In the unincorporated but densely developed town of Paradise, Nevada, a boxy, truncated version of the Chrysler Building stands at the corner of New York Boulevard and Las Vegas Boulevard South (aka “The Strip”). At the other end of the block, where the Strip intersects with Tropicana Avenue, a half-sized Lady Liberty stares into the distance toward Arizona and Mexico as a roller coaster darts in and out of the buildings behind her. The marquee on the corner reads “New York, New York” but the light, the heat and the Mexican man saying “Fun in Vegas, Fun in Vegas” as he hands out catalogues listing the phone numbers and rates of private erotic entertainers tell a different story. Welcome to the New York, New York Hotel and Casino.
To be sure, there’s something flattering in the knowledge that the city in which you live is so iconic, expansive and influential as to have inspired a microcosmic version of itself in a city thousands of physical (and just as many cultural) miles away. New York has captured our imaginations in novels, plays, films and visual art for hundreds of years. In his 1949 essay “Here is New York,” E.B. White writes, “New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along […] without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.” This close proximity to spectacle, when combined with the opportunity to participate in or to forgo what the city has to offer is an intoxicating and empowering mixture that New Yorkers are proud of. It’s our street cred, and most New Yorkers wear it on their sleeves. How many of us are rushing out to visit the Statue of Liberty or wait in line at the Empire State Building? Few things, in fact, seem more soul-crushingly mundane than schlepping out to Liberty Island.
Schlepping out to Vegas, on the other hand, has become a veritable American tradition. Sin City — which has been re-branded by the powers that be in Vegas as “The Entertainment Capital of the World” — draws millions of people a year, from every state in the nation. A hot, isolated metropolis out in the Mojave, Vegas is many things to many people. For some, it’s a city that embodies sexuality, decadence and rapacity. For others, it’s family friendly, a Disneyland that happens to have some adult perks. In that respect Vegas is a lot like New York City, which makes the idea of a New York-themed Hotel and Casino on the Strip seem not only like a fine idea, but a downright inevitability.
A 2,000-plus-room resort hotel, New York, New York’s verisimilar exterior is a mash of 12 distinct New York-styled façades that approximate our city’s ever-shifting tastes, technologies and needs. In both the Vegas version and the actual New York City, Beaux Arts abuts Gothic Revival, which abuts Italianate and Art Deco, and so on. The difference, of course, is that the five boroughs became an architectural and cultural hodgepodge over the course of nearly 400 years of cyclic development, demolition, immigration, expansion and acquisition. By contrast, New York, New York Hotel and Casino took all of three years to build from its announced construction in 1994 to its opening in 1997.
In this sense, New York, New York Hotel and Casino is, in spite of its newer, permanent 9/11 memorial, a gigantic three-dimensional, interactive snapshot of an older New York City that looks less and less like its inspiration each day. In much the same way that we might look at later images of Leonard Nole (who modeled for Rockefeller Center’s gilded Prometheus statue) and see little hint of the golden god in his aged features, the two New Yorks are slowly growing further apart. But while the statue of Prometheus is still standing (though Nole died in 1998), New York City will outlive New York, New York Hotel and Casino. Because, like New York City, Las Vegas is an ever-shifting entity with both wrecking ball and fresh dry wall in constant demand.
For a New Yorker visiting Vegas, New York, New York Hotel and Casino is as kitsch as the cut-glass paperweights shaped like Empire State Building one might find in a Times Square gift shop. The symbols and referents at the Hotel and Casino are certainly familiar, and range from the mundane things with which actual New Yorkers are likely to have had firsthand experience (roller coaster cars look like yellow cabs, an Irish pub seems like an established Turtle Bay bar, except that it’s too bright and airy) to those symbols that typify our city to the rest of the world but seem somehow disconnected from the lives of actual city residents (the aforementioned Statue of Liberty for instance, or the swimming pool that’s shaped like the harbor — imagine swimming in the harbor, or even a replica thereof. Blech.).
The facility itself is as massive and gaudy as the Strip’s other mega-resorts, but gigantism (architectural and otherwise) isn’t anything new for New Yorkers. So when presented with the simulacra of our own skyline, the resort, the strip, even the whole of Las Vegas seems smaller, as if we’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain and no longer is the Mirage an actual jungle nor the Venetian actually Venice. But to be a tourist in Vegas is to try and convince yourself, at least for a time, otherwise.
And as opposed to our New York City, the Strip begs for our eyes, laps up the attention of its visitors. In our New York, one of the quickest ways to identify yourself as a tourist is to pause in the middle of a Midtown sidewalk and look up at sites as thrilling and intriguing as, say, the Carnegie Tower or 4 Times Square. By contrast, pausing on the Strip to look up — or over — at a Pirate Show, an erupting volcano, or dancing fountains that blast jets of water up to 250 feet in the air, is expected, even demanded. And why not? People visit New York, New York Hotel and Casino not to experience anything approximating a visit to New York City, but instead for the same reasons they might wear an “I (heart) NY” shirt, whether they’ve actually been to New York and love it or not. There’s a price to pay for being iconic.
For a New Yorker who has visited New York, New York Hotel and Casino, the entire endeavor, the whole of the spectacle — all of the hotels and casinos and restaurants — begin to seem terribly reductionist both in concept and execution. And that, at heart, is where the cities truly diverge. Ultimately, New York, New York Hotel and Casino is about reduction while New York City has, for most of its history, represented expansion. The one boasts a Coyote Ugly bar, a magic shop, a large casino floor with all of the standard slots and tables, thousands of hotel rooms, and a theater where for $125 a pop, you can see Cirque du Soleil’s cabaret style adult show, Zumanity — and all under one gigantic roof. The other City, our city, grows up and out, bulges at the seams, sometimes smells of piss and garbage, is home to some of the nation’s wealthiest and most destitute citizens. As E.B. White writes in the introductory paragraph of his essay, “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” And that, it seems, is good advice regardless of which New York you’re headed to.