We began the journey in Salem, Mass., on a gray day in May. The moving truck came, we loaded it down with 5,000 pounds of accumulated life, and we piled ourselves—me, my wife, our 2-year-old daughter—into the family Jeep and skip-hopped through upstate New York and Pennsylvania, rolled over the Rust Belt, pulled into and out of Chicago. We headed south through the plains of Illinois, the rolling hills of Missouri, through the dusty Oklahoma panhandle and into the beautiful scenery of New Mexico. We paused in Santa Fe, took a deep breath and continued through the painted desert and into Arizona. Finally we crossed the Colorado River and descended into the Las Vegas Valley. After two long years away I was returning to a city I’d loved and lost—one I’d aspired to help shape, and which had wound up shaping me.
• • •
I moved to Las Vegas for the first time in 2006. I left in 2010. In between, I got married, welcomed our daughter into the world, fell in love with the desert, worked on the design of the Fontainebleau and watched that big blue tower fall prey to the Great Recession. I remember the day we moved away, catching the red-eye to Boston. It felt like a retreat. I’d expected to leave on good terms. Something didn’t feel quite right.
At first, New England was easy. This was where we’d come from, after all; this was our homecoming. It was great to feel the ocean climate again. We told ourselves that we’d made a choice to prioritize our future and commit to a more family-friendly environment. We moved into a condo in downtown Salem—from Sin City to Witch City. Our first night was spent on air mattresses; it was Halloween, and Salem is Halloween’s epicenter. Huge crowds roamed in costumes, drinking. A converted pickup truck rolled by, complete with a rock band in the back playing the theme from Ghostbusters. It was after midnight. It wasn’t exactly the picture-perfect family setting we had imagined.
Over the next few months, we adapted to our new lifestyle, caught up with old friends, connected with family. Little by little, I began to see that the transition was more difficult than we’d anticipated. My commute was more than an hour each way for a 17-mile journey; trains were involved, restrictive schedules. I was working on interesting projects but found trouble fully locking into the rhythm of things in Boston. I saw my wife and daughter much less. That winter, we had more than 110 inches of snow. It seemed to heave on us in 14-to-20-inch offerings. Once, we had 38 inches in a single, super-size event. Now, I love snowstorms; I’d been looking forward to the seasons. But that quantity of snow is no fun if you’re logging two hours a day just getting to and from the office. That old New England charm—and make no mistake, it is charming—was often canceled out by how difficult it was just to get around.
The most challenging thing for me was returning to a familiar place and feeling out of step with everything around me. I searched for comfort in memories. I tried to embrace the things I’d considered my own. I ran the old mental filmstrip of the New England life I’d known and had returned to, but I still felt out of place. Las Vegas had changed me.
• • •
During my four years in Las Vegas, I’d gotten everything I expected and more. As I transitioned from outsider to local, I learned the nuances of life here. What struck me most, and changed everything, was the way Las Vegas thrives on a culture and mindset of “What if?” and “Why not?” To me, that is the real shimmer here. It isn’t in the obvious blast of neon and mirrored glass or the outrageous outfits and clubs. It’s deeper; it’s a spirit that fuels some of the greatest success stories and taught me much more than I had expected. It’s the thrill of a city that is not afraid to tear down mistakes. A place that takes chances. One willing to take on the impossible challenge.
In a city like Boston, you appreciate the textured, mature growth and the pattern of the streetscapes. It is a beautiful place, dotted with exceptional architecture, world-class institutions and endless academic virtue and culture. The city is careful of itself, takes pride in its history and makes calculated progress … step by step. It’s a place where people can chat endlessly about “why,” or perhaps “what.” But despite its revolutionary past and left-leaning institutions, it can sometimes be a tough place to find real vibrancy. In that regard, Boston is pretty typical of old East Coast cities. It does “Boston” very well.
By 2011, I was asking myself what was missing. This was supposed to work out just fine, but I had engaged a mindset in Las Vegas that tilted the scales. I’ve always been boisterous and sought vibrancy. I’ve always asked “Why not?”—perhaps a little too much for provincial Boston. Four years in Las Vegas had taken those natural tendencies and thrown me clear out of the orbit of traditional, patterned New England living.
Last spring my wife and I charted out where we had been and what we really wanted from life. We decided we needed to find a different setting, and we kept coming back to the idea of a return to Las Vegas. We were hesitant at first; after all, we’d only been “back” East for 15 months. But as we thought through our needs, we realized Las Vegas answered almost all of them. It seemed strange to find Las Vegas—especially with the economy still lagging—as a safe harbor in an increasingly difficult storm. But it fit. The city is resilient, and I kept an eye on the pulse of things while away. The Great Recession has actually created opportunities here—to impact the city via smaller-scaled, more nuanced development. The downtown Renaissance has so much potential to create, from scratch, a unique and locals-driven environment—something to counter the Vegas stereotype and offer opportunities that are unmatched in other major cities.
In Boston, I used to write down thoughts on the train. Sometimes I would look out and see a sea of people—grim morning faces; tired evening faces—and it all seemed to be an environment that people would escape if they could. And I’m sure they thought the same of me as they looked out. Just a rustling train, packed with people making a daily grind, over and over. I once jotted down, “Time is our greatest commodity.” I’m sure I’m not the first person to pen that, but it struck me as I wrote it: What are we all doing anyway? I want every day to be a day I can be engaged in my life, my family’s life and my community. I knew it was time to take another leap of faith. And to ask “What if?” and “Why not?”