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Where Does It All End?

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Every year it seems that Vegas out does itself. Bigger hotels, better entertainment, more and more luxury. People often suggest that Las Vegas is a microcosm for America. It oozes opulence, but the other stuff is there too--poverty, crime, traffic. If Las Vegas is indeed representative of the rest of the country, then maybe where the city is headed is something we can all learn from. Weekend America reporter Krissy Clark visits Vegas and tries to determine where it will all end.

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by Krissy Clark

It's amazing how honest people can get when they're drunk. For example, the two British tourists crossing the Las Vegas Strip, headed toward the Mirage Casino.

"We're out on a search for the finest martini," the tall one announces.
"And did you find it," I ask.

"We found it. At the Bellagio. The Dirty Martini. I recommend it to anyone."

Las Vegas is a place engineered so we forget our worries and live for the moment. Or the martini. But even here-maybe especially here-there's always a morning after. And it doesn't take too long before this guy, in his martini fog, remembers that.

"I'm quite enjoying it," he says of his time in the city. "I'm not going to lie about that. But that's because I'm bloody drunk, ok? But at same time, there's something inside of me that says, 'should I be doing this?'"

Should I be doing this?

It's a question that comes up a lot in Las Vegas, in little, lingering ways. And "this" is not just a night of dirty martinis. It is shopping malls that stay open til midnight. It is an army of bell-hops and buffet-workers. It is Red-tile roofs and golf-greens that obscure the desert floor.

Las Vegas has its detractors and its champions. Two and a half million people call it home. And everyday, in different ways, they look at the booming city and wonder:

How long can this last?

It's a question that all Americans will ask themselves eventually. It's just that Las Vegas had to start a lot sooner.

Is this place sustainable?

To answer that question, first drive thirty miles east of Las Vegas, toward the Colorado River-- the city's main source of water. Nevada historian Dennis McBride grew up out here.

"I still get a sense of awe when I come round this curve, this hair pin curve," he says. "And there is Hoover Dam, right in front of you. Blocking the canyon. White. It's beautiful."

In many ways, Las Vegas began here, at Hoover Dam. Or, as McBride puts it, in terms perhaps more fitting for "Sin City:""Hoover dam is the dealer, Vegas is the crack whore."

And the drug is the water in Lake Mead. Las Vegas literally can't live without it.

Dennis says Las Vegas would still be a quiet little railroad town, not a glowing metropolis, if it wasn't for the dam, and the water behind it in the reservoir. Then he points to something.

"See that white ring around the rim of the lake," he asks. "That indicates how far the water level has dropped in the last few years."

The West, like a lot of the country, is in the middle of a long drought. Lake Mead is half empty now. The supply is literally drying up. Las Vegas is building a new intake pipe, because the water could soon be too low to reach the old pipe.

But if water is the drug, and Hoover Dam the pusher, it's clear when we get deep inside the dam, that Dennis is no anti-drug crusader. Sometimes he revels in the high.

"Feel the vibration through the floor there?" he says. "That's Lake Mead, running through this pipe underneath of us."

He leans back on his heels, and continues: "It's here like our great mother. Giving us the water and the power, giving us our life. You've got the pin stock pipes carrying the water from the lake, like blood vessels. And then that beautiful vibrating heart of the generator. You know, it's got to be down there alive, watching us and wondering, you're not treating me as nicely as you could, and you're kind of wasting the gifts I'm giving you."


Water supplies are one way of looking at Las Vegas's future. But you also have to consider the people who drink from them.

"Did you need anything? A glass of water?" Brandon Smith pokes his head out of the kitchen in his Vegas Heights to ask a house-guest.

Every month, thousands more people move to neighborhoods like Smith's, drawn to jobs like Smith's. He's a food-runner at the Fremont hotel, in downtown Las Vegas. His job is unionized. Most casino jobs are. He assists cooks and helps stock the buffet.

But he says what he's really doing is, "living the Las Vegas dream. That's what we call it. We work grave yard. We work swing shift. We work day shift. But we make a better living than workers in other cities across the country. You're able to go and buy a house, clothe your family, and still live comfortably."

