These days, few words get abused more than “iconic”, but few pop images—or, at the very least, few roadside signs—deserve the label as much as the sign welcoming people to Fabulous Las Vegas. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. Conceived in 1959 by commercial artist Betty Willis as her “gift to the city”—meaning she did not trademark the design—it has enjoyed countless reproductions on various tourist bric-a-brac, and even amidst the spectacle of some of the most opulent casinos and resorts in the world, it remains the city’s defining image (even though it is well outside the city limits, but that’s another story). It’s so famous that I’m going to go out on a limb and leave my descriptive reference without a photo, which should convey it well enough. But I will capture the lesser-known backside.
This is what people see as they head southward on Las Vegas Boulevard, many of them most likely winding around to the McCarran International Airport (LAS), which stretches just to the east of this sign; planes zip by countless times each day. The rest are preparing to leave the city on Interstate 15. The appearance of the Fabulous Las Vegas sign from behind isn’t surprising: it abides by the same Googie space-age aesthetic as the front side. But it’s remarkable for acknowledging what we all know by now is the truth: few people venture pass the sign by foot in this postmodern city, in which I’d wager that a higher percentage of developed land post-dates World War II (and the ubiquity of the car) than just about any other major city in the country. Even though the Las Vegas Strip (which begins just a block or so further north) is fundamentally a pedestrian friendly environment, it still heavily accommodates the car and does not encourage the sort of interplay between cars and vehicles one might see along a busy street in, say, New York City. Every major casino-resort-hotel on the strip has a massive parking garage in the back.
Even sixty years ago, Willis (a Las Vegas native) knew that the fundamental means of engaging with the attractions of Las Vegas was through a vehicle. And virtually all the people who take selfies at her Fabulous Las Vegas sign have to contend both with crowds of other gawkers and an artillery of cars clustered at the sign’s base. Unincorporated Clark County (not the City; it isn’t a municipal right-of-way) has invested multiple times over the last 15 years in improving the safety and parking availability around the sign. These improvements took place iteratively because each previous attempt to meet the demand for cars has proven inadequate.
Unlike Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain or Cloud Gate, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall or Love Sculpture, New York’s Times Square or Wall Street Charging Bull, the Fabulous Las Vegas sign engages with its devotees in much the same way as the world’s second largest ball of twine: people see it from their vehicles, pull over, and snap a photo. It might as well be a quirky windmill or silo. Nothing fundamentally wrong with this, but it speaks volumes about how visitors navigate through the city, and all the pedestrian overpasses in the world won’t change the primacy of the vehicle within the meretricious landscape. After all, the biggest weekend customer base to Sin City comes from just 300 miles to the southwest: a notoriously automobile oriented City of Angels.