11 – Las Vegas, NV

Episode 11: Respectful of Ourselves, of Others and of the Planet with Johnn Jones

Johnn Jones describes a Great America that is compassionate, loving, respectful of ourselves, of others and of the planet.

Johnn Jones is a husband, brother, friend and petter/feeder of two shelter dogs. He is also a musician and media content producer in Las Vegas.

Johnn grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. His parents practiced unconditional love and taught him the value of self respect and respect and consideration for others. He learned to play the piano as a young child and brought his love of music and performing into adulthood. This has served him well in every aspect of his life and career as a musician, performer and media producer.

Link to Johnn Jones about me page:

https://about.me/johnn

Las Vegas, NV: THE GREAT AMERICA OF 1946-1980

The usual consensus is that the “golden age” of Las Vegas occurred between 1946 and 1980, as the desert city became known as the “entertainment capital of the world” and assumed a unique place in the popular imagination. Though the bright lights gave the city a surreal aspect that seemed removed from the prosaic day-to-day concerns of mainstream America, Las Vegas would confront issues similar to those that faced the country as a whole.

Las Vegas’ reputation as a haven for vice go back to its earliest days as an incorporated municipality, the term “sin city” dating back to 1906. Nearby federal projects in the form of the construction camp at Boulder Dam (1931-1936) and the Las Vegas Army Airfield (1925, later Nellis Air Force Base), each with an almost entirely male workforce, were a ready market for gambling (legalized in 1931), liquor (illegal during prohibition) and prostitution, all of which were readily available in the city. Efforts by officials to crack down on or otherwise control vice merely provided an opportunity for organized crime, which arrived in the form of gangs from the East Coast.

Famously, Benjamin “Bugsy” Seigel, a New York mobster who arrived in Las Vegas via California, seeking an opportunity to invest in legitimate business, financed the construction of the Flamingo Hotel in 1946. This began an era of organized crime involvement in the casino business, this new capital funding its expansion just as the booming postwar economy created a rapidly swelling middle class eager for recreation.

There was a nugget of truth to the popular notion that the mob ran Las Vegas. Local government was weak and decentralized, something which left space for organized crime to exert influence. This led to a free-wheeling, almost libertine vibe. For most Americans, the city quickly came to represent a special sort of freedom, a place that seemed built just for a certain notion of leisure that allowed for an escape from the responsibilities and expectations of working life in the United States. By the same token, investors similarly saw opportunity in a place where they could build a business without some of the constraints seen elsewhere, and created a gaudy and ostentatious cityscape.

Beyond gambling (soon rebranded as more respectable “gaming”), entertainment options were generally affordable and accessible, with middle-class people able to see performers like Liberace and Frank Sinatra in the relative intimacy of a lounge. Significantly, these performers were often people past their heyday, and Las Vegas provided an opportunity for them to find new relevance in an era when rock-and-roll was ascendant in the rest of the country. The lounges helped preserve a swaggering, cigarette-smoking notion of cool made obsolete by the social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s.

Behind the glamour was a real city with real problems, and the sort of permissiveness that made the city so attractive to tourists sometimes proved problematic to residents. Local government was weak and corrupt, and the interests behind the casino industry were content to keep it that way. While some casino developers found a local leadership responsive when they wanted lucrative capital projects like freeway interchanges, infrastructure and basic services needs were often neglected. Many streets in the largely African-American western portion of the city, were not even paved. Additionally, the police force functioned at times as a criminal gang, and city leaders seemed complicit at best.

Segregation was an issue as well, though the city’s unique political dynamics made the struggle play out differently than it did in other places. The mob, largely Jewish and Italian, were at best ambivalent about segregation, and saw it as bad for business. They defied the hidebound elected city leadership, who continued to champion southern-style segregation through the 1950s and 60s. Additionally, entertainers like Frank Sinatra refused to perform at segregated clubs, further pressuring the city to integrate. Segregation was brought down by a series of dramatic protest actions starting through the 1960s and 70s by a coalition that included the NAACP and an increasingly powerful (and integrated) Culinary Workers Union.

Aviation mogul Howard Hughes purchased the Desert Inn in 1966. His investment in the city started to break the hold of the mob. The city increasingly became attractive to corporate money. Oran Gragson, a reform-minded Republican prompted to enter politics by constant police harassment of his business, served as mayor from 1959-1975 and worked to professionalize local government and end segregation. While the “Golden Age” of Las Vegas was not yet over, it should have been clear that the free-wheeling days of yore were coming to an end.

In 1980, a fire at the MGM Grand Hotel killed 87 people and injured nearly 700 more. A subsequent inquiry found that the death toll was due in large part to a lack of sprinklers, something that was allowed by city officials. The resulting outrage led to reforms as it became clear that the city’s permissiveness could not continue. By this time, most of the old organized crime figures who once held sway in Las Vegas were no longer in the picture, and federal law enforcement had broken the power of the mobs nationally. Increasingly, the resort industry in Las Vegas would become a well-marketed corporate venture.

-Tom Prezelski, Resident Historian

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