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I’ve been visiting Las Vegas for years. It’s one of my favorite places to relax and unwind because of their top notch spas. Anytime I spend a lot of time somewhere, I find myself wanting to know more about the history of that place and thus began my hobby of researching all things Las Vegas.
Let’s start with a brief history of Vegas.
As is the case with almost everywhere in America, white folks came in and pushed all the native folks out of the area. Over the course of many years, Las Vegans figured out how to live in the middle of the damn desert. That was a struggle at first because everything kept catching fire. The history of enormous fires in Vegas is crazy and they continue. Despite the fires, the city flourished and the population grew.
People of color began moving to the area as the job market improved. The construction of the Hoover Dam brought hundreds of jobs to the area. This newfound diversity of Vegas residents was not welcomed. The newly built railroad that cut across town provided a clear boundary of racial segregation. There was a poor side (read: black folks) and a middle class side (read: white folks). It has been speculated that the phrase “the other side of the tracks” was born in Las Vegas. On the poor side of the tracks, there were no sewer systems, roads were unpaved, the area was generally neglected as areas where poor people of color live often are.
Fast forward a few decades and you would find a version of Las Vegas that’s closer to the one that was popularized through movies like Viva Las Vegas and Oceans 11. During the time when the rat pack was in it’s hey day, Sammy Davis Jr. and other black performers like Josephine Baker endured horrific racism. Black performers were dismayed to find that the casinos in which they performed were “whites only” which meant that they could only perform for white people. This was at the time when the mob was running Vegas. Bugsy Siegal, known as an eccentric, erratic, and violent, but intermittently compassionate individual, was still trying to get The Flamingo off the ground. He made a slight dent in the segregation problem by allowing Lena Horne to have a hotel room at The Flamingo despite the fact that the city was still legally racially segregated. There are stories about Frank Sinatra, also known as an eccentric, erratic and violent, but intermittently compassionate individual, advocating for performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole by using his star power. Sinatra was huge at the time and when he threatened to not perform or to get everyone fired, you did what he wanted and what he wanted was for black performers to be treated with respect.
The Moulin Rouge was the first desegregated hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Many of the popular black performers at the time would perform at the other areas casinos and then head over to the Moulin Rouge to stay in the hotel. (Sadly the Moulin Rouge was another fire casualty in 2003). Over the years, desegregation did happen just as it did throughout the rest of the country.
Vegas continued to evolve.
Slowly, the city has turned into a mecca of high end hotels, designer shopping, five star restaurants, luxury spas, and unparalleled entertainment options. It’s no longer the kind of Vegas the Griswalds visited. Some wise folks figured out that millennials were never going to be as interested in gambling as previous generations but they are interested in hitting a nightclub with Calvin Harris.
Today’s Las Vegas continues to have it’s problems though. Anyone who’s ever been there knows that there is a significant problem with homelessness and substance abuse and gambling addictions definitely play into it. The economy in Las Vegas took a serious hit during the recession leading to a lot of folks losing their homes which has left vacant houses all over town and a huge problem with squatting. You may think that squatters aren’t really a problem because hey, the house is vacant and people are homeless. It’s survival, right? Yes and no. There are definite issues with the squatting problem.
Vegas has a problem with violence against women.
This is a town that has marketed sex since it’s founding. Burlesque shows, show girls, and strip clubs are all part of Vegas history and it’s current allure. The lack of stigma towards sexuality, especially women’s sexuality, is amazing. However, the dark side of it is that the availability and visibility of sex all the time without supporting education about consent has led to deeply ingrained rape culture. A professor at The University of Nevada Las Vegas, Alexis Kennedy, has studied sexual victimization in Las Vegas including campus rape and human trafficking. Last year on Nevada NPR, she said:
“What we sell is sex, what we tell everyone is that it’s there, it’s ready for the taking and it’s easy to find. We’re a more aggressive, overtly sexual town, so that is bleeding into our schools, not just our college campuses but our high schools and below.”
Human trafficking continues to be an issue in Las Vegas as well. There are droves of tourists coming in and out everyday which makes for a perfect cover. Women go missing, pimps come and go. The Las Vegas Review Journal spelled out the severity of the problem in an article last year:
From 2011-15, the Metropolitan Police Department recovered 467 adult victims of sex trafficking. For 2014 and 2015, Metro identified 216 victims. In 2015, 53 percent were black, 31 percent were Caucasian, 20 percent were Latin American, and 1 percent were listed as other.
