- Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City
In her study of downtown Reno’s development from 1868 to the present, Barber cites research findings in history, cultural geography, city-planning literature, political science, and other fields to construct a conceptual framework for explaining how tourism and the landscape that it spawns can affect urban residents. Three major concepts drive her interpretation of Reno’s evolution from maverick city on the make to the decaying casino core of today—civic reputation, sense of place, and promoted image. Civic reputation represents the outside world’s view of a place; sense of place covers residents’ emotional attachment to their locale; and promoted image stands for how political and business leaders would like outsiders to perceive their place. Barber consistently invokes these concepts at strategic points as she traces Reno’s evolution from its birth as a river ford and Comstock railroad hub to its later years when liberal divorce, gambling, speakeasies, and prostitution transformed it into a glamorous vice capital for celebrities and tourists who reveled in the city’s last-frontier revolt against American mainstream culture. In catering to the shifting whims of visitors, Renoites commercialized their city’s appeal until a tourist-based landscape completely engulfed the downtown area by the late 1970s. This process finally began to wane in recent decades when Las Vegas megaresorts, California Indian gaming, and other forces conspired to reduce tourist bookings, resulting in the closure of many downtown hotels and clubs. [End Page 462]
The city’s civic reputation plummeted despite desperate efforts to give the fickle public the new resorts that Renoites thought it wanted. As the author correctly suggests, this story defies Rothman’s “devil’s bargains” model in which tourists’ needs often push aside residents to the point of compromising their sense of place.1 Barber observes that Renoites, anxious to promote local prosperity and shift taxes increasingly onto visitors, were complicit in the wholesale dedication of their downtown to amusement—a position that they are now struggling to change.
Barber’s volume is an informative account of Reno’s big gamble—repeatedly risking its reputation and natural appeal in the pursuit of profit; the author’s conceptual framework enlightens the text throughout. But the interdisciplinary works about place identity that suggest her framework appear only in the book’s introduction. Except for a brief discussion relating Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption to Reno’s commodification (113), Barber makes no further reference to interdisciplinary methods and scholarship. Her brief three-page conclusion would have benefited from one more discussion of relevant findings in a variety of fields, enabling her to suggest “additional models that more clearly explain a wider range of experiences” (10) in the study of western tourism. Such models, along with her own, would allow tourism scholars to move beyond Rothman’s unidirectional paradigm.
1. Hal K. Rothman, Devils’ Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (Lawrence, 1998), 10–14.