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Bad Reps

Las Vegas
Photo by Danill Vnoutchkov

What we think of a city has consequences for that city

Las Vegas. San Francisco. Birmingham, Alabama. Three very different cities united by at least one thing: Each developed a specific reputation that’s shaped its contemporary history and growth — with San Francisco, it was the rise of gay culture; Birmingham’s resistance to the civil rights movement became its enduring and problematic legacy; and Las Vegas was and is “Sin City.” In each case, from one perspective or another, that reputation functioned as a stigma to be dealt with.

The three places are also united in the new book Stigma Cities: The Reputation and History of Birmingham, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, in which Great Basin College (in Elko) history professor Jonathan Foster uses the three cities to explore the ways that reputation is an overlooked but powerful force governing the development of cities.

“It’s important that we recognize the influence of what we think of a place to the historical trajectory of that place,” he says. “Reputations matter when it comes to cities.”

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Stigma Cities: The Reputation and History of Birmingham, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, by Jonathan Foster (University of Oklahoma Press, $39.95) Pictured Right

An example that helped germinate this book: In 1998, domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph bombed an abortion clinic in Birmingham, which is where Foster grew up. “I remember seeing the headlines about this: ‘City’s past comes roaring back.’ I’m thinking, yes, Birmingham has this horrible history as ‘Bombingham’ because of the racially motivated bombings of the 1950s and 1960s.” But this new act was perpetrated by an outsider motivated by anti-abortion fervor, not racism. “I thought, Is it really fair to fall back on that identity of Birmingham in discussing that current event? That got me to thinking.”

The result is Stigma Cities, its three subjects chosen from a long roster of potentials — “ruined” Detroit being one obvious example — in part because Foster is familiar with them, having grown up in Birmingham, lived in Las Vegas for nine years (a doctoral paper he wrote at UNLV was the book’s kernel), and frequently visited San Francisco.

“Las Vegas is probably the most complex of the three,” he says. Rather than a blemish to be overcome, as it would be in most places, “Sin City” became the secret to the city’s success, with even the presence of organized crime — typically not considered a civic resource — adding to the allure. “If Las Vegas ever becomes normal,” he says, noting the city’s ongoing mainstreaming, “I think that’s problematic for the city’s future.”

Always informed by what’s going on in the nation at large, civic stigmas can form quickly — it took only a few decades for Birmingham to go from being nicknamed the Magic City, an example of New South industrialism, to racism-wracked Bombingham — and be difficult to dispel. In Birmingham, he recalls, some locals opposed renaming the airport after civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth because they didn’t want to draw attention to the events of May and September 1963, even though Shuttlesworth stood in opposition to that racism. Such is the power of the established narrative. Look at the recession, he says, and the media coverage of Las Vegas’ struggles — “They’re gonna mention gambling in some way, even if it has nothing to do with that.” San Francisco’s gay-tolerant culture still gets badmouthed in the culture wars, he says. “We just plug modern events into those stereotypes to help us make sense of them.”

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The  point of Stigma Cities is that the function and effects of reputation deserve to be studied not only alongside a city’s urban planning and economic development, but as a component of those things. “How we perceive and portray those places really have an impact on those places over time.”

(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)