For a brief bit of time earlier this month, I was reminded of how it used to be around here. Confident business leaders and politicians grazed on a sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Four Seasons, exchanging business cards and chatting about new deals they expected to come through. Then they settled down at tableclothed tables set with fancy china and watched as their leader, Nevada Development Authority CEO Somer Hollingsworth, talked up the land of opportunity that Las Vegas represents.
Hollingsworth, a man never accused of understatement, exhibited some brazen hubris in his talk, titled, “California Has Lost Its Mind and Las Vegas Is Providing Psychoanalysis,” running through the litany of challenges facing our neighbor to the west. He even—and I’m not kidding—donned a tinfoil hat as he mercilessly mocked California policymakers for their high taxes and generous state-sponsored services before explaining why the Golden State’s budget misery would lead to robust job growth here.
As weird as it was to see a grown man wearing a tinfoil hat, and as unseemly as it felt to hear people cackle at the prospect of exploiting someone else’s misery, it also was nice to hear some roundabout good news about the Las Vegas economy for a change.
Except dwelling in an alternative universe where the eastbound stampede of Californians was in effect didn’t last long. The next day we learned that Nevada, already the nation’s foreclosures champ, had hit an all-time record for unemployment, 12.3 percent. The nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation released a study shortly thereafter that indicated that the Silver State’s economy is “the most distressed” in the United States. And CNBC did an analysis that showed that Nevada can expect the nation’s largest budget gap in 2010 by percentage of the general fund. Presumably, Mr. Hollingsworth, Kaiser and CNBC included California in their research.
By the weekend, I was exhausted from not just another week of lousy economic data but also from working my ass off to make mortgage payments on property unlikely for years to be worth even close to what we paid. When a journalist friend in New York who used to cover Vegas called to chitchat, he could hear my weariness.
“It’s just no fun anymore,” I said.
“Vegas,” I said. “Vegas isn’t fun anymore.”
It was an epiphany of sorts. Oh, sure, Vegas is still a blast for tourists. In fact, it’s never been a bigger one. The resorts are so desperate, they’re giving away rooms, meals, flights, show tickets, whatever.
So who’s the sucker now? Wasn’t that sort of the premise of our economy, that we build all these fantastical, lovely experiences to make up for the fact that we’re relieving the masses of their cash at the tables or machines while convincing them that it’s fun? I’ve never quite believed that; I don’t think there’s anything more insidious about spending money playing games of chance than spending it on an outing at a professional sports game. But the premise sure wasn’t that this is where the world comes to rip us off.
No, it’s living here that’s just no fun these days. And boy, was it ever when the going was good! That may seem logical and obvious—duh, it’s more enjoyable to reap the benefits of a boom—but the bust has stolen the swagger of Vegas, and suddenly we see that the swagger was, oddly, our identity. That sense of anything being possible is gone; the sense that we as individuals and as corporations could dream gigantic dreams and always be rewarded for our audacity has evaporated.
When Vegas is not a boom town, those of us who live here don’t know what it is actually is. A painfully hot and dry environmentally ridiculous city full of crime, traffic, transients and lousy schools? It was all of those things even when times were good, but did we care as long as our nests were being feathered, as long as everyone felt like can’t-miss Midases?
Last week, I interviewed Marco Porceddu, the chef at Ago at the Hard Rock Hotel-Casino, for a profile I’m writing. Porceddu started in Vegas when he was 24, back in 1994, by arriving in town and calling up the Desert Inn Hotel-Casino looking for a cooking gig. They invited him in to cook for some executives, tasted the fruits of his talents and gave him an upper-level job. From there he ended up at MGM Grand and then was snapped up by Steve Wynn to create the once-legendary Francesco’s at the Treasure Island. All in his 20s.
That’s the Vegas I loved, the one of endless possibilities, of quick success, of mixing water and dust and hard work and good fortune and coming out with something better than what was there before. I loved the Vegas that I consciously chose to live in as opposed to the one I’m trapped in by deflated home values that make it financially impossible to do anything but keep on keeping on.
Last month at a family wedding in Connecticut, a friend of my aunt’s asked where we lived. In the old days when we’d say Las Vegas, eyes would brighten, an electricity would crackle at the table, curiosity would be piqued about what that’s like. We’d boast about the billion-dollar projects, our soaring home prices, the 4,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 or however many people were alleged to move in every month. It was fun to say you were from Vegas.
This time, the lady looked at me with great pity.
“I hear things are really tough there these days,” she said sadly.
Who was I to argue? It’s true.
And everyone knows it. Which, of course, makes putting on a tinfoil hat and sniggering at California’s problems tantamount to inviting karma to take an even deeper bite out of our collective ass than we one we’re currently feeling.