A mere century ago this was the biggest, boomingest town in Nevada. Its hotel was the most opulent between Kansas City and San Francisco; it took 80 bartenders to handle the patrons at Tex Rickard’s Northern.
Today Goldfield is a desolate sprawl of weathered shacks, the old downtown marked by a couple surviving taverns, a closed-by-dark gas station, a jail and post office.
Why? Because the town depended on a single industry, and the mines closed.
As I drive through the booming construction sites on the ever-expanding edges of Las Vegas -- houses and apartments being thrown up cheek-by-jowl not of brick and stone but of 2-by-4s, even the chimneys for the fake fireplaces framed of 2-by-4s -- I often wonder whether and when Vegas will shrink to a modest urban core of diehard trinket stands, surrounded by empty subdivisions, gutted and leaning over, abandoned to the jackrabbits and the desert wind.
(If you want a somewhat less desolate scenario, visit Virginia City, or Tombstone. A tourist attraction, perhaps, with stuntmen costumed as gangsters carrying out a “mob hit” on Main Street every hour on the hour from noon to 4?)
Choose your scenario. But if we’re going to be honest and take a long view, the question is not whether, but when. Few great cities of the ancient world stand completely abandoned. But that’s because most of them were built for a geographically logical reason. Does Las Vegas stand at the site of a great port, the intersection of two great trade routes, a strongpoint along a strategic river invasion route?
Nope. Las Vegas is a boom town because of a confluence of historical accidents. Out of desperation, Nevada’s politicians in the Great Depression decided to try and draw some tourism and economic activity by legalizing “sins” that were forbidden or strongly censured elsewhere -- gambling, booze, “quickie” divorce and prostitution. The timely arrival of commercial air conditioning helped. Then, this turned out to be a logical refueling stop for G.I.s being transported across the country during WWII. And Ben Siegel figured out it was an easy drive for those same ex-G.I.s when they started settling in the post-war boomtown of Los Angeles.
Showgirls, coconut shells removed to bare their assets for the 9 o’clock show, followed as the night from day.
But that’s all we’ve got, folks. That, a big hydroelectric plant, a bombing range, and Celine. We can’t fall back on the fishing fleet, the port, the great river that allows commerce into the back country -- not even the proximity of coal and iron ore deposits that make some locales a logical place to build steel mills.
And is Nevada still the only place people can come for legalized gambling or a “quicky,” six-week divorce? Of course not. Yes, prostitution is de facto legal and protected here, as any glance through the out-call “entertainers” section of the yellow pages makes clear. And tourists have doubtless spent more money in the grandiose “no-touch” lap-dance palaces of Las Vegas in the past year than in all the Silver State’s low-rent legal brothels, combined.
But is it really any harder to locate such willing ladies in Houston or any other major convention city, today?
We no longer have a monopoly on any of this stuff, gentlemen. And next to several tourist markets — Amsterdam with its hashish bars, its red light district, its superior architecture and restaurants and museums comes quickly to mind — we already stand outclassed, despite the best efforts of Mr. Wynn.
All that’s left is cheaper airfares. Most of the Dutch even speak better English.
So, on Tuesday, what did Nevadans do to catapult ourselves back into the lead in the only category that sustains this town’s existence — offering “forbidden pleasures” to tourists sick of their puritan environment back home?
Why, we turned down an extremely modest half-step toward marijuana legalization and the eventual introduction of the Dutch-style hashish bar. (I don’t believe for a moment that even 3 percent of voters shared my concerns over this proposal’s “let’s-make-a-deal” tax-jail-and-regulate paternalism) ... and we told millions of visiting cigarette smokers who have previously smiled and clapped their hands with glee upon spotting an ash tray and learning that Nevada restaurants still have “smoking sections” that we’d just as soon they take all their money and fly to some casino in the Caribbean, in Asia, on some “sovereign” Indian reservation, or any other damned place but here.
(Arizona and Ohio enacted similarly draconian smoking bans, on Tuesday. Alcohol Prohibition worked out so well ... shall we try it again?)
And does anyone think these New Puritans will now fold their tents and quit the field, content with rendering some of our favorite taverns as quiet as the morgue at midnight? After all, they also managed to slip through on Tuesday new economic penalties for employers who refuse to unionize or to subsidize our current, grossly overpriced, government-licensed monopoly “health care” system, all under the guise of a “minimum wage hike.” (Cute.)
I doubt two years will pass before this gang is back, first to demand mandatory free baby-sitting, and then to wave planted breathless exposes from their mindless mouthpieces of the press, ululating that they’re shocked -- shocked! -- to learn there’s illicit drug use going on in this town’s new generation of trendy upscale nightclubs, drug use which the proprietors KNEW ABOUT, mind you, and which has been known to contribute to ensuing episodes of -- you’re not going to believe this -- UNPROTECTED SEX!
This gang will not finish strangling Vegas in the next year, of course, or in five years. These things take time. Corporate investors will continue to bankroll ever bigger “integrated resorts” well beyond the likely date of my retirement party, or probably yours.
I’m just saying that I can now glimpse the most likely route of our destruction. We will do it to ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of newly transplanted California or Illinois voters who don’t quite grasp the source of all this wealth now routinely go to the polls and vote to “protect the children,” the same way the do-gooders of Pittsburgh and Youngstown wanted the regulators to “protect the children” from the grimy pollution produced by all those nasty factories -- and now wonder where our industrial base went, taking all those good blue-collar jobs with it.
The Movement for Moral Hygiene knows no limits. Enact their entire wish list into law and they’ll be back next year with a new one. After all, would you want YOUR child to point at a billboard showing women’s mostly nekkid butts as you drove her to Bible class, asking “What’s that, mommy?”
These ignoramuses never stop braying “for the children” till they’ve shut down the very industries that gave their cities life. As though daddy’s paycheck isn’t “for the children.”
Not to worry, though: If there eventually ensues some kind of economic downturn, the reasons for which can be debated endlessly, the government will step in with “redevelopment subsidies” and replace those nasty old smoke-filled jobs with new “clean industries.” Right?
Just like they did in Goldfield.
By the way, all those schoolteachers and municipal employees who worked in Goldfield, a century ago: They kept drawing their promised pensions as long as they lived, right? “Government” kept all its promises to them, since “government” can sustain itself on good intentions even after it’s finished sucking dry the husk of the living, raucous and rowdy, market-driven municipal organism off which it used to feed ...