Stop us if you’ve heard this one.
Las Vegas is a city like no other, exceptional in its history, its needs, its patterns of development. It makes a good story to tell the world, and not a bad one to tell ourselves, either. And we’ve never too much minded that it’s not particularly true.
The problem with the story is this: Our one-of-a-kind-city is now neck-deep in one-of-a-kind quicksand, and the exceptionalism that used to make us feel special now just makes us feel lonely.
Have no fear. Ol’ Doc Hise has the miracle cure for Vegas exceptionalism. It’s called—this’ll only hurt for a minute— Los Angeles. For 15 years as a professor at USC, Greg Hise approached planning from a historical perspective, building a stellar reputation as a scholar of L.A.’s strokes of brilliance and its epochal failures. In his magisterial book, Magnetic Los Angeles (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), he offered a refreshing take on the history of suburbanization, refusing to denounce L.A. for not being Manhattan. In Eden by Design (University of California Press, 2000), Hise—who trained as an architect—teamed with William Deverell to analyze the visionary and neglected 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew plan for a network of parks and public spaces across Los Angeles.
In 2008, Hise moved from USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, which had increasingly emphasized quantitative administrative research, to the History Department at UNLV. Here he continues the work he began in Los Angeles, taking the long view to think more creatively about the problems that face Western cities today.
And rarely has Las Vegas been more in need of the long view than in 2011, when uncharted territory sprawls before us wherever we look, and it seems almost certain that just over the horizon there be dragons.
But we are not the first everlasting boomtown to go bust, nor would we be the first to rise again. Hise points to the Los Angeles boom of the 1880s, fueled by land speculation and obscene debt loads, and the bust that followed, sure as a landslide after the rain, in the 1890s. He tells a joke from those years: I lost $100. But that’s OK. Only $10 of it was mine.
The good news is that the Los Angeles city fathers responded to the bust by agreeing that there had to be a better way to build a metropolis, and they decided to diversify. They developed the Port of Los Angeles. They bet on hydroelectric power. They also got incredibly lucky when it turned out the city was sitting on a bunch of oil. But what’s instructive is what happened next: The good people of L.A. turned the city into an export power, using nature’s gift to create petroleum-based products that were shipped to the world through the port. They had discovered the not-so-secret secret of diversification: Take care of what you’ve got, then create an environment where smart folks can figure out unexpected ways to make the most of it.