Wednesday, June 13, 2012 | 2:11 p.m.
As a journalist my job is to be skeptical, and given the incessant flimflammery in Las Vegas, I think I was entitled to be extra wary of the Tony Hsieh-Zappos-Downtown craze. My outlook is deeply influenced by The Simpsons episode when the charismatic charlatan Lyle Lanley sells Springfield a rickety monorail (sound familiar?), so I always try to question what’s in that delicious Kool-Aid.
For years I’ve been reading glowing profiles of Hsieh, the prodigy founder of an Internet company he sold to Microsoft for millions before becoming CEO of online retailer Zappos. And he’s had plenty of media buzz—Inc. magazine, The New York Times, the visit from Oprah, the encomiums to Zappos’ unconventional corporate culture with its fun and wow and a little bit weird.
My favorite: speculation that Hsieh’s selflessness could be explained by his looking “like a young Buddha.”
I finally met Hsieh last week, and while I plead ignorance with respect to his resemblance to important religious figures, I’ll happily report that he’s persuasive that his Las Vegas vision is genuine, pragmatic and possible. I’ll go one step further: Not pursuing his brand of urbanism will doom us to being little more than America’s party capital and a tax haven for retirees and low-wage businesses.
What is this all about?
Hsieh loves cities.
Some of this is apparently imbedded in his psyche via what he describes as transcendent experiences of the hive mind, in the same way other people feel divinity in nature. In his book Delivering Happiness, Hsieh writes about being at a warehouse party and really getting music for the first time. “Steady wordless electronic beats were the unifying heartbeats that synchronized the crowd ... Everyone in the warehouse had a shared purpose. We were all contributors to the collective rave experience.” (Don’t mock it unless you’ve tried it.)
He adds: “Research from the field of the science of happiness”—referring to social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt—“would confirm that the combination of physical synchrony with other humans and being part of something bigger than oneself (and thus losing momentarily a sense of self) leads to a greater sense of happiness ...”
So Hsieh hopes to duplicate that intense feeling in our own Downtown, not by throwing raves—though there’ll be some of that—but by building a vibrant city with friends and future friends and strangers.
To some ears, this may sound airy and even downright preposterous—is he building a Burning Man encampment Downtown?! But we have to remember that he’s a familiar type, though to this point rare in Las Vegas: Hsieh is a technology entrepreneur who blends a streak of bohemian communitarianism with hardheaded capitalism. (Our tycoons have tended toward the more conventional robber baron—sneering white men who fund right-wing political causes.)
Zappos was outgrowing its space in Henderson (disclosure: It currently leases buildings from our parent company). Despite all the empty commercial buildings, the company couldn’t find the right space in Las Vegas to accommodate it. Zappos considered building a new suburban mega-campus, like Apple or Google. These campuses have creature comforts to induce workers to never leave, and/but they can be very isolating.
Hsieh had a radically different idea: Downtown, because he believes, he knows, that workers in cities are more productive. He thinks Zappos will be more profitable Downtown.
Here he leans on the work of Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who notes that per-capita productivity increases by 4 percent as population density rises by 50 percent.
It’s not entirely clear why this is true, but Glaeser calls cities “machines for learning.” Humans have succeeded because of our ability to collaborate, and cities are the best geographical mechanism for doing so. Hsieh refers to “serendipity,” the chance encounters between technologist, thinker, social entrepreneur, artist and venture capitalist to create the new.
Let’s remember, however, that Hsieh’s vision isn’t about buildings—Detroit has lots of great buildings. Nor is it about Tony Hsieh, or Zappos, or even the $350 million Downtown Project they’ve established to build on their vision. It’s really about the rest of us wanting to build something new, better, more human.
It’s not like we have anything better to do, so I think it’s worth a shot.
J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Neon Eden radio show airs Mondays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.