The Ruins of Las Vegas | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios

Here’s an idea. In Las Vegas, we’re are the America’s ruins. So when most people think of Las Vegas, they think of this– gambling, drinking, all kinds of crazy revelry, nonstop glitz, glamour, entertainment, and showmanship happening inside and around these massive, palatial casinos. Vegas’s sobriquet is Sin City, a place where one has access to any and every vice, assuming one is able to pay the price. And these buildings structure literally the whole experience. But this is also Las Vegas.

It’s just people don’t normally think about this part of it. Nevada was hit hard by the subprime mortgage crisis, where banks gave mortgages to people who technically couldn’t afford them, and then repackaged those mortgages as sound investments which eventually defaulted, leaving people with homes they couldn’t afford, investors with empty pockets, and gaping money holes in many markets. As of late October, 2015, Nevada has the highest home foreclosure rate of any state in the country. And metropolitan Las Vegas typically ranks within the top five. For a city that we associate so strongly with opulence, there is a fair amount of hardship here, and not just here but also here.

The casinos, Vegas’ monuments to diversion, excess, and abundance, but also provider of no shortage of employment opportunities for locals, also suffered in the wake of the recent economic collapse. This is Echelon Place which began construction in 2007 and was slated to be finished by 2010. It was to be an 87 acre project with 5,300 hotel rooms across four hotels. And it had a construction budget of $4 billion. In 2008, construction stopped, first for a year, then another estimated three to five years. So it sits here, waiting, now more of a memorial than a monument.

Echelon Place isn’t alone, either. In the last decade, there has been 10 hotels that have been abandoned or demolished. There are nearly a dozen massive projects which started construction but never finished. That Vegas is pocked with all of these foreclosed upon homes and incomplete monoliths is a testament to both it and America’s relationship to chance and chance’s relationship to wealth.

Let’s do some history. Long before The Strip, downtown Las Vegas got its start as a playground for construction workers building the Hoover Dam. At the time, Vegas was the closest significantly sized city with businesses that would stay open late.

The state had legalized gambling in 1931, the year that the dam started construction. But the US government wasn’t too keen on that move. They didn’t want their federally-paid dam workers spending their hard-earned dam cash on games of chance.

So they schemed to keep the workers away. But of course, their scheming had the opposite effect. Dam workers flooded Vegas– pun intended– and made it rave– pun and mixed metaphor intended. In 1936, when construction of the dam completed, the Great Depression was still in full swing, so all of those labors went elsewhere to find work. Vegas needed to figure out a way to survive, and quick, because it had learned to depend on that dam cash, which had vamoosed. Luckily, though the dam had stopped powering Vegas financially, it could now power Vegas literally.

And building upon their long-held reputation as a playground city, Vegas began outfitting its downtown, Fremont Street, with bright lights a-go-go. After not long, this part of town became known as Glitter Gulch. The rest is roughly and literally speaking, history. Vegas learned to depend on tourism fueled by glitz, glamour, and nearby scenic attractions. Gangsters and real estate developers learned to depend on Vegas’s lax law enforcement, regulation, and tax code. Entertainers from nearby LA, and eventually across the world, learned in Vegas, there is always an audience.

By the late ’40s, Vegas had stepped into its own as America’s playground, initiating its modern reputation as the perfect expression of American exceptionalism by way of a particular brand of flashy, capital-fueled, American excess, which works like gangbusters until 2007, when the boom became more of a dull thud. In the midst of a global economic recession, the glitz of Sin City can seem excessive at best or irresponsible at worst, which means that tourists are less likely to come visit. Add to that the fact that the city’s banks handed out some 35,000 loans that people technically couldn’t afford . I mean, I suppose in a city that’s defined by betting, it would make sense that real estate developers and lending organizations would bet it all. On the one hand, with civilian homes, it may be simple predatory lending.

But on the other hand, with things like casinos and resorts, I think it’s something else. The Vegas most of us recognize was constructed not to be used like a normal city, like a New York, or a Paris, or a Tokyo, to be marveled at. The Vegas we know is for gawking, not living. The Bellagio, Luxor, the Hard Rock Cafe, and their ilk all comprised a pseudo city which isn’t for residents, but for people who have come to play in as many senses of the word as possible. These structures are for residing, but relaxing.

