Friday, October 5, 2007

Book Review: "Suburban Xanadu" by David G. Schwartz

One of the things I hope to do occasionally here are book reviews of academic-related material I come across which I think students might find interesting as well. For my inaugural review, I've chosen a book on Las Vegas, a city that continues to fascinate me on multiple levels.

David Schwartz is the coordinator of the Gaming Studies Research Center at UNLV and is an urban historian of some note. "Suburban Xanadu" was his first book, based on his PhD dissertation, which traces "the evolution of the casino resort from its roots in post-World War II domestic urban exodus" to the "veritable casino-archipelago" which dominates our lives today. Evidence of this comes in Schwartz's assertion that almost every American today "lives within a four hour drive of one of the all-inclusive hotel/restaurant/entertainment complexes" which features casino gambling at its nexus.

In the book, Schwartz equates the rise of casino gambling with larger sociocultural trends and not necessarily with the motives of criminality of lore. He writes "from the point that neither casino operators nor patrons are fundamentally deviant, but are in fact more or less rational people acting to maximize their profit and vacation value, respectively." It's interesting that the casino resort as edifice first began to rise in the Nevada desert of Las Vegas at exactly the time America was suburbanizing in the 1950's.

Just as the suburbs promised everything the suburbanite would need to function and live (and most importantly, with the promise of never having to return to the city and all the attendant racial implications as well), so the casino resort first emerged to promise gambling, lodging, fine dining and every accoutrement necessary for a complete and total vacation, without having to leave the premises. It was, as Schwartz argues, the ultimate "suburban Xanadu."

As a criminologist, the most interesting parts of the book are the analyses of organized crime and the role of mob in the rise of Las Vegas. Schwartz quickly jettisons the old myth that mobster and Syndicate boss Bugsy Siegel was the pioneer of modern Las Vegas. The "casino resort" was already in place variously on the Strip before Siegel over-built the Flamingo in the mid 1940's.

But the "mob allure" was undeniable as people began to flock to the middle of the desert to rub elbows with the Hollywood gliterati, who decamped en masse to Vegas on the weekends for casino appearances. Schwartz notes that with time, the mob even began marketing itself, as "mob chic" became part of the motivation for a trip to Vegas.

There is no doubt, however, that the Syndicate did control vast segments of the casinos in Vegas at one time. But one point that Schwartz makes that is fascinating is that the so-called divide between Vegas "back then," when mob control of casinos was normal, and "today", with all the casino resorts heavily corporatized, is really negligible.

He documents a rather slow transition (long before Howard Hughes' infamous buyout of several properties in the 60's, in fact), arguing that many of the large corporations which began buying up casino properties often retained the more, uh, "colorful" characters who ran the joints previously. Schwartz even asserts that there wasn't much "corporate management" inserted into the running of the resorts when big corporations moved in. Many of them merely copied the "mob bureaucracy" already in place and took it to a larger scale.

Fascinating stuff. Dr. Schwartz writes in a very vivid, accessible way and brings to life the history of Vegas and the rise of the casino resort throughout America. If you've ever spent time in a casino resort and were wondering about the socio-history of it (or gambling in general) this book is for you.

Schwartz maintains a blog The Die is Cast and the paperback version of his latest book, Roll The Bones, is coming out soon.

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