We Don’t Need New, We Need Next

What some of the world’s oldest cities can teach one of its youngest

When you’re in a city famous for its simulacra of other cities, it’s reassuring when you actually check in on some of those other cities. The Luxor may be able to beam a light into outer space, but the pyramids—you know, the real ones—have been standing for more than 4,000 years.

It might have been the sheer newness of Las Vegas that recently drove me to visit Athens, Cairo and Istanbul—three of the longest-running shows on earth. And the cities did not disappoint, with their intoxicating blends of people, culture and history.

You think Vegas has a lock on hustle and bustle? Try crossing the streets of Cairo around the Egyptian Museum. Think the Stratosphere or the Foundation Room is the last word in sparkling city panoramas? Try a rooftop hotel bar in the Sultanahmet in Istanbul, watching the moon glide across the Bosporus. Think CityCenter is the epitome of cutting-edge architecture? Try the stunning New Acropolis Museum at the base of the Acropolis in Athens.

Excitement in Vegas is a production—for us it’s stagecraft, with sets and performers and props. For the great cites of the western Mediterranean, it’s the real thing. These cities are restlessly alive from snout to tail. Vegas looks more than a little sleepy by comparison.

As a place, as an icon, Las Vegas punches well above its weight class. And it’s no surprise that people abroad knew about Sin City, even if all they could do to communicate it was to intone “cha-ching” or to throw a pair of imaginary dice. But as a real city, ours fades exponentially from the world’s top rank every mile you walk away from the Strip. Ours is the great one-hit wonder. We are masters of everything that’s new, and not much else.

But new is no longer enough. We don’t need new. New is just another casino. Just another Cirque show. Just another master-planned housing development at the edge of the desert, or some anonymous super lounge boasting 14-carat design and this week’s hot new DJ. In a state with depleted funds, in a town where the best economic news is the possibility of a weak recovery sometime in 2011, we don’t need new. What we need is next. Great cities have layers, and while it’s unfair to ask the brashest young upstart to match the history of cities that go back a thousand years or more, now is a time for a reinvention of Las Vegas. If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that Las Vegas doesn’t exist in an impenetrable bubble. It’s time to grow up and move forward. So where do we go? What’s next?

First is to re-imagine our core strength. We should no longer think of ourselves only as place that manufactures tourists. We should think of the city as a place that manufactures connection. National connection. Global connection. We should be innovating different kinds of places and spaces people can connect, as well as different kinds of technology.

Next, we should consider design. The city has the DNA to transform itself into an international center for designers of all stripes—from theatrical sets to interior spaces to skyscrapers, even computer software. We make neon here; let’s start designing or fabricating high-end displays. And given our attempt to hijack the furniture industry from High Point, N.C., we should be thinking of how to get the next generation of furniture designers or fabricators here, as well. While we’re at it, there’s no reason that a city as image-conscious as ours can’t emerge as a new center for advertising.

And we should be investing in the green economy. But the word “green,” and its sister “sustainability,” are vague words. Every city is trying to cash in on green. In the desert, however, it can’t just be lip service. Solar energy and energy-transmission lines are obvious places on which we can build. And since we’re already about tapped out when it comes to water, Vegas should become a leader in water conservation research and technology. Mastering that, we could extend our reach to the research and manufacture of desalinization facilities and hydroponic agriculture.

Finally, instead of waiting for the construction industry to return with the same products they’ve been building for years, let’s jump-start companies that can assemble prefabricated housing that is cheaper, more attractive and more resource-efficient than our endless swaths of tract homes.

The great cities of the world are constantly reinventing themselves. They have to, lest they fade into history, or be pushed aside by new rivals. We can’t go back. And we can’t simply rehash what has worked in the past. Right now people go to Las Vegas mostly to get away from the troubles of the world. But now that those troubles have landed here, can the city become a place where people come to remake the world?