There it was on the front page of at least some editions of the Sunday New York Times, perhaps the world’s most prominent journalism forum. “They’re ‘Priced Out of Paradise’ But Hawaiians Thrive in Desert,” read the print headline I saw yesterday above a breathless story about how natives of Hawaii for some time have been relocating to Las Vegas for economic reasons. The article jumped to a full inside page festooned with pictures of ex-Hawaiians rowing on Lake Mead or wearing native garb, and a supermarket shelf full of cans of Spam, part of a Hawaiian delicacy.
My question: Why is this such big news now? My first answer: Stuff about Las Vegas gets written simply because it’s about Las Vegas. That is both the joy and bane of America’s gambling capital.
My second answer: It was a Beauty and the Beast tale of folks leaving an idyllic paradise for what even the Times story called “an affordable faux version of the islands” rather than “the real thing.” At another point, the story by Eliza Fawcett cited the “migration from the impossibly lush natural landscape of the islands to the brash desert of Las Vegas.” In that context, the “beast” Vegas gets the short end of the stick–also a persistent theme of national media coverage.
To me, the news hook for the Times story–to the extent there was a news hook–was this: New U.S. Census estimates said the population of native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in Clark County, home of Las Vegas, grew by 40% in a decade–more than any non-Hawaiian county. A note added to the online version of the story, which carries a different headline, says it was part of a series by The Times “exploring how America defines itself one place at a time.”
Still, in my judgment, the fact that financially strapped Hawaiians find Las Vegas an agreeable place is not exactly hot news. Hawaiian media long has been writing about this. A headline over a Hawaii Public Radio web story in January: “More Native Hawaiians flock to mainland and leave Hawaii, citing high costs.” The story cited the U.S. Census data about Las Vegas. Depopulation of the islands is an expressed long-time worry.
Four years ago in 2019, I began a post here about a Hawaii labor leader accused of using embezzled funds to travel to Las Vegas with this paragraph:
Hawaiians call Las Vegas their “ninth island” because they love to visit, gamble and, thanks to the lower cost of living, even live here. By one account, every year 10% of all Hawaiians make the 5,550-mile roundtrip to Vegas, many traveling several times a year. Dozens of Hawaiian high school class reunions are held annually in Sin City. The California Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas caters mightily to this offshore market with Hawaiian signage and cuisine. As someone New To Las Vegas, I run into native Hawaiians around town all the time.
Besides the central point of many Hawaiians now living here for lower costs, The Times story yesterday specifically mentioned ninth island and the key role of the California Hotel and Casino with its cuisine and signage.
It’s hard to argue with the economics of a move from, say, Honolulu to Las Vegas. I compile data for best-places-to-retire lists on Forbes.com. (The Times story was not strictly about retirement, although the lead paragraphs described a Hawaiian in Las Vegas who retired here in 2005 and is now 80.) According to my data, the median home price in Las Vegas is $412,000 compared with $795,000 in Honolulu, although other Hawaiian cities have cheaper housing. The cost of living in Las Vegas is 11% above the national average; in Honolulu it is 69% above, or more than half again higher than Las Vegas.
Quality of life issues are another matter. Las Vegas fares poorly versus Honolulu in such metrics as low serious crime, good air quality and high doctors per capita–factors that help keep it off Forbes.com retirement lists. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of Hawaiians from moving here and making the best of it they can.
I long have written in this space about how stuff that happens in Vegas often gets insane publicity even though the same stuff happens elsewhere. A year ago, discovery of a murdered man’s body in a barrel in the receding waters of nearby Lake Mead triggered massive worldwide coverage that this might be a gruesome legacy of Vegas’s 40-year period of mob influence that ended in the 1980s. I pointed out that the phenomenon of dead bodies found in barrels is not all that uncommon around the country. (By the way, authorities still haven’t been able to identify the Lake Mead victim.)
In 2019, an infestation of grasshoppers in Vegas drew wide end-of-the-earth-is-coming coverage around the world, with some outlets posting pictures and video of grasshoppers shot up close to make the critters seem like Godzilla. I noted that such massings are common in nature and have happened elsewhere without far-flung attention. Also, I suggested that the biblical account of the plague of locusts upon Egypt so Moses and the Jews could escape might have something to do with great media interest about such doings in a place known far and wide as Sin City.
The same year, I wrote about the wide media coverage of a Las Vegas hearse driver ticketed for driving in the minimum two-person HOV lane with a second person–a dead body being transported to a funeral home. I cited examples of such activities elsewhere that got far less press.
Re the Hawaiian invasion of Las Vegas, I suppose I can’t rule out a third reason for the expansive Times play: a slow news day. I will rule out a fourth possibility: Someone on The Times who decides story placement is trying to unload a house here amid the slowing sales market.