The Real Las Vegas

On a perfect evening in March, the kind of evening that used to make the whole country want to come live in Las Vegas, I tucked my notebook into my coat pocket and walked out of a Carolyn Goodman campaign fundraiser at the Downtown Cocktail Room. It was nothing against the future mayor, or her consort—who was there with his martini and a table full of admirers—or even the supremely self-confident young crowd in the joint, filled with admirable energy to build their very own New Vegas, the spirit of which would be the Goodman spirit, the spirit of Old Vegas.

It was a delightfully nostalgic form of futurism, and it propelled me right out the door in search of evidence that the rhetorical stirrings inside were mirrored by life outdoors.

Ten minutes later, I was standing at the intersection of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard when a tall, lean fellow in a battered Hawaiian shirt approached a pair of pudgy tourists.

“This isn’t the real Las Vegas,” he said. “You want the real Las Vegas, you got to go that way.” He gestured east, toward the lights of the vibrant block of Fremont East. The couple looked pleased with the information and promptly crossed the street.

“No, no,” he called after them. “You got to keep going. Past that next light. You go past Seventh Street, you gonna see the real Las Vegas.”

Seventh Street, in case you have not visited recently, is where Fremont East ends and East Fremont begins. It is not urbanist, just urban.

This was the year we Las Vegans, nursing our rejection by a global economy that had so ardently courted us, decided to stare in the mirror in search of the “Real Vegas.” Some identified it in grit and dislocation. Others in the burnished legacy of Sin City. Still others found the Real Vegas in their own sun-dappled memories. The foamy pride of the Las Vegas native—always a pleasant source of cocktail conversation—grew into an ad-hoc movement and marketing tool.

Memory politics made their way into distant corners of local discourse: The retirement of state Sen. Bill Raggio provoked recollections of those halcyon days when Nevada Republicans and Democrats barbecued brats and hand-fed each other across the aisle. UNLV’s search for a basketball coach launched an unseemly debate over which candidate was the true old-school heir to Jerry Tarkanian. This nostalgic skirmish took place as the future of the university seemed to be unraveling because of budget deficits—the entire philosophy department was nearly scrapped before the Legislature reduced the necessary cuts from $33 million to $20 million.

Meanwhile, the outgoing “happiest mayor in America” continued to trumpet the unfettered “adult freedom” of an imaginary Old Vegas even as the city dreamed of attracting high-tech visionaries, world-class medical researchers and their families. We longed to diversify our economy, but failed to understand the difficulty of luring education-loving people to a community that does not love education. The Clark County School District’s budget was cut by $150 million (which came as good news after early projections of $407 million). The state’s high school graduation rate was dead last in the nation.

The year’s nostalgia boom offered a mixed bag of delusion and inspiration. We saw the opening and swift closure of a mob-glorifying “experience” on the Strip, but hoped for better from downtown’s Mob Museum, which opens in February. We lamented the end of one old hotel at the Sahara but polished up others, from the Tropicana to El Cortez. We restored classic neon and prepared a home for it. We allowed girls to wear fedoras.

In 2011, we delighted in the unfolding urbanity of our downtown core, embraced nightlife as the antidote to our troubled days and grew intoxicated with the notion that a charismatic shoe salesman would single-handedly diversify the state economy. What we found, in this most unlikely of years, was hope. Maybe some urban maturity will follow in the wake of this youthful euphoria. Perhaps our next stage of development—boosters are calling 2012 “The Year of Downtown”—will bring us the patience to tackle the challenges facing not only downtown but the Valley as a whole.

We’ll need frontier boldness to turn wistful Fremont East visions into an integrated metropolis. But Old Vegas never shrunk from new ideas. Since nothing deters spontaneous movement like gridlock, we’ll need to find long-term transportation solutions. We’ll have to address pedestrian safety in a town that would be energized by foot-traffic but was never built for it. We need well-supported schools that experiment and excel regardless of the neighborhood they’re in. We need our social services and police force to find better ways to cope with the broken-souled among us. That, too, is part of becoming a great metropolis. Today, when our growth is stalled, is the time to decide what kind of big city we want to be.

The coming year should be not just the year of downtown but the year of the urban bond. In our networked world, the new frontier is an old art form: the deft linkage of real, physical spaces. A well-connected metropolis encourages urban exploration, fosters fresh ideas, invites empathy and engages our longing for community. It forces us to fill the blank spaces in our mental maps of the city.

In post-recession Las Vegas—as both that tall guy on Fremont Street and the Occupy protesters tried to tell us—people, neighborhoods and entire classes are being left behind. Interconnectedness won’t solve that, but it will help us build a city where “beyond Seventh” no longer signifies an alternate Vegas reality.

We’ve spent a year relishing what we were and defining who we are. Now it’s time to gather whatever wisdom we’ve gained, take a hard look at the present and get to work.

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