American Cities Are “Becoming” Las Vegas and UB Sociologist Says It’s a Model for Development of Other Metro Regions

Release Date: August 2, 2000

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Las Vegas' development is not accidental and has broad cultural significance, according to a book by a UB sociologist.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Las Vegas is synonymous in the public mind with 24-7 gambling, chorus lines, Elvis impersonators and drive-by weddings, but it's far more than that.

Mark Gottdiener, urban sociologist, semiotician and theorist, reminds us that Las Vegas is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States and its development as a major regional wonderland, while unlikely on the face of it, is not accidental and has broad cultural significance.

The success of the Las Vegas economy, he says, can be used as a model for metropolitan areas attempting to discover new, non-industrial strategies for growth.

Gottdiener, author of the critically-praised book, "Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City" (1999, Blackwell Publishers), is professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo and a nationally-recognized expert in urban development.

His book tells the untold story of historical, political and economic growth that replaces the "sin city" of popular imagination with the economic boom town that is home to more than 1 million people.

The popular image of Las Vegas, says Gottdiener, is one perpetuated by the mass media and by the 35 million tourists who cycle in and out of the mecca every year. He points out that most visitors stay 2.5 days on average and are never exposed to the community that exists beyond the strip's elaborate themed hotels and casinos. There is much more to the story, he says.

By looking deeply into the city's history, Gottdiener demonstrates how the growth of the sunbelt oasis can inform our understanding of contemporary urban growth far better than can the study of older urban areas. This knowledge, he says, has important implications for the development of metropolitan regions throughout the country.

"Las Vegas demonstrates more recent patterns of rapid urban growth than do traditional urban models," he explains, "and the issues it has dealt with successfully are the same ones that confront older cities today -- the decline of the urban core and the increasing importance of tourism and casino gambling in urban development strategies.

Gottdiener also is an authority on casino gambling and its social effects and is currently conducting research on the actual and potential effects of casino gambling on various urban regions. While Las Vegas offers a possible model of urban development, he says the issue of legalized gambling must be approached with great caution because it often creates major financial and social problems that are seldom discussed.

Las Vegas can teach us something there and in other areas as well, Gottdiener says.

He points out that many cities, particularly older towns in the Northeast industrial corridor, have a negative image, just as Las Vegas did for a very long time.

"Las Vegas turned its bad reputation around through vigorous and sophisticated marketing techniques," he says. "In fact, Las Vegas is now synonymous with self-promotion. The city has benefited greatly from tirelessly thrusting itself into the national spotlight for the last 50 years."

The Las Vegas experience proves, he says, that the image of a city -- including its fantasy aspects -- is as important as its reality in determining future growth and development. Any city can do this, he says, if it develops an organized, sustained, well-thought-out effort to combat its negative image.

"Urban residents who consider their regional problems as if they belong only to the city - an entity with limited geographic boundaries -- are making a big mistake. In fact, they're shooting themselves in the foot. The concept that cities "end" at their municipal borders has been out of date among sociologists and urban planners for many years. The city's problems are those of its suburbs and neighboring towns and vice versa. They are not mutually exclusive.

"Unfortunately even today, many regions are less than the sum of their parts," he says, "because those whose job it is to promote the region seem not to fully understand the complex phenomenon at play.

"In this day and age, it is parochial to assume that any of us benefit from the isolation of a region's suburbs, towns and cities," Gottdiener claims. "Publicly, however, and perhaps privately as well, there is frequently an inadequate conceptualization of how cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas in any region can mutually exploitation of one another to produce enormous benefits for the region itself and its component municipalities."

Gottdiener's study of Las Vegas has been said by such noted sociologists as David Boje to offer new insight into possible plans that stressed metropolitan regions have to develop if they expect to move into the twenty-first century as thriving, competitive entities.

"Las Vegas is becoming a more of a typical American city, while the rest of the country is changing in ways that make it more like Las Vegas," Gottdiener says. "If that's where a city is going, we might as well learn from the town that's been there and done that."

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