Chances are, if you know anything about Las Vegas, you will already have an opinion about the place. Sin City didn’t earn its name lightly. As one of the earliest states to legalise both gambling and prostitution, and with an economy heavily based on the former at least, Nevada created the conditions for a unique area of the Southwest of America to develop.
Being exceptional does not always mean being popular. When Nevada formally legalised gambling in 1931, several states demanded that its statehood be revoked. Then again, Nevada was never really meant to be liked. Part of the Utah Territory claimed by the United States after the Mexican War, Nevada (the name comes from the Sierra Nevada, or snow-covered mountains) largely comprised the non-Mormon part of the Territory. Its existence was expedited by the political needs of the Republican Party during the Civil War and sure enough, it helped elect Abraham Lincoln to his abbreviated second term.
Gerrymandering of a different sort played a role in Nevada’s growth when silver was discovered nearby. Its borders were extended on the basis that it was the best-equipped to cope with an influx of prospectors. Nevada’s previous relations with mining had not been so propitious – Death Valley became known for its tough conditions when unlucky prospectors stumbled upon it on the way to San Francisco during the 1849 gold rush – but it is possible that its own experience of being flush with silver gave Las Vegas some of its early spirit.
The decision to legalise gambling was initially intended to be a short-term budget fix. Several factors combined to prolong its stay of execution. One was the completion of the Hoover Dam nearby, providing more water and electricity than the Las Vegas of the time could possibly need. Boulder City, an even closer town to the Dam, was excluded from the gambling boom – gambling is still illegal there and alcohol was until about thirty years ago.
The second factor to influence Las Vegas’ development was the input of the mob. Never one to miss a unique opportunity, the sheer volume of casinos represents the competition involved. The industry is now big business, and like all entertainment has been mercilessly sanitised – to a point. The interiors of casinos are well-maintained, apparently child-friendly and devoid of drunkenness. The streets host ticket booths for the legendary shows or trips to the Grand Canyon. However, these jostle for space with pimps – mostly Hispanics wearing t-shirts offering ‘girls to your door in 20 minutes.’ The easy availability of porn and the prevalence of prostitution is shocking when contrasted with the rest of America. Unlike other cities, it seems to have been largely left to its own devices by the religious right. It is therefore a city which, despite its abandonment, and despite is close proximity to a former nuclear test-site, has thrived.