Outsiders may have regarded residents of Los Angeles and Las Vegas as misguided. But both metropolitan areas grew so rapidly and prosperously that people living there generally looked past the malaise that preoccupied the outside observer, and saw instead an enormous range of opportunities for personal fulfillment. Some inhabitants recognized the division, restlessness, and aimlessness that characterized Southern California and its offshoots, but they also accepted the risks as inevitable in the special kind of city in which they chose to live.
The rapid growth and increasing mobility of the modern Far West profoundly shaped Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Such mobility resulted not only from the lifestyle of metropolitan centers, but also from the waves of migrants beating ashore in the region. Cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas consisted for the most part of uprooted people, individuals who had already demonstrated their willingness to follow economic and cultural opportunity rather than remain in stable and familiar hometowns.
Like the nineteenth-century frontier, the Sunbelt was peopled by Americans in the process of resettlement. The world of these urbanities, as a result, was naturally more restless, more individualistic, and more attuned to economic opportunity from the outset, and the residential cities that they built, sprawling and private and acquisitive, reflected the same westering orientations. In Las Vegas, the privacy offered by the residential culture of modern far western cities took on added importance.
Southern Nevadans often felt that they had no city to call their own. Living in an unusual metropolis shared with tourists, Las Vegans felt they could lead ordinary lives only when they got away from Glitter Gulch and the Strip. Townspeople who worked all day or all night in districts given over to the resort industry had to distance themselves from tourists during off hours.
Because Las Vegans had no central district of their own, they flocked to the growing number of residential subdivisions where families could set themselves apart from visitors and gambling. The cat played an important role in this flight from gaming districts to outlying homes.
Las Vegans’ attachment to the automobile served as one expression of their heightened sense of mobility and privacy, and prompted planners to regard the town as ‘a city of two-car families.’ Between 1950 and 1960, while the population of Clark County grew 2 and a half times, auto registrations increased nearly four-fold.
In 1960, there were two registered cars for every five Americans, but in Clark County the ratio was two to three. While 64 percent of the nation’s labor force traveled to work by auto, almost 78 percent of working Las Vegans relied on such transport. In fact, southern Nevadans depended on private transportation so completely that they never expanded city bus service beyond the ‘woefully inadequate’ system deplored by one editor in 1960.
There was no strong call for public transit because Las Vegas had converted to the auto quickly and thoroughly after the early years as a railroad town. Residents preferred the individualistic and flexible offered by cars and made the vehicle central to their way of life.