And architecturally, this is all almost literally America’s playground in that we’ve perhaps outgrown it and abandoned it, except at great literal cost. Vegas is thoroughfares and signage, towering obelisks, and countless simulacra– a pyramid, but not the city, but not Europe, but not bodies of water, but not– were not built to age gracefully, but to impress immediately and then be demolished or abandoned. On one block between Sands Avenue and Flamingo Road used to sit Sands, Castaways, Nob Hill, Holiday Casino and Inn, the Imperial Palace, O’Sheas, and the Barbary Coast. Now, it’s home to Treasure Island, The Palazzo, The Venetian, The Mirage, Casino Royale, Harrah’s, The LINQ, Caesar’s Palace, Flamingo and the Cromwell. Not one original building remains standing.

In their influential book, “Learning from Las Vegas,” architect Robert Venturi, Denise Brown, and Robert Izenour write that in this landscape, architecture becomes symbol in space, rather than form in space. Weirdly, they weren’t writing about this Las Vegas or this Las Vegas, but this Vegas. They compare the parking lots of Las Vegas to France’s Versailles, a massive, sprawling palace famous for its gardens that stands as a symbol of the wealth of the old ruling class, but also the absolute monarchy of the old regime before the French Revolution. The parking lot, they write, is the parterre of the asphalt landscape, beautiful for all of its uselessness, a status symbol for storing other status symbols. What then of those massive, sprawling, finished, and unfinished mega casinos? What symbol are they?

I might say, our ruins. Given the turnover of the strip, destruction and ruination is practically pre-built into them. Some of them become alike to ruins before they’re even finished.

Sure, technically speaking, ruins are structures which at one point were complete and have become decrepit over a long period of time, though haven’t turned entirely back into dust. Machu Picchu, the pyramids, Petra, Teotihuacan, Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, the Acropolis, Caesar’s Palace– there’s this idea that the strength of a society is confidently communicated by the quality and resilience of its ruins. A powerful culture will build a long-lasting structures. In short, America has all kinds of impressive structures which will look great in the post-apocalypse, while it seems a Vegas casino is unlikely to make it half a generation, let alone some millennia. [MUSIC – “VIVA LAS VEGAS”] strip in Las Vegas, as a location, is such a perfect distillation of that stereotypical American abundance that it feels like maybe this should be our Carthage or Roman Forum, even if it won’t be. These structures stand already fulfilling their role as a ruins, though of course, technically, they aren’t testaments to the things that are important to us, but also what isn’t at a time where the future of the United States’ longstanding cultural and economic authority is anything but certain.

Though these things may not be ruins then, perhaps it’s meaningful for us to look at them as ruins now. What do you guys think? Are the ruins of Vegas something like Carthage after the fall of Rome? Let us know in the comments and our response to some of them in next week’s comment response video.

In this week’s comment response video, we talk about your thoughts regarding listicles. If you want to watch that one, you can click right here or find a link in the doobly-doo. Thank you so much to everyone who wrote a short story to enter in to win an Idea Channel t-shirt.

We had an awesome time combing through them, randomly selecting three winners, which we have. The winners are Papa Bad Dad, Observer of Worlds, and Chemical Word Smith. So we’re going to be sending you guys a message via YouTube to get your information to send you a t-shirt. We are, however, going to also postpone the dramatic reading, because I caught a cold. And I don’t want my cold memorialized for all eternity having to read your beautiful short stories with a nasaly voice. So maybe that’ll happen like next week.

But I promise, it will. This week’s episode was brought to you by the hard work of these high rollers. We have a Facebook, an IRC, and a subreddit links in the doobly-doo. And the tweet of the week comes from Leif Nelson, who points us towards a post about the “Wizard of Oz,” which has been re-cut alphabetically, which means that every scene that begins with a word that starts with the letter A is first. And it works its way all the way through scenes that begin with the word zipper. And it appears that there is more than one kind of movie that has been re-cut this way.