I have come for revenge. For years, I’ve hyperventilated at restaurant “tasting menu” checks, forfeited 1,000% markups for bottle service at clubs, neared my credit-card limit for hotel suites, paid usury to strip-club ATMs and pushed far too many chips to the dealer. On this trip, I will get a hotel room for less than the upkeep on the room, eat a meal for near what it costs to serve it and — at least according to a sign in the Cheetahs dressing room berating the strippers for undercharging — get some kind of deal in the VIP room. For the first time ever, it is possible to complete a monetary exchange in Las Vegas and feel bad for the other person.

I, however, feel guiltless about taking advantage when someone is down, and Vegas is way down. This has been the first major recession Vegas has experienced since it became a real city. After two decades as one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the U.S., Las Vegas has seen its population growth flatten. It’s got the highest foreclosure rate of any major metro area, and the unemployment rate jumped from 3.8% to 12.3% in just three years. Even if you have a job, it’s not a good time to have your wage be dependent on lavish tips. The No. 1 convention city has also had a wave of cancellations from the AIG effect — companies don’t want the bad publicity of being seen in Sin City. Just as Las Vegas was the epicenter of the extravagant consumption of the past 20 years, now it’s the deepest crater of the recession over the last year. And while I do want to get my money back, I’m a little worried about seeing the dream sucked out of our most American city, the one with the optimism and possibility of New York City in 1900. The one I’ve, embarrassingly, come to love. (See pictures of hard times hitting Las Vegas.)

But I’m here because Las Vegas is on sale. The hotels, led by Wynn Resorts boss Steve Wynn, slashed room prices to increase occupancy rates to 82% from a low of 72%. On the right day in July, you could book the type of 750-sq.-ft. room that was $500 a year ago at the Wynn for $109 and get a $50 gift certificate. The high-end restaurants at the MGM have gotten rid of most of their $400 bottles of wine and replaced them with $100 ones. This is either a model for the rest of the country or, if the reset fails, the beginning of a long, long slide.

Vegas was in the midst of building a real urban center, trying to turn what was just a break from sanity — fake Eiffel Tower! giant dancing fountain! a dance in every lap! — into a permanent installation of insanity. If we decide that we don’t need a resort town that’s roughly the same size as Washington, D.C. (which Las Vegas is) — that we can’t continue to devote as many resources to gambling, tasting menus, spas, strip joints and nightclubs as we do to our national government — then we finally revert from being a nation of optimistic materialism to one of Puritan thrift. The one that not even Cotton Mather could get Americans to buy. (See 10 things to do in Las Vegas.)

This precarious moment — early on a Tuesday afternoon — I could not be more unconcerned that my room reservation has been screwed up. In this city hurt hardest by recession, partly because it built too many hotel rooms, I smile at the man behind the desk, sure that I am about to be upgraded to a presidential suite. Then I’m told there are no more rooms of any kind available at The Hotel. When I go to meet a friend by the pool at the Mandalay Bay, it’s too crowded to find chairs. All the price-cutting has succeeded: the town is full. This recession business is totally not working for me.

As I turn out of my hotel’s full parking lot, veering onto the Strip, I come across something rarely seen in Vegas: frozen construction projects. I pass cranes abandoned at the site of the Echelon, a huge, multibillion-dollar project of four hotels that is now just three buildings of nine floors of concrete and steel beams sitting idly on some of the most expensive real estate in the country. I pass three more abandoned sites — 63 empty steel floors of the Fontainebleau, a sad unfinished shell that was supposed to be Caesars Palace’s Octavius Tower and two cranes halted on a structure that was supposed to be a St. Regis condo building. I then drive up to where the New Frontier was razed to build a resort modeled on New York City’s Plaza Hotel. It’s just a dirt wasteland, so ugly that Wynn planted a row of trees so his hotel guests wouldn’t stare at it from their windows. I never realized an economic defeat could look so much like a military one.

Just as Americans did with their houses, casino owners borrowed way too much money to build hotels that were way too big. Economists like Yale’s Robert Shiller have warned that the next big wave of failures in the U.S. recession will be in commercial real estate — and once again, Las Vegas is headlining. Even worse, the bottom fell out as casino owners were building, so a number of them couldn’t replace construction loans with the financing that was once readily available to complete and open hotel-condo-casino projects. Deutsche Bank foreclosed on the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan Hotel; only it couldn’t find a buyer, so the bank is in the odd position of owning a casino — though given the way banks have operated in this decade, that seems like a logical business extension. Meanwhile, Station Casinos, Tropicana and Herbst Gaming have disproved the adage that you can’t lose money owning a casino. They borrowed big and went bankrupt.