Las Vegas Celebrates its Centennial

The neon sign of the Frontier casino and hotel marks the edge of the "old" Strip in Las Vegas.

The neon sign of the Frontier casino and hotel marks the edge of the "old" Strip in Las Vegas. Shereen Meraji, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Shereen Meraji, NPR
Johnny Thompson, president of the Professional Elvis Impersonators Association

Johnny Thompson, president of the Professional Elvis Impersonators Association, plays his hero twice a day at the Omaha Lounge at the downtown Plaza Hotel and Casino on the "old" strip. Shereen Meraji, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Shereen Meraji, NPR

On Sunday, Las Vegas celebrates its centennial, though it may be a surprise to many that a city built on glitz and gambling has much history at all. When a developer needs more room for a bigger hotel on the strip, an older hotel is typically blown up to make way.

Most American cities have a genesis story. Think of Manhattan, bought for $24 worth of baubles, or Los Angeles' humble roots as a dusty Mexican pueblo. The story of Las Vegas begins with a small concrete pillar, looking a little like a parking barrier, marking the day in 1905 when 110 acres of land was auctioned off by a railroad company. And thus, the city was born...

That marker sits between a McDonald's restaurant and a run-down casino on the "old" strip, far away from the billion-dollar fantasy resort casinos lining the "new" strip.

Las Vegas remained a tiny, two-track railroad junction town until legendary gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel helped create the first luxury gambling resort, the Flamingo. Las Vegas is now a metropolis of nearly two million people, and a cultural touchstone, for better or worse.

"Las Vegas is either the city that represents America, or the city that America built to represent itself," says historian Michael Green.

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