17.6.09

Other City Sidewalks: Las Vegas NV: Sidewalks as Spatial Spectacle

[This is a re-worked essay I wrote for Landscape Architecture Prof. Kristine Miller's class about public space at the University of Minnesota. It was originally called: "Las Vegas Sidewalks as Spatial Spectacle".]


[People picnicing and relaxing in the privately-owned and controlled astroturf green space off the sidewalks of Las Vegas Boulevard.]


Recently, I went to Las Vegas for a geography conference. Like most of my friends, I was dreading it. I hate casinos and don't really like shopping, and the thought of a million people sitting in front of slot machines staring at a blinking light seemed pretty nauseating. The only silver lining was that the weather would be much warmer than the cold, quasi-winter climate of Saint Paul in March.

Yet, at the same time, Vegas has always fascinated me. The city has long been at the forefront of American consumer culture, and as a result, a lot of the cultural and social theorists that I like to read have focused on Las Vegas as some sort of dystopian hell, an incarnation of superficiality, a futuristic post-industrial form of capitalism [1]. Because Las Vegas makes its living selling dreams, the economy works through the consumption of superficiality. In Vegas, imagination itself becomes a product. In Vegas, the economy is made from images. In Vegas, the divisions between culture and industry, artifice and reality, signs and meaning seem to erode. In Vegas, everything is a confusing mirage.

Las Vegas' urban landscape offers a paradigmatic moment of what one my of favorite urbanist critics, French social gadfly Guy Debord, has termed the “society of the spectacle”, a certain form of transformation from industrial to consumer forms of capitalism. According to Debord, the spectacle presents a kind of social life where relations are mediated by images, to the point that they “colonize” and shape everyday life. Images within consumer society become an advanced form of money, or the “accumulation of capital to the point where it becomes image” [2]. Importantly here, appearance is a good in itself. Images are self-justifying, so that everything that the spetacle produces is treated as a ‘good’, simply because it's a consequence of the market. (For a good sense of this, think of the way in which popular culture tends to deify fame… so that fame becomes an end in itself, anything that appears on TV is inherently good because its popular, and Paris Hilton becomes a household name.) Because appearance itself is treated as value, the kaleidoscopic world of cultural images, symbols, and media representations ends up minimizing the opportunity for political intervention and the possibility for what Debord calls a “unified” social life.

[Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour's illustration of two types of architectural symbolism: the duck and the decorated shed. For the former, form and structure are symbol. For the latter, the surface becomes a space for communication, while the form of the building becomes irrelevant.]

I think of Debord when I walk around in Las Vegas. The sidewalks of this city seem to be the epitome of the society of the spectacle, an out of control mish-mash of consumption and image, a series of consumable symbolic interactions that has long fascinated architects, scholars, and practically everyone else in the United States who has any money. A good example comes from the 1960s, when a group of well-known architects took an architecture class to Vegas, and surprisingly ended up defending Vegas to a skeptical architecture audience [3]. They wrote that Las Vegas epitomized an “architecture of styles” that formed an explicitly “antispatial” landscape [4]. For them, Vegas represented the future. In contrast to the “pedestrian-scaled” and “intricately enclosed space” of classical urban spaces (like town squares, or Italian piazzas), Las Vegas styles replaced spatial encounters with spaces of communication. The Las Vegas casino was “play of surfaces”, where depth disappeared, replaced by architecture that adopted the form of a “decorated shed” [5]. Signs proliferated, and ‘the strip’ became the default architecture of America’s postwar car culture. In a way, Las Vegas was the fore-runner of the post-modern, where aesthetic engagement with space would take place only at surface, structural form and public space would disappear, all to be replaced by the images of the spectacle and an endless play of surfaces.

