As residents in and creators of a resort town—one fueled by the myth of wild abandon—Las Vegans must not only accept but embrace certain ethical tensions: How do we entice the world to our desert shores while keeping those shores from going dry? How do we support responsible family life and civic culture while relentlessly marketing our town’s capacity to shatter the confinements of responsibility? How do we address the gulf between the desert libertarian instinct—the very instinct that has enhanced our spontaneous creativity and crafted our unorthodox social mask—and the need to mindfully manage our growth?
In short: How does Las Vegas profitably remain Vegas in the eyes of the world while becoming a community in full—Las Vegas—for those of us who live here? At times it’s tempting to regard our two civic selves as faces on opposite sides of the same coin, incapable of ever truly seeing one another. But we have no such luxury: The future of Vegas is entirely dependent on the future of Las Vegas.
The city has long realized that it must be more than the mask it wears. Even the mob knew this well: The former bootlegger Moe Dalitz, midcentury’s king of the Desert Inn, also helped create what we now call Midtown, building Sunrise Hospital and the Boulevard Mall and aiding UNLV during its infancy. This is not to wax nostalgic—“It was better when the mob ran it” has become the silliest of clichés—but to say that business leaders have done quite well when they understand that healthy enterprises depend on a healthy community. Each succeeding wave of Las Vegas entrepreneurs must take into account how the things they do will change the place where they—or, in this corporatized age, their employees—live. Sustainability and growth are as important in the social, ecological and intellectual spheres as in the economic. Every footfall leaves a mark.
During Las Vegas’ first economic and residential boom in the 1950s and ’60s, the city’s leading economic players understood that they were not isolated from the conditions they created. In this more impersonal age, it’s essential that the sense of interconnectedness between capitalist and community endures.
In part, this means we should foster the growth of midsize enterprises that will make and sustain a home here. Such companies—connected with a city’s story and interested in its next chapter—become civic citizens, providing not only work but worth. Their ethic is sustainable humanism—the realization that a flourishing polis arises from the richness of each individual life within it.
A great city, then, requires investment in the searching mind at all ages and economic levels. We all benefit when we create conditions that empower others to create. Each enterprise is not merely an ultra-efficient machine with replaceable parts, but a dialogic structure that both contributes to and answers to its community. And this “answer” is not merely a response to market forces, a self-interested nimbleness in marketing the next sensation. It is the deployment of conscience, the attunement of the senses to the conditions of land and man. It is a willingness to listen and to hear. It is, in accordance with the traditions of our desert metropolis, a preparedness to dream beyond the bottom line and envision a more durable paradise.
These remarks were delivered in February to a visiting group from the Cass MBA program of the City University of London as part of a panel discussion on the future of Las Vegas.