The imagery that night was not subtle. A crowd of jubilant concertgoers were enjoying one of the top acts in country music, flanked by palatial resorts on all sides. The steady, unnerving sound of automatic gunfire at first sounded like an audio glitch, but moments later, sheer terror set in.
In the days that followed, network television anchors reported live from the scene of the tragedy, with opulent, shimmering casinos serving as their backdrop.
Viewers watching the tragedy and its aftermath unfold understandably may see Las Vegas as some sort of grown-up Disneyland on steroids, but there is another side that I would like to share:
Underneath the glitter and neon, and wild, over-the-top excess, Vegas is a town of ordinary people whose mission in life is to show you a good time. I’m one of them. Now, thanks to last week’s massacre, people like me likely are looking at hard times in the coming months.
Like most Nevadans, I am not from here. On January 2, 2015, my wife and I packed up a sedan with all our belongings and began a 3˝-day drive from Brooklyn to Las Vegas. I am a juggler and unicyclist by trade, and I had been working full time as a freelance circus artist. My wife split her time between running a small Pilates studio and performing circus as well. Early in my career, New York provided some incredible opportunities. I had the chance to appear on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Colbert Report, commercials and even the Delta SkyMall catalogue. But each year costs would go up, and the city slowly became unaffordable. We knew it was time for a change, and we knew we would find a large community of entertainers in Sin City.
Having never been to Vegas, I expected to find a city that was plastic, hollow and fake, representing the worst excesses of modern capitalism. Despite that, I was willing to give it a shot. And what I found was a world of interesting and thoughtful people who put everything into making the town shine. Many of our friends are tied in some way to entertainment and tourism: burlesque performers, musicians, contortionists and sideshow performers are just some of the people we have come to know in the time we have been here. We even know a woman who stands on her hands and shoots a crossbow with her feet. But even these people live quiet and normal lives once the curtain closes and the lights go off.
Yes, there is truth to some of the stereotypes about Vegas — bars remain open 24 hours a day, and you can gamble anywhere from the Bellagio to the local 7-Eleven — but that paints an incomplete picture. Beyond the Strip, the surrounding terrain provides scenic beauty. The residential neighbourhoods provide refuge from the hustle and bustle. It is a quiet place to live, despite the Las Vegas Valley bringing in 43 million visitors every year, and is largely a working-class place, too. The median household income is about $51,000 per year, a few thousand below the national average. And, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Bureau, 44 per cent of the workforce is tied either directly or indirectly to the tourism industry. No other city in America is so dependent on visitors opening their pockets.
Tourism is a worker-driven industry. The desk clerk who checks you in, the waiter who serves your meal, the usher who takes you to your seats, the performers in the show — all of these wonderful experiences are made possible by the real people who work here. Without this workforce, these glittering, hulking casinos and hotels would be worthless. Yet the city’s dependence on tourism puts these workers at risk. Even small drops in tourism mean jobs will be lost, and many Nevadans lack a satisfactory safety net. As a state, we are slightly less likely to have health insurance than the median. The state’s abysmal education ranking means that our students will lack the opportunities that graduates in neighbouring states enjoy. The inadequate homeless services mean that many marginal Las Vegans will fall through the cracks.
We live in the shadow of fearful questions. What happens if there is another recession? What happens if there is an earthquake? What happens if someone fires hundreds or thousands of rounds from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino into a crowd of concertgoers? Will people stay home? How long will it take for the visitors to come back? How many jobs will be lost?
Those questions are yet to be answered. But I can say already that Las Vegas is not the same city it was last Saturday. Video billboards in front of Strip properties are not promoting Cirque du Soleil or the Jennifer Lopez residency. Instead, white text appears on a black background letting people know that MGM resorts are offering free psychological counselling to those in need. Mandalay Bay, a sparkling golden behemoth of a hotel, now serves as a constant reminder of the evil that came to this city last Sunday.
Recent reports that the shooter had rented a room at the Downtown Ogden condominium building overlooking the Life Is Beautiful concert series last month sent a collective chill down the spine of Las Vegas residents: this attack was not specific to that building or that concert; it could have happened at any large gathering near a tall building. It could have happened in our downtown.
It could have happened somewhere else altogether.
Right now, it is the task of our elected officials and civil leaders to review security procedures and response protocols to minimise the risks to the city and its visitors in the future. The country also needs to have a broader dialogue about the role that firearms play within our society.
But we should remember that we are far more likely to die in a car crash on the way to a concert than we are to die at the concert, despite this shocking atrocity, and that if we were to swear off every city that experienced a major tragedy, New York, Paris, London and Barcelona would all be off-limits. I understand that people want to do everything they can to avoid harm. But I also hope they realise that we need them here, and that one madman should not define the reputation or the soul of a city.
Las Vegas is a city that is hurting, but it is also a city that is friendly, warm and open to visitors. We would love to see you here soon.
• Kyle Petersen is the managing partner of Western Stage Props, Las Vegas’ one-stop theatrical prop shop