Yet Vegas has changed quote a bit since the 1960s. Dean Martin and the Rat Pack are gone, and these early critiques and interpretations of the Las Vegas landscape don’t seem to gel with some of the newer casinos that I saw. For example, the places I found particualrly fascinating, ‘New York, New York’, ‘Paris Las Vegas’, ‘The Bellaggio’, and ‘The Venetian’, seemed to move beyond the superficial play of images to include ideas of the city and urban space within their presentations of spectacle. In a way, instead of relying on the surface, these casinos present a return of "the duck”, where the structural form of the architecture itself becomes part of a symbolic landscape [6]. These casinos rely on the re-creation and presentation of public space as a spatial component of the image, and thus turn away from the antispatial semiotics of earlier forms of the Vegas landscape.

These efforts are further reinforced by a number of recent public transit investments executed by the city during the past few years, which focus on increasing connectivity between buildings along Las Vegas Boulevard [7]. Taken together, these new engagements with public space require a re-thinking of how the Las Vegas consumer landscape operates as a spatial spectacle. How do these new Vegas casinos engage with public space? How is the potential for public space limited and channeled into consumption by the urban spaces of the Vegas strip?

[The New York, New York Hotel and Casino features a replica Brooklyn Bridge as part of its sidewalk. Exits lead into the casino, which reproduces a New York streetscape.]


[The Paris, Las Vegas Hotel and Casino has a miniature Eifferl Tower and fountain bracketing 'caf├ęs' which overlook the sidewalk.]



[My favorite, the Venetian Hotel and Casino, has a fountain, Rialto, and Piazza San Marco that create a nice urban space underneath a second story Doge Palace balcony.]



Public Space and Sidewalks on the Vegas Strip

Las Vegas is notoriously privatized. Not only does it lead the US in the construction of gated communities [8], but even some of its most important sidewalks aren’t public. Las Vegas Boulevard runs for about five miles through the heart of the city, and is the main site for consuming the city’s dominant gambling industry. But while historically public, the sidewalks along The Strip have been increasingly privatized as casinos have offered to pay to widen, develop, and ‘improve’ the sidewalks in exchange for receiving control over the space [9]. The first casino to privatize its sidewalk space was the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, constructed in 1993, and since then, multiple casinos have adopted similar strategies that push the public sidewalk space off the edge of the wide automobile street and onto privately owned land.


[The privately-owned sidewalk runs up an escalator and over the wide and busy Las Vegas Boulevard.]



[The sidewalk ends with a fence, and pedestrians are reigned in by hedges on both sides of the sidewalk before being channeled up an escalator and into a shopping mall.]



The proliferation of privately owned and controlled sidewalk spaces makes walking along the Strip a disparate, disjointed, labyrinthine experience. The flow of pedestrians is frequently pushed up and onto the second story retail. The sidewalk flows up and down private escalators, onto bridges over the busy four-lane roadway, along separated and controlled sidewalk spaces, and even occasionally all the way into the interiors of casinos and shopping malls. As privatized public spaces, these sidewalks have their own security guards and occupy an ambivalent legal position where rights of free speech and public assembly are continually being negotiated [10]. The ambiguity over the control, limits, and access to public space along these sidewalks has resulted in a series of contentious battles over rights to assembly and speech [11]. Because the sidewalks are neither public nor private, it is unclear what rights exist for people in these spaces.

[Illegal vendors selling bottles of water on one of the Las Vegas Boulevard's sidewalks. The sidewalk forces pedestrians to cross the street via this skyway bridge over the roadway.]



