Early and middle Las Vegas history is simple. It is relatively uncluttered. And it is oftentimes glamorous. It is a tempting subject for historians, despite insufficient archives and sealed lips. Modern Las Vegas history, however, is a different beast. It is complicated, cluttered and often unglamorous (e.g., bond issues, master-planning and chain stores). Geoff Schumacher, former Las Vegas CityLife managing editor and current editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Mercury, bravely takes on this subject in Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas (Stephens Press, $22.95).
In a smart and stylish introduction, Schumacher writes: “Las Vegas history starts with thousands of years of Native American habitation and at least 150 years of continual occupation by people of European heritage. But there’s been more human activity here in the past quarter-century than in the preceding 125 years. Las Vegas has many stories to tell about its origins, its early settlers, its evolution into the world’s gambling capital. But all that pales in comparison to the dramatic changes that have occurred since about 1980.”
Beginning with downtown Las Vegas, Schumacher sets out to document these changes. The opening chapter—meaty, but not boring—quickly recaps the city’s origins and then transitions into contemporary times. It proves refreshing because it largely ignores the Strip, contains a lot of info on the arts and culture scene, and is balanced (not too critical or too kind).
The second and third chapters focus on the Strip, with solid and fact-filled writing. Most of the ensuing sections address fresher subject matter, straying well beyond the neon. Chapter five focuses on Summerlin—its origins, its development, its environmental sensitivity. It bursts with info, giving the master-planned community (regarded by many as a McNeighborhood) a new and truer identity.
Chapter eight is also noteworthy. It focuses on the federal government’s substantial role in the development of the Las Vegas Valley.
“For all intents and purposes, a federal agency that historically has focused on rural ranching and mining issues is functioning as the largest real estate agent in the state,” writes Schumacher. “This is a whole new world for BLM bureaucrats, and they are bound to make mistakes.”
He adds astutely: “Historically, the BLM has been the least environmentally sensitive federal agency, tending to side with its conservative ranching and mining constituencies over idealistic environmentalists.” He also sheds light on those mysterious BLM land auctions.
Additional chapters include “Transportation: Better Late Than Never” and “The Future: More, More, More, Then Stop?”
While Sun, Sin & Suburbia bulges with information, some sections (particularly on modern Las Vegas) would have benefited from more. Instead of focusing on Howard Hughes, as he did in section four, it would have been more interesting for Schumacher to profile Mandalay Bay exec Glenn Schaeffer or even George Maloof of the Palms. Also, Schumacher, an alt-weekly vet, never broke out of the academic-historian mode. He played it fairly straight to the final page, choosing hard facts over color and objectivity over opinion.
The importance of the book, however, is obvious. It fills a huge void in the annals of Las Vegas history, providing a fine complement to Eugene Moehring’s Resort City in the Sunbelt and a reliable source for students, journalists and historians.