment ... losing 72.54%. Wow.

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

Think about that. Those cities lost that many kids enrolled in their school systems. Now add to that the parents no longer there to enroll their kids. Guess where many of them came too?

Knowing this, 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 so many 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 many different places and 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 eventually head back home. After all, who would want to raise their kids long term in Las Vegas?

Consequently, that made it more difficult to consistently bring together enough interest when it came to needed community development. That certainly impacted our Educational system, 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.

In essence, Las Vegas didn't really start to resemble the operations of a real city until the latter 80's - which isn't that long ago. That, in my perspective, is what makes it a young city. 

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 more of a comprehensive city.


THE CHARACTER THAT MADE LAS VEGAS

Those who came here in the early days were the kind naturally drawn to the fun and atmospheres that vice related businesses produced.

I'm not talking Mobsters and such, but the thousands of everyday people and workers who liked being in or around the excitement of the casinos, bars, shows, lounges and businesses that catered to their needs.

The good flow of money certainly didn't hurt either.

The unique nature of our service industry was a natural fit with their notion that life indeed could be too short and in many ways, a gamble itself. They felt it was better enjoyed when not taken so seriously, which definitely wasn't 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.

The casino analogy was that it's a crapshoot to be enjoyed while you're in action, before your 7-out rolls. 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 all around the town.

Just as importantly, it was a character aspect that was commonly and happily shared with our visitors. 

If you talk to someone who visited Vegas in 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. We all know bad news sells and when it comes to Vegas, you get all kinds of crash and burn stories.

It's a city of vices, and a strong respect for the power of vice is needed to survive here. There are countless good stories you'll never hear, but I as well as many other long-timers, are witness to that.

These were the kinds of things that made those days so much fun, and one thing long-timers here miss in a big way. It seems like everything is so much more serious now. 

There's a little more to it, but that was a key characteristic that gave living here an 'aliveness' that was so hard to feel anywhere else. That's always been one of the hooks of this town ... and though some of that character is still around, it was so 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 know 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 you'll see on 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 by just about every important measure. 

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 things 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 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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