In addition to the privatization of sidewalks and pedestrian rights of way, newer casinos such as ‘New York, New York’, ‘Paris Las Vegas’, and ‘The Venetian’ (constructed in 1997, 1999, and 2000, respectively) explicitly incorporate public space as a component within the production of spaces for consumption. Like Disneyworld, these casinos produce a symbol of a city, an urban imaginary that relies not only on a spectacular surface image, but recreates forms of public space within their architectures and interfaces with the sidewalks along the boulevard. For example, the exterior surface of ‘New York, New York’ runs along a recreation of the Brooklyn Bridge that includes park benches and New York City sidewalks, ‘Paris Las Vegas’ contains a recreation of sidewalk cafes underneath a replica of the Eiffel Tower, while ‘The Venetian’ offers a recreation of the Piazza San Marco that includes the Campanile tower, a balcony that mimics the Doge’s Palace, a miniature Rialto Bridge that runs over a miniature gondola-filled canal, and a large central fountain. In a way, these casino spaces expand the privatization of the boulevard’s sidewalk because they create a relatively seamless and unclear transition between the connectivity and flow of the boulevard, the urban iconography of the privatized public space, and the tightly themed interiors of the casinos. When you walk along The Strip, identifying which spaces along Las Vegas Boulevard are public or private, inside or outside, presents a dizzying challenge that presents challenges for sidewalk bloggers, consumers, property owners, activists, and government officials alike.


[On the publicly owned portions of the sidewalks, dozens of Latino men and women hand out flyers advertising 'girls' to pedestrians passing by. These people's rights to vend are restricted on the privately-owned portions of the sidewalk.]


Politically, the privatization of sidewalks and public space along the boulevard has become a flashpoint for debates over rights within public space. Ironically, given my hatred of the city, Las Vegas is the most highly unionized city in the United States, with the vast majority of the casino employees belonging to one of the city’s many service employees unions [12]. Yet assertion and protection of these labor rights has taken place despite the city’s limited public spaces for assembly and protest [13]. For example, labor organizers proved victorious in a strike against the Frontier Hotel and Casino that lasted over six years, the longest successful strike in almost half a century [14]. In a strange way, the privatization of sidewalks along Las Vegas Boulevard has assumed a key role within the battle between labor and management. One famous example of this was "the great sidewalk battle” after the opening of the then non-union MGM Grand and Mirage casinos with private sidewalks in 1993 [15]. The right to speech along these privately owned spaces became a flashpoint for a 1997 legal dispute that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that a lower court had correctly decided in favor of labor protesters [16]. (These sidewalks have even been used to protest non-labor concerns, for example, regarding the issue of animal rights for the tigers used in the famous Siegfried and Roy stage show [17].) Despite the private control over these spaces, their status as public space has been upheld by law, making these private-public hybrid spaces a unique example of how privately controlled space is negotiated within a consumer economy [18]. In a way, the sidewalks along Las Vegas Boulevard have become a unique example of a post-industrial “public forum”, where public concerns can be voiced and negotiated even within an economy of images [19].

The irony of the creation of public space for private gain becomes all the more apparent with the inclusion of public space within the economy of the spectacle, particularly in the case of the still non-union Venetian casino, which boasts some of the most well-maintained public space in Las Vegas [20]. All in all, the debate over private and public rights along the sidewalks of the strip points to a tension between political control and economies of consumption that reveals the paradoxical push and pull within a post-industrial consumer economy.




[Two photos of the sidewalk space alongside the Bellaggio's famous musical fountain. The sidewalks here are the widest on The Strip, and almost always packed with toursists admiring the balcony, trees, and water music.]


Tensions of Public Space within a Consumer Economy

Explaining his notion of the society of the spectacle, Debord argues that images entail a “negation of life” that can undermine “unitary” urban environments [21]. As part of the Situationist critique of modernist urban planning principles [22], Debord and his colleagues called for a holistic and un-segmented form of social life, where a whole range of ways of living and human needs can be satisfied in the city. Debord's arguments seem very similar to the calls for greater social engagement within much of the public space literature. Yet, ironically, the very spaces that offer the most vibrant public spaces within the consumer-oriented landscape of Las Vegas’s casino industry are the ones that are the most highly privatized and controlled. The Italianate plaza outside the Venetian Hotel and Casino offers a paradigmatic example of the tension between public and private within a post-industrial consumer economy, affording the most opportunity for tourists to engage with each other while simultaneously minimizing the potential for political activity. Strangely, the best public spaces in Las Vegas are also the most private spaces in Las Vegas.



