How Did Las Vegas Get To Be Called Sin City?


So many of us who were raised here tried naively to unload that nefarious nickname. I say “naively” because while my adolescent friends and I were busy trying to shed what we perceived as a stigma to our hometown (and thus, ourselves), the teenaged city we lived in was having just as much of an identity crisis.

It wasn’t always that way. At the beginning, the Union Pacific Railroad plotted auction blocks in the desert east of its train depot. Two of them (roughly where Binion’s is now) soon became notorious as the center of vice-driven excess in the newly minted railroad town of Las Vegas. Long before laws formally legalizing gambling and criminalizing prostitution, if you wanted access to a vice and could pay for it, it was available in Las Vegas on Block 16 and Block 17. Thus, the origin of Sin City.

Sure, the idea of a couple of dusty blocks of bars, casinos and saloon girls might seem a bit tame in a world where every conceivable vice can either be witnessed or accomplished using a smartphone. But in the early 1900s, when the East Coast establishment was busy frowning on vice (see: Prohibition), Las Vegas (and Nevada in general) was earning a reputation as the place to escape any overbearing notions of morality. Some citizens may have been opposed to the idea of having sin at the center of their city (literally and figuratively), but in the spirit of what would eventually be many generations of Las Vegans to come, they did little to stop the activity.

Ironically, it was a negotiation between the feds (who wanted a new Air Force facility nearby) and city leaders (who salivated over the influx of money and residents such a facility would bring) that ended prostitution on Block 16 in 1941. The booze and gambling, as we know, went on (as did the misguided notion that some vices are acceptable while others are not).

Fast-forward to today, and that trajectory has continued. Thanks to the outdated and subjective “morality clause” in our gaming laws, most of our city’s lust-oriented sin has disappeared. (The morally policed Instagram is saucier than any Las Vegas stage show.) Meanwhile, the sins of consumption—gluttony, greed, sloth—have risen to the top.

Frankly, despite all those years of foolishly trying to disown our Sin City image, I’d trade a dozen celebrity chef eateries for just one envelope-pushing bawdy burlesque.