Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip

The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip
David Littlejohn,Eric Gran | 1999-10-28 00:00:00 | Oxford University Press, USA | 352 | United States
What images come to mind when you think of Las Vegas?

Mobsters and showgirls, magicians and tigers, multimillion-dollar poker games and prizefights; towering signboards that light up the night in front of ever more spectacular casino hotels.

But real people live here, too--over a million today, two million tomorrow. Greater Las Vegas has long been the fastest growing metropolitan area in America. And almost every aspect of its citizens' lives is influenced by the almighty power of the gambling industry.

A team of fifteen reporters led by David Littlejohn, together with prize winning photo-journalist Eric Gran, studied the "real" Las Vegas--the city beyond the Strip and Downtown--for the better part of a year. They talked to teenagers (whose suicide and dropout rates frighten parents), senior citizens (many of whom spend their days playing bingo and the slots), Mexican immigrants (who build the new houses and clean the hotels), homeless people and angry blacks, as well as local police, active Christians, city officials, and prostitutes. They looked into the local churches, the powerful labor unions, pawn shops, the real estate boom, defiant ranchers to the north, and dire predictions that the city is about to run out of water.

Proud Las Vegans claim that theirs is just a friendly southwestern boomtown--"the finest community I have ever lived in," says Bishop Daniel Walsh, who comes from San Francisco. But their picture of Las Vegas as a vibrant, civic-minded metropolis conflicts with evidence of transiency, rootlessness, political impotence, and social dysfunction.

In this close-up investigation of the real lives being led in America's most tourist-jammed, gambling-driven city, readers will discover a Las Vegas very different from the one they may have seen or imagined.
It seems from the reviews that some people were disappointed by this book, but I really enjoyed reading the various essays. The book is a series of journalistic essays from different writers, and each one writes for about 5-7 pages on a specific topic. Some of the topics the book covers are housing/development, water, the sex industry, African Americans in Vegas, crime, growing up in Vegas, etc. Some of the essays were more serious (water) than others (sex industry), but all of them offered a nice insight into the city, especially if you've only been there a few times and have never ventured beyond the strip. I read this book a few months before moving to Henderson, NV., and thought the book was a nice way to get acquainted with the city and what goes on there. This is definitely not a book for tourists or someone planning a trip to Vegas, but more for people who live in the area, people considering moving there, or perhaps people who have visited and developed an interest in the area. It's an easy read, and an enjoyable one.
This book is primarily written by a handful of contributors, mainly journalists and edited by a seasoned journalist and former journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley. Because of the number of authors, the quality of the chapters vary, but in general, this was a very noble effort and a well-thought out and implemented project. The idea, according to the editor, was to demystify the resort destination and to look at it as a real, although unique American city.
The introduction by the editor is excellent, as is his epilogue, synthesizing and analyzing the content of the book.
The chapters in between discuss various aspects of the city, the educational system, the plight of the homeless, the large population of hispanic immigrant workers, the casino and sex "industries", the scarce water supply, etc. The book also attempts to discuss such things as the special characteristics of Nevadans.
Many of these chapters are very well written, and are all very easy to read. Some of the authors tend to fall into a pattern that I find particularly troublesome about, in particular, television journalism. The author is looking to make a point (for example, there are a lot of kids in the Clark County School District who use drugs). So, they interview and present the most shocking results from their interviews regarding what a few kids say about their drug use. Never mind the fact that one could have probably obtained similar comments from some kids in any other city. Reading the chapter on the schools, I would think that it is impossible to grow up in Las Vegas and to be a good kid and not drop out and go onto college. However, quite on the contrary, over the last 4 years that I have lived in this city, I have interviewed 30+ high school seniors on behalf of my alma mater on the East Coast. I have met kids who are outstanding students, have some of the highest test scores in the nation, are deeply involved in athletics, music, and community service and have never touched a drug and don't regularly hang out on the strip.
It is very difficult, I believe, as a visitor, to get a true picture of this city. The tourism economy actively attempts to create and maintain the atmosphere of "anything goes" "have fun and drink and gamble and do whatever you want" for the tourists. However, as the editor astutely notes, beyond the strip, "many conditions recorded in this book will be recognized by Americans from other states and cities..."

Beyond some of the shortcomings, this is a very well-done work. Some of the authors spent a great deal of time locally researching their work. The introspective thoughts by the editor really pull it together. As a resident, I find this book helps me to get some critical distance to evaluate the city in which I live. My only fear is that for someone not familiar with the city, the work of some of the authors may paint a uncharacteristically negative picture in some cases that does not give Las Vegas the proper perspective in these problems relative to other places.
Having spent at least 1 week a year in Las Vegas since 1960, the scope and breadth of the "Real Las Vegas" was rewardingly real, and suprisingly interesting and very readible. Staying at the Sands Hotel in the sixties with my family and - the obvious metamorphousis of a few casinos in the desert to what is is today is a marvel and wonder. The 2 reviewers listed seemed to be looking for some explanation or reason for the diversity of L.V.. Answers. Answers - You won't find any here. The stories and straight up, direct, and frank. Real investigative insight into some of the many facets of life in Las Vegas. What I really liked about this book is it's about real people, with real dreams and disapointments. It's about a city that's grown too fast, under the stewardship of gaming, sex and power. It's about the extremes. Las Vegas is a wonderful metephore for the United States society - some are just turned off the the brash and brazen display of human nature Las Vegas encourages. You won't like all the stories, but you will find some very moving people and issues. The introduction is 1 of the best sections in the book. They had to leave out many sories because of space. I hope there's another volumn.
The Real Las Vegas is written by a retired profesor from Berkley who, after loosing two rolls of quarters at a strip casino, is bent on teachinng the rest of us how "evil" Las Vegas really is. Among the more "enlightened" things that we simple minded people would never know about this city are: Seniors like to play BINGO. Some teens growing up in Las Vegas drink and get into trouble - some even have children before they are married! The local police department protect tourists downtown and on the strip! (Can you just imagine that?). Casinos have their own private security force, and money flows free and easy! The education system of this city (and it must be only this city) is over-crowded and under funded, and there are less expensive, and faster growing southwestern cities than Las Vegas! The book is simply not helpful and not interesting given all of the maladies this author cites are around "In spades" if you will, in other cities. I am not sure what is so Real about this book, except that it is clear this man wants his two rolls of quarters back.
Every play needs its actors, and someone has to sweep up the hall as well. Littlejohn says that they didn't seek to focus on the negatives, but the result is that while Las Vegas may be the fastest growing city in America, both in jobs and population; it doesn't sound that appealing other than as a place to visit.

Most of the reports are glum, and sometimes downright disheartening. Sure, many cities have these problems, but most of them try to do something about it. In Vegas, if it negatively affects the Industry, then it is either ignored or swept under the carpet. It puts a dull finish on what is otherwise presented as a glittering jewel.

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