[Two photos of the privately-owned plaza in front of The Venetian Hotel and Casino. This space is the widest, and most well-appointed space for relaxing and people watching along the sideawlks of Las Vegas Boulevard.]



It seems that, within a post-industrial economy, public space contains a complicated tension between the desire to create spaces of consumption and excess, and the desire to minimize political activity that might disrupt consumerism. In other words, space must encourage excessive and out-of-control desire, while at the same time limiting people’s political demands and controlling their ability to form social movements. Yet because the new architectural regime of Las Vegas increasingly incorporates space itself within its presentation of image, it begins to move away from a postmodern ‘nonspatial’ symbolic order, and toward embodied and spatial urban relations that incorporate cultural and public activity [23]. These processes of cultural and spatial production seem to increase the tension between the production of consumption and maintaining political order.

To me, the highly controlled public spaces of the new Las Vegas urban casinos present a particularly vibrant example of the negotiation of this tension. Thinking through how public space channels street life along particular lines of consumption seems to me a crucial task for analyzing post-industrial consumerist cities. While on the one hand, the public space of casinos like the Venetian might seem to be an extreme case of the consumer image economy run amok, perhaps it is the new future before us. Perhaps more historical public spaces will increasingly begin to resemble the ‘artificial’ spaces of the Las Vegas strip. For example, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the Mill District in Minneapolis, or South Street Seaport in Manhattan all blur the lines between artifice and reality, while at the same time creating real urban spaces. As public space moves toward particular forms of the production of consumption, geographers, architects, and social scientists should re-think how the spatial practices of Las Vegas embody some of the opportunities and challenges of spectacular public space.


[Happiness activists talk to pedestrians in front of the Bellaggio Hotel and Casino's privately-owned sidewalks.]



References

[1] See Baudrillard, J. (1988) America. New York: Verso. or Chapter 7 of Taylor, M. (1999) About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[2] Debord, G. (1994) The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books. P. 24.
[3] Venturi, R., Scott-Brown, D., and Izenour, S. (1977) Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[4] Ibid p. 8.
[5] Ibid p. 17.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Sofradzija, O. (2007) Las Vegas monorail: 2006 a ridership train wreck. December was system’s worst month. Las Vegas : Las Vegas Review-Journal. 30 January.
[8] McKenzie (2003) Private Gated Communities in the American Urban Fabric: Emerging Trends in their Production, Practices, and Regulation. Paper presented at “Gated Communities: Building Social Division or Safer Communities?”. 18-19 September 2003, Department of Urban Studies, University of Glasgow, Scotland
[9] Gottdiener, M., Collins, C., and Dickens, D. (1999) Las Vegas: the social production of an all-American City. Malden, MA: Willey-Blackwell.
[10] Fox, W. (2005) Desert of Desire: Las Vegas and the Culture of Spectacle. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press.
[11] Ofgang, K. (2001) Hotel sidewalk is public forum. Los Angeles: Metropolitan News-Enterprise. 13 July. And also, Packer (1999) Drawing battle lines on private sidewalks. Las Vegas Sun. 15 Feburary.
[12] Greenhouse, S. (2004) Local 226, ‘the Culinary,’ makes Las Vegas the land of the living wage. New York Times. 3 June.
[13] McKenzie (2003).
[14] Mosle, S. (1998) At hotel-casino, triumphant shouts of ‘union!’ Over six year successful strike of a hotel. New York Times. 5 February.
[15] Gottdiener, M., Collins, C., and Dickens, D. (1999) P. 17.
[16] Packer (1999)
[17] Fox (2005) p. 73.
[18] Fox (2005) p. 57.
[19] Ofgang (2001)
[20] Robison (2008) Adelson survives like ‘cockroach’ as fortune dwindles. Bloomberg News. 12 November.
[21] Debord (1994) p. 14.
[22] See Knabb (1981) Situationist International anthology. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.
[23] See Mele, C. (2000) Selling the Lower East Side. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. And Zukin, S. (1995) The culture of cities. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

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