The Neighborhood Menace

So you want Vegas to have sweet urban enclaves with their own distinct identities? Be careful what you wish for.

Las Vegas needs walkable neighborhoods. I’m not going to lie to you. One of the main reasons I moved to Seattle in July 2002 was the promise of neighborhoods—a multiplicity of civic subsets, each with its own personality, assets and liabilities.

And the city hasn’t disappointed. I live in Ballard, the stereotypical “drinking village with a fishing problem.” Nearby is Fremont, a business-hippie enclave that boasts an annual parade of naked bicyclists and the world headquarters of Adobe; and Queen Anne, a neighborhood carved into one of Seattle’s steepest hills and adorned with grand Victorian homes. There’s also Greenwood, Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Wallingford, Ravenna—every one of them is its own town, really. The feel is different, the customs are different, even the people are different from one neighborhood to the next.

And I swear to you that, sometimes, it’s difficult to imagine a bigger pain in the ass.

Shortly after I moved here, I spoke to another Vegas expatriate who was originally from Seattle. He welcomed me to the town, and as is the custom, he asked which neighborhood I’d chosen. When I told him I’d moved to Ballard, he shook his head.

“I don’t see you living there at all,” he said. “I would have figured a wannabe hipster like you for Capitol Hill. That’s where all the bars and clubs are. That’s more your kinda scene, I think.”

I hardly knew what to say. I had no idea that I was supposed to check in with some sort of neighborhood registry. I was familiar with Capitol Hill—familiar enough to know that while it was a nice place to drink, it was too boisterous and, yes, too hip for my liking. By comparison, Ballard was busy enough to be lively and sleepy enough to be livable.

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a difficult enough time fitting into this world as it is. To make new friends, I have to contort myself through a series of metaphorical doors and windows. Liberal/conservative. Parent/childless. Teetotaler/lush. And now, on top of all that other shit, I have to take into consideration what a West Seattle resident might think of me judging by my address. The same things that make my neighborhood unique—the kinds of bars we have, the size of our farmers market, the young professionals and old Norwegians who share these amenities—can and will be used against me.

Las Vegas has neighborhoods, too, though their names aren’t as widely known and their selfdom not as readily evident. Older residents, Vegas’ original gangstas, could point you to Westleigh and the McNeil Estates with little difficulty, but to many others, both neighborhoods are simply “that bunch of houses between Charleston and Rancho.” Other urban divisions, like the outliers of The Lakes and Summerlin, may have Las Vegas mailing addresses but are really different towns; if a New York Times writer were blindfolded, flown into town and left in the middle of a Summerlin housing development with all of the city’s identifying marks obscured, it would take him a half-hour of searching to discern that, no, he’s not in Arizona.

We should embrace Las Vegas’ ambivalence to borders, and its utter lack of hometown smarminess. In my experience, this town has never truly cared where you came from, or why you came here. It’s just glad to have more blood in the body, whether that new energy resides in a Green Valley tract home or a mother-in-law apartment near Rainbow and Trop. What we have in Las Vegas isn’t a blank slate; it’s a whole slate. The city itself is the neighborhood.

I’ve only become aware of this notion now that it’s on the verge of being shattered. The resurgence of downtown Las Vegas, for better or worse, is going to change everything. When the first artists and young professionals moved into the new apartments and condominiums of downtown Vegas and the Arts District—and began capitalizing the word “downtown” in their e-mails to the editor—lines were drawn. No one likes a border except for the people on the right side of it. Though it isn’t their intention, the residents and boosters of downtown Vegas seem to be saying to the other residents of the Valley, “We’re here and you aren’t.”

Again, they mean no harm. I know many of the people invested both spiritually and financially in the fate of downtown Vegas, and all they want to do is build a pleasant and walkable neighborhood in the heart of the metropolitan area. Then again, I’ve also read the arguments of those who perceive the new downtown Vegas as little more than a strip of nightclubs and condos that has neither a connection to what was there before nor any regard for the existing residents who need basic services, not another nightclub. I’m not getting into that argument.

Let me close this with an example. Several years back, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved an elevated train line that would connect Ballard and West Seattle—two neighborhoods that, through geography, are at best tenuously connected. A group of downtown business owners who didn’t like the idea paid signature gatherers to get a recall on the ballot, and the elevated train was killed. Meanwhile, Ballard and West Seattle have become further estranged, as have other far-flung Seattle neighborhoods whose roads are becoming overwhelmed. This problem could have been solved years ago if this city were of one mind, not a dozen.

I’d hate for Las Vegas, a city with so much raw potential, to adopt these pointless animosities. Today, you could do worse than to get to know your neighbors, whether they’re across the street or across the Valley. And when Vegas’ neighborhoods do begin to form, as they inevitably will, they can vie for supremacy in the traditional way: through the size of their farmers markets.