We talked to David Littlejohn, editor of "The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip" (Oxford University Press), an anthology examining the side of the city tourists rarely see. A professor emeritus of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Littlejohn has written and edited 11 previous books.
Q: How has your opinion of Las Vegas changed since you first visited the city as a 17-year-old?
A: It's so radically different that I had to kick myself to remember what I had seen in 1954. Nothing of what I saw before existed--not a single building remained as far as I know. The city has no past; they implode 20-year-old, 1,000-room hotels to put up new ones fairly regularly.
Q: You've described your opinion of Vegas as "nuanced hostility." What did you mean?
A: Originally, my hostility was essentially a snobbish, aesthetic one. I don't really like glitzy vulgarity. . . . Las Vegas as I read about it or saw it in films just looked like advertising at its most costly and strategic. It seemed so manipulative and gross. That kind of hostility is not much different from what I feel driving down boulevards in Los Angeles. But then to get to [Vegas], and learn about what the gambling industry had done to a city, about the almost universal attitudes of selfishness and greed, about the feelings of hopelessness generated by those who were not participants in the wealth, about the extraordinary narrow vision of the casino owners and managers and their allies--then your hostility becomes more nuanced and justifiable. At the same time, to make it complicated, I actually like places like New York, New York and the Bellagio.
Q: The Bellagio owns the most extensive art collection in Vegas. Why does such a wealthy city lack non-casino cultural institutions?
A: There are a number of arguments given. There is still a fundamentalist core who dominate a great deal of the city, usually associated with puritanical Christians or Mormons. In both cases there's at the very least a suspicion about the arts. On the other hand, a very large percentage of the new population is made up of either fairly close-minded retirees or bottom-of-the-income-pile Mexican immigrants. Neither of those groups has the time or inclination to support the arts. Also, the casino owners and managers aren't enthusiastic about anything that might create diversions from what they consider "the only game in town."
Q: How would you rein in the only game in town?
A: It would be nice if you could restrict gambling to the tourist precincts downtown and on the Strip. That would reduce a great deal of the problems that result from compulsive gambling among residents. Local residents don't do most of their gambling at the big casinos; they do it at what are called "neighborhood casinos," or for that matter supermarkets, 7-Elevens and Laundromats.
Q: How do the poor fare in an economy dominated by the casino industry?
A: One problem that people who run homeless shelters describe is that they can finally get their real bottom-feeders into a job and possibly rental housing, when they come home with their first $20 and spend it on gambling. There are dozens and dozens of little casinos with penny slots scattered around north Las Vegas. They are very grim but full. They sell $1.99 spaghetti dinners 24 hours a day, and are often right across the street from trailer parks or old people's homes. You see people with walkers, canes and wheelchairs spending the day in these penny-slot places, which become social centers.
Q: Describe the relationship between the gaming industry and the sex business.
A: Officially, the gaming industry is hostile to the sex industry. They will prove that to you by showing how they rigorously kick prostitutes out of their precincts. They demand to see your room key before you go up in the elevator so that no one can make a date and run up to a room. They have tried to ban people who hand out leaflets advertising call girls in front of their premises. They do everything they can to maintain the clean, tidy, gambling-as-family-entertainment image. At the same time, they put up giant billboards touting shows with nearly naked chorus girls and chorus boys.
Q: What other steps do the big casinos take to keep the Strip visitor-friendly?
A: They virtually walled in the black community, called Westside, during the Las Vegas version of the Rodney King riot, which went on much longer than the one in Los Angeles. They brought in tanks from Nellis Air Force Base and blocked the exits leading out of the ghetto. They don't permit panhandling. They want to sweep the sidewalks in front of their hotels, let alone the casinos themselves, free of anybody who might bother tourists.
Q: Nevada law allows casinos to banish patrons who win too much money. Does the industry flout the American ideal of a fair fight?
A: I don't see anyone outside of social services and, to some degree, the religious community, caring about equity, fairness or sharing the wealth. The big word in Clark County is "entrepreneurship." It's a Republican catchword, but here it takes on different connotations, what I call "every-man-for-himselfishness." Your job is to get rich yourself, and you can be more proud the more rich you get. . . .
Q: What is your favorite urban legend about Vegas?
A: This floats from city to city, but perhaps it's more believable in Las Vegas: Tourists are supposedly drugged and have a kidney secretly removed so the organ can be sold on the open market. The Las Vegas police do everything they can to prove it can't be done and isn't done, yet people continue to believe it, possibly because there's an attitude in Las Vegas that everyone is doing what they can for money.
Q: If forced to watch Liberace, Wayne Newton or Siegfried and Roy for eternity, which circle of show-biz Hell would you choose?
A: Both Wayne Newton and Liberace are solo acts, which means you would never, never get away from them, whereas Siegfried and Roy--particularly as they age and decay--do less and less of the act themselves. There are lions, tigers, the elephants, dancing girls, disappearing houses and whatever other [acts] they shove on the stage, so you would occasionally have diversions. Perhaps that would make it more of a Purgatory than Hell, payment for minor sins.