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1,000 Words

Remnants of the American Dream

Michael Light

photo showing a hilly country, rigdelines and valleys graded into housing plots Click or tap any of these images to view all of them as a slideshow

The environmental cost of high-end development doesn’t get quite as much attention as, say, mountaintop removal, or fossil fuel infrastructure. But a few minutes with Michael Light’s new book, Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain, might convince you that it should.

Using aerial photography to capture from above what could never be captured from the ground, Light explores two housing developments in the Nevada desert: Lake Las Vegas and Black Mountain. Construction of these communities began during the height of the economic boom, when Nevada was the fastest-growing state in America. Then the 2008 recession hit. Construction halted, and the partially-completed lots were abandoned in the arid landscape.

Flying above Lake Las Vegas, which was envisioned as a 1,700-home Mediterranean-themed development surrounding an artificial lake, Light photographed brightly painted mega-mansions next to unfinished lots dusted with weeds. Some houses were occupied, many had been foreclosed, and still more were half-built, their incompleteness a stark reminder of the crash.

The pictures of Black Mountain are even more dramatic. Here, hilltops have been razed, roads paved, and residential lots carved out, but the development remains devoid of, well, development, abandoned by its billionaire builder Henry Cheng. Not a single house has been built, despite the $250,000-plus spent moving dirt.

Gazing at the images, it is impossible not to consider the environmental toll of the American dream, or in this case, the American dream on steroids: the leveling of mountains, the contrast between bright blue swimming pools and the dry desert landscape, the snaking roads that would have carried car-bound residents to their oversized luxury homes, all at the cost of wildlife and habitat.

With the economy largely recovered now, developers are once again eyeing the two communities. Whether or not more houses are constructed, pools dug, and lawns greened, one message remains the same: The sprawling destruction of expansive development comes at a steep cost.

Michael Light, a San Francisco-based photographer and bookmaker, focuses on the relationship between the environment and contemporary American culture. His work has been exhibited worldwide, and has been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Research Institute, and the New York Public Library.

aerial photo of mansions with swimming pools in a desert, many look unoccupied “Monaco” Lake Las Vegas Homes on Gated Grand Corniche Drive, Henderson, NV; 2010

photos empty of graded lots divided by a paved road Unbuilt “Ascaya” Lots and Cul De Sac Looking West, Henderson, NV; 2011

aerial photo of lots carved into a mountainside, devoid of any activity “Roma Hills” Homes and Foreclosed “Obsidian Mountain” Development, “Ascaya” Lots Beyond, Looking South, Henderson, NV; 2012

aerial photo of large homes abutting a hillside covered with graded empty lots Unbuilt “Ascaya” Development Looking Southeast; $250 Million in Mountaintop Removal and Terracing, Henderson, NV; 2012

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