Artificial Cities

By David T. Jones on August 21, 2008

When diplomats travel, they observe. Usually those observations are of the "foreign" countries to which they are professionally assigned or are encountering for professional reasons. But it can also be interesting--and even self-instructive--to play diplomatic observer in one's own country. Having recently been a first-time visitor to Las Vegas, Nevada; the national parks of Bryce Canyon and Zion, Utah; and Hoover Dam, Nevada, prompted a series of thoughts that might interest far-away Canadians.

Both Canada and the United States are familiar with the creation of artificial cities, respectively Ottawa and Washington, DC. In both instances, a capital city was necessary that would balance sectional differences and focus on the business of governance. Other countries such as Brazil (Brasilia); Pakistan (Islamabad); Turkey (Ankara); Nigeria (Abuja) have either avoided the largest/oldest city in their country and elected to make a fresh start in a new location, perhaps hoping also to leave behind some of the political baggage associated with the old.

But only the United States has created an artificial city essentially directed at once illicit but still temping pleasures, i.e., "sins" and transformed it into a massive money machine. Las Vegas is such a creation and its 4.5 mile long "strip" with over 40 casinos is an unprecedented money machine generating in excess of $8 billion in 2006. There is always a suspend disbelief element to a gambling casino--even when the odds against the player are clearly listed on a game-by-game basis; there are those who believe they can beat the system and make money from gambling. Essentially, the only participant that makes money from gambling is the "house," but if gambling is viewed as entertainment, a (self-aware) visitor can be amused by the process.

Each of the casinos is the equivalent of amusement theme parks. Thus you have "Paris," "New York," and "Venice" with representations of iconic structures (Eifel Tower, Empire State Building) and activities (gondolas). Or you have fantasy piled upon fantasy with "Excalibur" (recreating Camelot), "Treasure Island" (Robert Stevenson spins in his grave), and a semi-permanent "Star Trek" exhibit that inhabits the Hilton and permits the visitor to encounter Klingons and avoid assimilation with the Borg. But the fantasy, the star-studded performers' lists, and the endless cheap buffets are all designed to keep the visitor in a particular casino--and continue gambling. Thus a show such as Phantom of the Opera, retains all of its songs, but cuts much dialogue to move the audience back to the gambling tables in approximately 90 minutes.

But not far beneath the glitter is the sleaze. Street solicitors distribute playing cards featuring the charms of assorted females with the promise that one will arrive "totally nude…to your room in 20 minutes." Prostitution is not illegal in Nevada. Some year ago, Las Vegas attempted a make-over and promoted itself as "family friendly," but more recently the tag line has become "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" and that sobriquet doesn't envision 24/7 Bible reading.

Hoover Dam powers Las Vegas (and much of the southwest). Finished in five years (1936), it is a collector of superlatives: once the world's largest concrete structure, it still holds the largest man-made lake in the U.S. and continues to be the major electric generator for the region. But one's first conclusion is that it could never be duplicated in today's USA. Not the civil engineering aspect, which is massive but not unique, although working laborers seven days per week at 50 cents an hour is presumably passé. Rather it would be the inability of any comparable construction to surmount the requirement for an environmental impact statement and the not-in-my-backyard naysayers. In today's post 9/11 world, dam security is an increasing concern with trucks no longer permitted to drive across its top. Plans for a bypass, including a bridge over the gorge above Hoover dam, have been left quite literally in mid air as high winds in September 2006 toppled cranes involved in the construction, indefinitely delaying its projected 2008 completion date (in contrast, the Hoover Dam was completed 2 years ahead of time).

But ultimately it is the incomparable natural vistas in the region that leave the greatest effect on an observer. Nature will do that, and the area is replete with breath-taking national parks, starting with the Grand Canyon, but the combination of the less-visited Bryce Canyon and Zion national park leaves one breathless (particularly at an altitude of 9,000 feet for Bryce) over the action of natural forces over geological time. We can take some comfort that long after Vegas casinos have crumbled and even beyond the 2,000 year projected life expectancy of Hoover, they will remain to spark our awe.  


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