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Reno’s Big Gamble

Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City

Alicia Barber

October 2008
320 pages, 30 illustrations, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1594-0, $34.95

book cover imageWhen Pittsburgh socialite Laura Corey rolled into Reno, Nevada, in 1905 for a six-month stay, her goal was a divorce from the president of U.S. Steel. Her visit also provided a provocative glimpse into the city’s future.

With its rugged landscape and rough-edged culture, Reno had little to offer early twentieth-century visitors besides the gambling and prostitution that had remained unregulated since Nevada’s silver-mining heyday. But the possibility of easy divorce attracted national media attention, East Coast notables, and Hollywood stars, and soon the “Reno Cure” was all the rage. Almost overnight, Reno was on the map.

Alicia Barber traces the transformation of Reno’s reputation from backward railroad town to the nationally known “Sin Central”—as Garrison Keillor observed, a place where you could see things that you wouldn’t want to see in your own hometown. Chronicling the city’s changing fortunes from the days of the Comstock Lode, she describes how city leaders came to embrace an identity as “The Biggest Little City in the World” and transform their town into a lively tourist mecca.

Focusing on the evolution of urban reputation, Barber carefully distinguishes between the image that a city’s promoters hope to manufacture and the impression that outsiders actually have. Interweaving aspects of urban identity, she shows how sense of place, promoted image, and civic reputation intermingled and influenced each other—and how they in turn shaped the urban environment.

Quickie divorces notwithstanding, Reno’s primary growth engine was gambling; modern casinos came to dominate the downtown landscape. When mainstream America balked, Reno countered by advertising “tax freedom” and natural splendor to attract new residents. But by the mid-seventies, unchecked growth and competition from Las Vegas had initiated a downslide that persisted until a carefully crafted series of special events and the rise of recreational tourism began to attract new breeds of tourists.

Barber’s engaging story portrays Reno as more than a second-string Las Vegas, having pioneered most of the attractions—gaming and prizefighting, divorces and weddings—that made the larger city famous. As Reno continues to remold itself to weather the shifting winds of tourism and growth, Barber’s book provides a cautionary tale for other cities hoping to ride the latest consumer trends.

“In an era when societies around the world have been grappling with the issue of how best to accommodate legalized casino gaming and gambling with its inherent risks and rewards, Barber’s book seems particularly resonant. It provides a fascinating account of one community’s attempt to manage its image and reputation while reaping the benefits of the morally ambiguous activities that have been the economic lifeblood of Nevada’s Biggest Little City.”—Times Literary Supplement

“Barber’s book, which explores the history of Reno, Nevada, as a tourist destination from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, is a welcome corrective to the prevalence of studies that cover much narrower periods. . . . Her work makes a compelling case for more nuanced scholarship on the role of image in the history of managing cities in growth and decline.”—American Historical Review

“Barber traces the ups and downs of Reno’s turbulent urban development with an engaging and energetic writing style complemented by strong analytical insights. . . . Reno’s Big Gamble is a compelling study of one of America’s most enigmatic and adaptable cities and an excellent model for future studies of urbanism and tourism in the American West.”—Southern California Quarterly

“Barber’s book is distinctly urban history, and should be read by anyone interested in how a city responds to external and internal demands. . . . The ultimate strength of the book is Barber’s ability to make this examination a useful case study for other cities to consider, and for professionals to examine how the cities they are studying have created a sense of place.”—H-URBAN

“An excellent contribution to the study of how image and reality interact and affect one another. In that regard, Barber has added an important title to the study of the American West.”—Western Historical Quarterly

“No place has worked harder than ‘the biggest little city in the world’ to shape its identity and reputation. Alicia Barber tells a fascinating story about the ways that insiders and outsiders have constructed and reconstructed Reno’s image in pursuit of the big bonanza of economic growth.”—Carl Abbott, author of The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West and Greater Portland: Urban Life and Landscape in the Pacific Northwest

ALICIA BARBER is visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she serves on the city’s Historical Resources Commission and the board of directors of Preserve Nevada.

 

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