Monday, March 17, 2008

Extravagant Demolitions

Urban scientist Mike Davis begins the chapter entitled "Las Vegas Versus Nature" in his depressing, but fascinating, tour through urban renewal and destruction, Dead Cities by pointing out that to make way for the future, Las Vegas blatantly and extravagantly demolishes important pieces of its past. It's urban renewal, Vegas-style. In 1993, the Dunes hotel was blown up, and the dust plume was visible in California. The Sands, of Rat Pack fame, was detonated in 1996. The Hacienda Hotel - on New Year's Eve, 1996.

In greater detail, he extrapolates further as to why Las Vegas, even more than its hideous brethren Los Angeles, represents the very antithesis of smart, thoughtful, humanistic, and sustainable urban planning. It can only represent the end of the line, he basically says, and yet it keeps gobbling up land and resources like the desert parasite that it is. He even contrasts it to the White City of the Chicago World's Fair at the end of 19th century: Las Vegas represents the end the same way the fair was supposed to represent the possibilities of the future.

Each week over 1,000 new residents arrive in Las Vegas, an odd mixture of immigrants seeking jobs and retirees from Southern California seeking gated communities and an escape from the urban turmoil. Per capita, Las Vegas consumes 360 gallons of water per day, compared to L.A.'s 211, or Oakland's 110. 60% of that water use goes to irrigation of lawns and golf courses - in a region of the country that only sees 7 to 8 inches of rainfall per year! Sucking water from nearby Lake Mead has caused groundwater overdrafts that have actually caused ground levels to sink: the Strip, for example, is now several feet lower than it was in 1960, and a few nearby subdivisions have had to be abandoned.

In 1989, the Southern Nevada Water Authority stunned rural Nevadans by laying claim to over 800,000 acre-feet of surface and groundwater rights in 3 neighboring counties, to the degree that a mob of ranchers, miners, farmers, and environmentalists banded together and vowed to blow up any sections of pipeline laid down to steal their water. The Authority has also teamed up with the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to increase its withdrawal of water from the Colorado River stored in Lake Mead so as to allocate distribution away from agirculture and towards their respective metropolitan regions (which also means hijacking Northern Arizona's water allotment). Meanwhile, large amounts of toxic waste have been found in Lake Mead, and in 1994, 37 people, most of them with AIDS, died from drinking the tap water. The unprecedented growth cannot keep up with water and waste treatment facilities.

In addition, Las Vegas also only gets 4% of its energy from "clean" hydropower: the rest comes from dirty coal-burning plants on the Moapa Indian Reservation and along the Colorado River. LV has the lowest vehicle occupancy rate of any city in the country, in tandem with the "longest per person, per trip, per day ratio." Its smog has already left a cloud over the Grand Canyon. The Lower Colorado River Valley desert landscape has also been seriously degraded and compromised environmentally by its use as a desert base camp of recreation (dune buggies, jet skis, dirt bikes, speed boats) by tourists and weekenders from Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The term "urban sprawl" was actually coined by sociologist William Whyte, flying from Los Angeles to San Bernadino and looking out the window at "an unnerving lesson in man's infinite capacity to mess up his environment." Las Vegas is blindly and stupidly following in all of Los Angeles' idiotic footsteps in what not to do, including abdicating a rsponsible water ethic; fragmenting local government and subordinating it to private corporate planning; producing a negligible amount of usable public space; dispersing land use over an unnecessarily enormous area; and embraced the resulting "dictatorship" of the automobile, among other things.

Las Vegas has been diabolically split up into sprawling electoral districts to intentionally weaken the power of minorities and working-class voters. Only one-third of the metropolitan region is actually encompassed within the city limits: the Strip, Convention Center, International Airport, and the U of Nevada LV are all located in an unicorporated township named Paradise. Poverty, unemployment and homelessness are all concentrated within the boundaries of LV and North LV. This more easily centralizes land-use decisions in the hands of gaming corporations and giant residential and commercial-strip developers. Hop-scotch patterns of development with no regulation raise the costs of streets, utilities and schools, while covering up any available public-use land (commons areas) with vacant lots. Compared to the recommended national average minimum of 10 acres of common land for every 1,000 residents in most Eastern and Midwestern cities, LV has only 1.4 acres of commons area for every 1,000 residents.

As a result, sprawl is driving everything, from tourism attractions to gated communities, to the very periphery of the city, encroaching more and more upon the fragile desert landscape. The physical possibilities seem endless, with countless edge cities (including, seriously, gated mansions within larger gated communities, upon artificial lakes and major new resorts) popping up to provide exclusive enclaves and "upscale alternatives for Las Vegas."

No small wonder, writes Davis at the end of the chapter, that Las Vegas, with its obsession with sin and excess, is the manifestation for Satan's earthly capital in Stephen King's novel The Stand. No other city in the American West, he concludes, is as driven by occult forces or as unresponsive to social or natural constraints.


Tom Drew said...

"[T]o make way for the future, Las Vegas blatantly and extravagantly demolishes important pieces of its past."

I know you're not a fan, but that sentence totally reminded me of a Joni Mitchell song, "Furry Sings the Blues":

Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps / In the grey decay / They chew the last few dollars off / Old Beale Street's carcass

And later:

Bourbon laughter ghosts history falls / To parking lots and shopping malls / As they tear down old Beale Street

I've been digging deeper into her catalogue lately, and her mid-'70s albums are full of this stuff. She was very observant (and very critical) when it came to issues of the environment, suburbia, vapid consumerist culture, etc. She also had an extraordinary, biting wit.

The album Hejira - which includes "Furry Sings the Blues" - is probably the broadest example of her eco-consciousness. (I guess there's always "Big Yellow Taxi," too, but I kind of hate that song.) I wrote a paper about it, even.

Oh, and she also mentions the Sands in one of her songs.

Anyway, yeah, her stuff can be dense, wordy, musically disarming, and occasionally obnoxious. But it rewards careful listening.

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