Here in the second decade of the third millennium A.D., the quickest way for a Las Vegan to sense the grand sweep of history is not to Google the words “Decline” and “Rome” but to go house-hunting down the street. When the weather is fine, as it certainly was over Thanksgiving weekend, and the stores are full, which they certainly were, it’s easy to forget that we live among ruins. But stride through a bank-owned 2006 home, with its sprawling greatroom and slate tile and top-of-the-line Moen faucets and gashed drywall and torn-out wiring and maliciously busted ceiling-fan blades, and you’ll understand at a glance the ancient appetites of Pompeii.
Just as one never really embraces the memory of food poisoning at the buffet trough, Las Vegas has very little nostalgia for the megaboom of the mid-2000s. In our hearts, we already knew we were living the fast-motion frames of a life out of balance. If the filmmaker Godfrey Reggio had produced a latter-day remake of his 1982 masterpiece, Koyaanisqatsi, he would have done well to time-lapse the devouring of the desert, the terracing of our ancient hills, the signing of Faustian mortgages, the half-drunk equipping of suburban homes with professional kitchens, the arrival of foreclosure notices, the malicious vandalism, the midnight abandonment of property and responsibility and pride.
And then he could fade to black and return to the night of Saturday, Nov. 26, at the Orleans Arena, where the survivors of Boomageddon huddled together and greeted the dawn. Sports do not heal socioeconomic distress, and even their emotional salve can be overrated—we all have to come home from the stadium at some point. But when UNLV’s basketball team defeated the top-ranked squad in the nation, something enduring was afoot.
As the clock ticked down on the then-unranked Rebels’ stunning 90-80 upset of North Carolina, a middle-aged UNLV fan leaned toward the Carolina supporter next to him. “You don’t know how much this means to us,” he said. “We need this for our heart. You guys in Carolina will be just fine, but with everything that’s happened to us, we needed this.”
You can find a lot in those words—provincial self-pity, for starters: The recession didn’t skip the Tar Heel state, and we’ve been trying to steal their furniture industry for years. But on a deeper and more gratifying level, there was in those words a deep longing for a binding sense of community—an awareness that “we” are in this together, and that in some way we share a civic heart.
After decades of breakneck growth, the Valley’s population is stabilizing. The vandals have pulled up stakes. We spent the first years of the century creating buildings for a fraying community; we now long to create community amid our frayed buildings. Now a different kind of nostalgia kicks in—a vision of the last time our economy was sluggish but our brotherhood was strong, in the 1970s and ’80s, when a college basketball team gave us something to call our own.
Back then, the whole world learned Las Vegas was about a lot more than casinos. Now they may learn we’re about a lot more than defrocked real estate priests and cratered suburbia. They will know that, like the Rebels, we are about the unbreakable will to survive and advance.