A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

33
Tumbling Dice: The Problem
of Las Vegas

Stephen Tatum and Nathaniel Lewis


Rocks Off: The Problem of Development

A society that unthinkingly privileges the present, real time, to the detriment of past
and future, also privileges accidents. (Paul Virilio, The Original Accident, 23).

“The problem of the West is nothing less than the problem of American development” (Turner 1992a: 205). With these words Frederick Jackson Turner opened his Atlantic Monthly essay of 1896, “The Problem of the West.” Applied to Las Vegas in the early twenty-first century, the words sound prophetic, as the city over the past decade has fallen victim to the boom-and-bust cycle of the globalized world economy, an uncanny repetition of the uneven economic development plaguing the American West in Turner’s era. For years regarded as one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States, Las Vegas evokes images of its constantly evolving built environment: casino hotels, neon skylines, and urban sprawl, all epitomizing the relatively unregulated development of urban and suburban space in the post-1945 American West. Although by “development” Turner here primarily connotes economic growth through continuing material or physical expansion, his strategic use of this word at the end of the modernizing nineteenth century nevertheless also introduces some of the “problems” faced by historians, critics, and cultural producers studying the region’s evolution into a postmodern, postindustrial society.

“The Problem of the West” represents a popular-press sequel to Turner’s 1893 historiographical essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (Turner

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