The director tinkers with his camera and glances at the crowd. Five people, including a featured futurist from Detroit, the director and his sound engineer, gather under a metal roof at a roadside rest stop near Red Rock Canyon.
Florent Tillon, the man behind the camera, isn’t disappointed by the turnout. “Five people,” he chuckles. “Well, maybe we can make that part of the movie.”
The evening’s event is a literary-philosophical conference on the future of Las Vegas. Florent, who has an artistic interest in postindustrial American society, invited two local writers and a Detroit futurist from his last film to this spot at the foot of Calico Hills. The two locals, Jarret Keene and Joshua Ellis (who occasionally writes for CityLife) arrive late, with audience in tow.
The crowd swells to 12 people, who cower in the back of the shelter as the evening sun unleashes its last withering assault. Ellis takes the mic.
“Las Vegas is a city that really shouldn’t exist in the first place,” he says. But not only does it exist, it supports more than 2 million people, many of whom moved here in the last two decades. Ellis is one; he came to the city in 1998. Ellis was here for the boom that doubled the population of Las Vegas. And he was here for the post-9/11 slump, which exposed our vulnerability to global market forces. Now he’s in the thick of downtown’s tech revolution. But the best he can muster is a tepid endorsement of Tony Hsieh’s tech-heavy vision for the city’s future.
“I’m ambivalent about the future of Las Vegas being Tony Hsieh’s vision,” he says. “Because it doesn’t take into account the fact that people already live there.” But at least Hsieh offers solutions that don’t involve gambling or entertainment.
Next, Keene reads a poem titled “Unspiritual Mecca: A Las Vegas Meditation.”
Where nothing is free and everything
Is cheap — shrimp cocktails, hotel rooms human life. Where
Gamblers lose billions to robot slots, millions to robotic
Sluts in nearby Pahrump.
The last speaker comes from Detroit but visits Vegas often. Author Ryan Mathews (The Myth of Excellence) has witnessed the decline of Detroit, a symphony of exodus and decay that has been playing out for decades. He’s something of an expert on dead and dying cities. Since he’s no expert on Vegas, he comes with a broader perspective.
“Cities are places in time that exist for a time,” he says. “Cities don’t have a divine right to exist. The question really isn’t, ‘What is the future of Las Vegas?’ It’s, ‘Does Las Vegas deserve a future?’”
Evening shadows engulf the picnic area. Behind Mathews, the cars on Red Rock’s scenic loop switch on their headlights, and pinpoints of light cut through the dusk.
“The Sun Belt is where people go to escape the other broken parts of industrial America,” he says. “There’s no Eden out there waiting for people to run to — not even Portland or Austin.”
Every city has its problems; Vegas has more than its share. Not everybody wants to hear that, which may explain why only a dozen made it out here. But we can take comfort in some things. Our houses may be underwater, but they haven’t crumbled. Vegas is hurting, but we’re doing better than the Rust Belt. And when things really suck, at least we can escape to the timeless beauty of Red Rock.