It’s All History Now

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last few months surfing the acidic daily backwash of campaign rhetoric. Everything, it turns out, is unprecedented. We are in the grips of forces so revolutionary that America will never be the same. Even the level heads declared that we have never been so divided. How, I wonder, did we get past Nov. 2 without the use of sharp objects?

My trip to the Urban History Association’s national conference at UNLV on Oct. 22 felt like a day at the intellectual spa. It turns out we’ve always hated one another—just before sitting down for drinks. It’s the American way to talk loudly and then make a deal. I learned, for instance, that once upon a time (that would be the early ’70s) in Boulder, Colo., a mix of business people, quiet-normal-lifers and John Birchers tried to run the damn dirty hippies out of town, but the hippies held out and grew up to be the creative engine of the local economy. Now the hippies and the quiet-normal-lifers have gently merged into a class of rock-climbing, latte-sipping, money-generating boomers. (The John Birchers apparently moved to Nevada to work on the campaign.)

I’ve been trying to decide what it was about this narrative that made me feel so much better about Las Vegas. It was, I think, the idea that these free-range feelings of mutual loathing will pass. No, they won’t necessarily turn into the holistic politics of interdependence, where cats suddenly realize they simply can’t live without dogs. But in every generation, the respective advocates of private business, public investment and individual diversity don battle gear and hit the warpath, only to realize, when the votes are cast, that everyone has to grow up and get something done. And that they can’t do it unless they do it together.

Nowhere was this made more clear than in Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager Pat Mulroy’s address to the conference. To an academic audience primed to hear about the monstrousness of Las Vegas water usage during an epic drought, she told the story of how corporate gaming titans, housing developers and individual residents have responded to the SNWA clarion call and saved 26 billion gallons of water in the past seven years. People have acquired new habits, adjusted to new prices, learned to develop and appreciate new aesthetics. It’s a story of private and public interests recognizing that they have something in common—the future. It’s no fairy tale; someday you’ll be able to look it up in the history books.

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