Recently I asked Facebook what it thought of when it thought of Las Vegas. One answer, in particular, struck me:
“THE LAST HONEST PLACE IN AMERICA”
Which is perfect because Las Vegas isn’t even Las Vegas. The world famous Las Vegas Strip isn’t actually in Las Vegas. In fact, it begins immediately on the outside of the city limits; is explicitly not Las Vegas. It runs for about four miles, first through Winchester (formerly Paradise “A”), and then (and this for its vast majority) through Paradise (proper, formerly known as Paradise “B”), Nevada- neither of which are actually cities. They’re places, designated as such by the census and that liminal space that comprises the interface between criminality and business, and administered by the county.
Four miles outside of town stands a sign that has been famously welcoming people to Las Vegas as they enter a place called Paradise for over 50 years. Half a century ago Paradise was mostly desert; today the sign- an icon of Googie aesthetics– stands in the median at 5200 Las Vegas Boulevard, next to a parking lot built specifically for its visitors, rising like old desert wisdom out of decorative artificial turf, the backdrop to a perpetually proliferating virtual archive of tourist selfies.
Even the Las Vegas that is Las Vegas isn’t Las Vegas. The part of Las Vegas that you might think of when you think of Las Vegas and that you probably think of as being on the Las Vegas Strip, but isn’t, is in downtown Las Vegas, on Fremont Street.
But it isn’t even a street. At least, not any more- not the westernmost five blocks anyway. A pedestrian mall / “attraction” has been built over where one used to be able to- up until 1995 – experience Fremont Street as such, a pedestrian mall / “attraction” known as The Fremont Street Experience.
Where the experience of a thing becomes something other than that thing: Las Vegas institutions and symbols still line the walkway, some of them in their original locations, others relocated to the experience, where something like an essence of Las Vegas is distilled and displayed by fabricating itself. But none of this is particularly ironic: “original location” is very much a problematic term for a city that is comprised of a constant rise and fall, building up and tearing down and starting over, buying and selling and renaming and re-branding and re-theming; there is nothing therefore new or singular to (The) Fremont Street (Experience)’s act of duplicative re-fabrication: what it displays when it displays itself isn’t necessarily itself, but the way it’s itself.
90 feet above the walkway stretches a massive four-block-long video canopy, beneath which a zip-line runs, whizzing tourists from one end of the experience to the other, high above the heads of the crowd. There are outdoor stages featuring bands playing hits of the 90’s, outdoor bars featuring scantily clad tenders dancing on them, grandmas and babies, Ultimate Avengers impersonators, a white middle age Midwestern couple bumping and grinding to Alanis Morissette while sipping warm Bud Light from 3-foot plastic beer mugs, and every hour- on the hour- it all stops. The lights go out, the bands take a break, and the canopy explodes with snippets of highly edited videos of live Bon Jovi performances accentuated with graphics and effects not unlike what I imagine an apocalyptic Guitar Hero orgy might look like. Everyone stops and looks up, mouths agape, smartphones held aloft in the act of recording, the act of adding to whatever it is another layer of displaying what is being displayed, of experience.