There’s also the issue of how women sex workers are treated in Vegas.
It’s commonly said that prostitution is legal in Las Vegas. That is not the truth. Prostitution is only legal in brothels and only in towns with less than 700,000 residents. There is no legal prostitution in Las Vegas but you can take a drive out of town and hit up one of the seventeen completely legal brothels which employ 300 sex workers according to the Los Angeles Times. I’ve read about some of the brothels in Las Vegas and honestly, some of them sound like they’re well run and woman and sex positive. Other brothels seem to be run by old creepers. For example, here’s a quote from this buzzfeed article about Dennis Hof who owns the Moonlight Bunny Ranch in Nevada:
A 2001 New Yorker profile on the Moonlite BunnyRanch described Hof as a man who likes to think of himself as a “father figure — albeit a ‘Who’s your daddy?’ kind of father figure”. And indeed, throughout our interview, Ava refers to him as “Daddy”. He also refers to women who aren’t prostitutes as civilians.
And then there’s this quote:
When I question whether his decision not to sleep with “civilians” is really due to health reasons, Hof opens up about his sexual practices. “I want someone who knows what they’re doing”, he tells me. “You’d be surprised at the number of girls who lack knowledge; who’ve never had threesomes, oral sex, anal sex: things I consider very basic. I think if we had a true study of girls who give blow jobs, the percentage would be a lot less than you’d expect.
Um, gross. Clearly he thinks women are only valuable for sex.
And then there’s the showgirls…
If you ever want to watch a very weird documentary, watch Showgirls: Glitz and Angst, on HBO. The documentary is from 2003 so it’s a bit dated. It follows the opening of Showgirls, a topless revue formerly at the Rio. It’s hard to get over how utterly ridiculous Greg Thompson, the show’s owner, and his ex-girlfriend/choreographer named Mistinguett are but you really get the idea of how women performers are treated. They are treated like a “collection of body parts” who are purely ornamental. They are told how much they can weigh and if they don’t maintain that weight, they’re out. The part that unnerved me the most was when one of the performers said she hated her blackness because she could not blend in with the other women and she was always placed in the back or to the side.
Then there are the card guys.
These are the guys who flip “trading cards” with images of women escorts on them at you as you walk down the strip. Most of the card workers are undocumented Latinos and this is the only work they can get. I can understand that and they’re not the real problem. The problem is how the women on the cards are treated:
…a LVPD detective made a recent, general complaint that, while escort services claims they only offer private nude dances, they really ‘depend on prostitution as their main source of income.’ Only the escorts themselves get punished for this, though. To work with outcall promoters, they sign independent contractor agreements, in which they promise not to solicit prostitution; this clears the promoters of responsibility if, or really when, prostitution takes place.
Moving in the right direction.
In other ways, Las Vegas has been growing and moving in the right direction. Some of the most successful shows have been headlined by women performers like Britney Spears, Cher, and Celine Dion. Performers of color such as Bruno Mars, Beyonce, and Jennifer Lopez have diversified Vegas entertainment which, for a long time, was basically Wayne Newton and Donny and Marie. If this is any indication of how diverse Vegas has become, there’s a storyline on Empire right now about the Lyons starting a business venture there.
Vegas is becoming more eco-friendly.
There’s a great need to conserve water given the whole we’re-in-the-middle-of-the-freaking-desert thing. Many of the hotels have eco-friendly programs designed to reuse materials, reduce waste, recycle, and conserve water. My favorite Las Vegas hotel, The Venetian, is one of these eco-friendly hotels but what I love the most about the Venetian is that the place is run by a diverse group of individuals. Check it out. Women of color, Latinos, people with Native ancestry. It’s impressive.
If you ever decide to visit Vegas again or for the first time, remember that it is a remarkable city but just like everywhere else in America, there are skeletons in the closet. Just in the seven years that I’ve been visiting Las Vegas, I’ve seen changes. It’s a city that’s always evolving but there have been notable positive changes. Let’s hope the city continues to move in the right direction.
To read more about the history of Las Vegas, check out the book Chronicles of Old Las Vegas: Exposing Sin City’s High Stakes History by James Roman.