Smith says he thinks most Americans look down on Las Vegas, for the gambling and the excess, but he's proud of his Las Vegas lineage. His grandmother worked as a guest room attendant. "In laymen's terms it's a maid," he laughs. "But we like to be politically correct and call it a guest room attendant."

His grandmother attended guest rooms at the now-imploded Sands Casino. And that gives Brandon an interesting perspective on where Las Vegas is headed.

Take the way the city periodically blows up old hotels to make room for newer, more tantalizing playgrounds. Just this week, the New Frontier went down in smoke.

"People worked there 20, 30 years, and you have a lot of memories," Smith says. "It's a part of old Las Vegas history. I mean people can cheer about implosions. I don't really think it's good."

He pauses. Then he adds, "But it's all for the betterization, and for our economy. I guess in a way it is for the good."

Good for some. But meanwhile, traffic is a nightmare. This year, the city topped the nation in foreclosures-5800 a month. And on the other end of the Las Vegas strip, away from the Casinos, thousands of people are sleeping in what the city actually calls its "Homeless Corridor."


Imagine you're an archeologist a thousand years from now, and all you have to go on to understand the civilization of ancient America is what you find in the ruins of the Mirage Casino. This is what you see:

The shards of an aquarium that once housed tropical fish. A sign for "Cocamo's Steak and Seafood restaurant." Another sign for "Sigfreid and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat." Collapsed boutiques strewn with watches, teddy bears, and Beatles paraphernalia.

The picture you'd get of American culture wouldn't necessarily be so off base, at least according to Alan Feldman, senior vice president of public affairs for MGM Mirage Resorts. His company employs 64,000 people in Las Vegas.

"I kind of think that Las Vegas is the only honest place in America," he says.

Feldman thinks there's a good reason why Las Vegas is the city more Americans visit than any other. Here, we can let all our secret cravings and frivolous desires out, not just gambling.

He explains, "This is where Americans can be themselves," he says, "and not feel they need to put on airs about anything here. Maybe that's in going to an extraordinary restaurant, or seeing a show that inspires you. Maybe it's lying out at a pool and just letting your mind wander."

Whatever it is, Feldman says, it's essentially American because it's what we're actually doing. It's kind of existential. Alan says that because Las Vegas understands what Americans want-what human beings want-the city has a bright future, full of international investors.

"I actually see Las Vegas growing much more significant on the global scene. Where today we might speak of Tokyo, New York and London, fifty years from now we may be talking about Santiago, Singapore, and Las Vegas."


"From this point we're going to need hard hats," warns Bob Walsh, from the Bureau of Reclamation. He's at the bottom of Hoover Dam, where you can watch the water churn back into the Colorado River after it's spun through the hydroelectric generators. Walsh is watching the water with his old friend, historian Dennis McBride.

Walsh looks up at the face of the dam and he calls it the epitome of American ingenuity. "I'm sure the first person that came to this part of the country and said 'I'm going to build the biggest dam in the world here,' somebody probably thought the guy had been out in the sun way too long."

McBride chimes in: "When I was a child, I had this apocalyptic sensibility. I used to think about well, the whole world will come to an end, and civilization will be wasted, and there will be Hoover Dam. And I could spend my whole life down here, I'm sure. All we'd need is as grocery store and a movie theater."

When historians and environmentalists talk about the future of a place like Las Vegas, they often say it's a city that shouldn't exist. That it's unsustainable. But of course, it does exist. And it couldn't sustain itself without the water behind Hoover Dam.

Water, as the saying goes, tends to flow up hill toward money, so the city might even withstand a mega drought. The foreclosure crisis will come and go, and maybe Las Vegas will be a blue print for the 21st century.

But if and when Las Vegas does come to an end someday, Hoover Dam--this seventy story edifice that looks like it grew out of the rock--will probably still be here. For thousands of years. Like a monument. Like the pyramids. People will try to figure out what it was for. Was it a work of art? A shrine to a benevolent water God? An altar for sacrifice? The answer is yes.

More stories from our Sustainability series


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