The Power of Yesterday

Why preservation is essential to progress—even in Vegas

I moved to Cincinnati about four months ago, and it didn’t take me long to notice the ongoing struggle of a small but dedicated band of preservationists to preserve a decaying downtown neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine (OtR). Originally settled by German immigrants in the 1840s, the neighborhood had been virtually abandoned and over time had come to be synonymous with drugs and crime. Many in the city wanted to level the whole place and start from scratch.

But the preservationists have been tenacious in their insistence that the neighborhood—which is included on the National Register of Historic Places—deserves to be spared. To destroy the area’s classic Italianate and Queen Anne buildings, they argue, would deal a death blow to Cincinnati’s sense of history and place. They are battling to ensure that the structures are rehabbed and restored, not demolished.

When I learned about the OtR preservation efforts, I couldn’t help but think of my trip to the Neon Boneyard on one of my many visits to Las Vegas. I also couldn’t help but think of the iconic New Frontier neon sign, which should have wound up at the Neon Museum but never will. The New Frontier holds a special place in my heart; it was the first casino I’d set foot in that has since met the wrecking ball in the name of “progress.” On my visit to the Boneyard, I got into a discussion with our tour guide about the sign, which had beckoned to so many with its promises of mud wrestling at Gilley’s and 99-cent margaritas.

I was distraught to learn about the sign’s fate. When Steve Wynn opened the Encore in 2008, across the Strip from where the New Frontier used to stand, apparently he didn’t like the idea of his guests looking out the window of their $300-a-night rooms and seeing a sign that still stood after the casino itself had been razed. The Neon Museum attempted to arrange for the sign to be donated and moved to the Boneyard, but these things are expensive and take time. Wynn didn’t want to wait, and he didn’t have to. He asked for the sign to be taken down, and by mid-December 2008 it was gone. (The Neon Museum did manage to acquire the Frontier’s newer, smaller “longhorn” sign that stood in the parking lot off Industrial Road.)

I can’t blame Wynn, really. Maybe, to those without a historical bent to their imagination, the sign was an eyesore. I suppose it was incongruous with the luxury experience the Encore was selling its guests. Of course, even the most luxurious of Las Vegas hotels is still, at the end of the day, selling Las Vegas. And what could be more quintessentially Vegas than one of its greatest neon signs?

It’s safe to say that Wynn is not a preservationist. Maybe that’s because preservation has always been seen as the antithesis of progress. And in America, progress is good. In Las Vegas, progress is what draws the masses to your hotel-casino, but the word’s got cultural mojo that goes beyond commercial expedience. Think about it—how often do you hear the word used in a pejorative sense? Progress brought us civil rights, medical advances and longer life expectancy, communication technologies that allow us to be connected to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Progress sells. And the claim of “progress” has become an all-purpose way to preempt thoughts of defending anything that is old and worn.

Preservation efforts, meanwhile, are determined, dogged, even touching—those crazy sentimental fools—but they are not widely supported. Preservationists are often patted on the head, even congratulated in their own circles, but they do not win Nobel Prizes. Governments fund progress far more often than preservation.

Meanwhile, we too often fail to grasp that preservation is an essential part of progress. Preservation attempts to capture what we’ve done at our best and remind us of our achievements. It protects the physical story of our communities, the tale of how we got to where we are. The living past can be an inspiration for the future.

The Neon Museum is a perfect example of the healthy synergy between preservation and progress: Once the museum’s renovations are complete, it will beckon even more strongly to tourists (and even locals), drawing them to an area of Las Vegas that was once largely ignored.

And the Neon Museum is just one sign of Las Vegas’ awakening to the value of its historic artifacts and spaces over the past decade. In 2003, the John S. Park neighborhood, built between the 1930s and 1950s, became the city’s first historic district. In 2008, renovations were completed at downtown’s Historic Fifth Street School, and the 1936 structure now houses (among other creative tenants) UNLV’s Downtown Design Center, where students contemplate the city’s future. And later this year, the federal courthouse where the storied Kefauver organized crime hearings took place in 1950 will house a cutting-edge interactive museum marking the history of the mob in Las Vegas.

Whether it’s in Las Vegas or Cincinnati, whether they’re talking about Over-the-Rhine or the Moulin Rouge, preservationists’ voices will always be challenged by the more conventional discourse of “moving forward.” But it’s a false dichotomy. Even in a young city like Las Vegas, meaningful progress in building a culture and a community won’t come in spite of preservation, but because of it.

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