The capital of desire

Posted: Jan 15, 2004 12:00 AM

LAS VEGAS -- ``Forever!'' exclaims the mayor with a mixture of incredulity and indignation. He is answering a question he clearly considers not only preposterous but impertinent, and almost immoral -- which few things are considered here. The question is, how long can this horizontal city, the world capital of exuberant excess, continue to sprawl its away across the desert?

Oscar Goodman, resplendent in a chalk-stripe suit worthy of Nathan Detroit in ``Guys and Dolls,'' occupies a City Hall office cluttered with souvenirs of celebrities. He started as a young defense lawyer in Philadelphia, where he was given his first job by an official in the district attorney's office -- Arlen Specter, now a four-term U.S. senator. Goodman came here in 1964 with $87 in his pocket (``I could not afford to go home'') to offer his services to some of the mobsters who were then sort of the chamber of commerce. They, and the Teamsters' pension fund, provided seed money for the city before it became sedate, in its fashion.

Goodman cheerfully ascribes his ascent in life to the 1968 Omnibus Crime Act. Thanks to cases generated by its wiretap provisions, his fortunes waxed. So did the city's, and he survived Las Vegas' transition to post-mob respectability, as that is understood here. When he ran for mayor in 1999, a number of voters may have reasoned as the one who said: The mob can afford to hire the best, so Goodman must be good.

There were about 130,000 people in this valley in 1964. Now there are 1.6 million. There will be 2 million by the end of the decade. The people causing 20,000 housing starts a year will want sprinkler systems for their lawns. But there is a wee problem about water: One of America's fastest-growing cities is exploding not only in a desert -- approximately 4.3 inches of rain a year -- but during a drought.

Scientists studying tree rings and other evidence think the last century was unusually wet, and that the current dry era may become the worst in half a millennium. Las Vegas gets 85 percent of its water from Lake Mead, which has dropped 74 feet in two years and is at 63 percent of capacity. Farther up the hard-used Colorado River, Lake Powell is down 95 feet and is at 50 percent of capacity.

But Westerners, who are veterans of the politics of water, have two pertinent axioms: Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over. And: Water flows uphill toward money.

The intensifying fight over water will pit cities against farms -- often, agribusinesses. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the West's water. But do not bet against this city, which ``owes nothing to its surroundings'' and ``produces no tangible goods of any significance, yet generates billions of dollars annually in revenue.''

So says Hal Rothman, chairman of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas history department and author of ``Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century.'' He arrived here from Wichita State University 12 years ago. He is not in Kansas anymore. Or in the Las Vegas he came to. The population has doubled since he arrived.

He says the city represents the service economy, and the demographics, of the future. A sobering thought, that.

The population, which is growing by more than 6,000 a month, is one-quarter Latino. Another quarter is retired -- and another fifth is between 55 and 64. The city's growth involves a lot of scratching of the desert's surface -- for new roads, housing foundations, malls, etc. That, and awful traffic congestion, produces a lot of dust, which means respiratory problems among the elderly, increasing the costs of their long-term care.

Many of the elderly oppose increases in the city's budget because they believe they have already paid for public services. But they paid elsewhere, before moving here. So who will vote the money for the 17 new schools needed every year, partly for the numerous children of immigrants? Getting the teachers, says Rothman, is less difficult: the city can recruit in Buffalo in winter.

But enough about water and schools and other mundane matters that mayors must worry about. If modernity involves the emancipation of appetites from inhibitions, then Las Vegas really may be, as Rothman says, ``the first city of the 21st century, the place where desire meets capital, where instinct replaces restraint.''

In ``Breakfast at Tiffany's,'' Holly Golightly is described as ``a phony -- but a real phony.'' This city, too, has the authenticity of the altogether synthetic.