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Vegas, Venice and Vermont

04/16/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Commentator Vic Henningsen has been doing some traveling lately, looking at maps and thinking about what it means to live in Vermont.

(HENNINGSEN) When developers demolished Las Vegas's Stardust Hotel-Casino last month, there were lots of spectators but few mourners. "It's always a little sad to see these old places go," one onlooker told a reporter, "but that place was so old and gross - and old and gross don't belong in Vegas." The Stardust had been there all of forty-eight years. But it must have seemed like a relic of the Norman Conquest in a city dedicated to the here, the now, the instant; to the proposition that your bright future is just a card toss or a roll of the dice away and the past . . . well, the past, as the song says, "is just a good lie."

The end of the Stardust reminded me of a recent visit to another city dedicated to pleasure and the promise of opportunity: Venice.

We forget that, in its heyday, Venice was the Vegas Strip and Wall Street rolled into one. Before other European nations developed a sea route to the Indies, Venetian merchants controlled access to the Eastern luxury goods they craved. Famous for marking up the cost of rare silks and spices by several hundred percent, Venetians poured their profits into an empire that produced the ostentatious display of excessive wealth now visible in the churches and pallazos of the city. And what we see today is only what was left after Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797 and, with a certain amount of poetic justice, stripped it of much of its stolen wealth. Since then Venice has lived on its past glory and now seems like a huge theme park, filled with tourists, apparently in imminent danger of sinking beneath the waves of its Adriatic lagoon. In marked contrast to Las Vegas, which keeps improving the product by destroying old buildings, Venetians take pride in the decrepitude of their city. "It's always collapsing," they say, "but it never falls down."

More or less midway - geographically and psychologically - between Vegas and Venice lies our Green Mountain State. Vermonters are acutely conscious of their past, anxious to preserve it, yet willing to embrace the future as well - most of the time. No place is likely to give up on tradition whose citizens inquire of a speaker at town meeting, "How long have you been here?" or who cite two major reasons for making decisions. The first is, "We've always done it this way" and second is, "We've never done it that way."

But we do accept improvements, when we know they work and we know we can afford them. Just look at how plastic tubing replaced sap buckets, or how eager my neighbors are to get broadband here in the hills of Thetford.

Vegas, Venice, Vermont. One ignores the past - anticipating a glorious future. The other glorifies the past - ignoring a doubtful future. And the third? Well, Vermont has a bright future - as long as it doesn't change - too much.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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