Signs of the (Disappearing) Times

Vegas Vernacular captures the past as we build the future

No matter where you live, the locals—usually natives with two or more generations of roots—feel proprietary about their city. They are usually the ones spearheading preservation efforts and recognizing those quirky little treasures that make local life … local.

Las Vegas being Las Vegas, though, a share of self-awareness has always come from outsiders. Las Vegans were proud of the hotels of the Strip in the 1960s, but it took three Philadelphia-based architects—Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour—to produce the seminal book Learning From Las Vegas and make the case that the architecture of the Strip was the antidote to boring, functional modernist style that was then in fashion.

Don’t get me wrong—locals liked the way the Strip looked. It just took a trio of outsiders to articulate exactly why Las Vegas had something to teach the world. And, at the end of the day, while we built those postmodern icons, we’ve also blown most of them up.

Which is why it’s interesting to see what new arrivals to Las Vegas notice the most. Slots in convenience stores? Franchise pawnshops? Tap water that’s somewhere north of 11 on the Mohs’ scale?

For Bryan McCormick and Mark Johnson, something different stood out: the hand-painted signs found on many downtown businesses.

Those signs—created by prolific but mostly anonymous painters strictly as works for hire—have a certain homey charm. Sometimes mid-century modern, sometimes Western colloquial, they are authentically Vegas. And, McCormick and Johnson discovered after seeing a few signs whitewashed over, they were in danger of disappearing.

Johnson, inspired by Clive Piercy’s Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed, decided that those signs deserved cataloging. Piercy’s 448-page opus is an homage to the idiosyncratic typefaces found on the hundreds of dingbats, or simple apartment buildings, that provide a big share of Angeleno visual culture. Why not, Johnson and McCormick wondered, do the same for the signs in downtown Las Vegas?

And the way that they set about doing this says much about the kind of crowd-sourced public service that’s reshaping Las Vegas. Needing help, they approached Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, which had already brought in photographer Geoff Ellis to document pre-Zappos 89101. Ellis helped put together a team of volunteers to photograph and collect info about the signs. Thus was born Vegas Vernacular, which has, to date, documented about 65 percent of the signs in the downtown area.

All of this material isn’t going to sit in boxes at the Nevada State Museum or brighten up municipal buildings. Instead, it’s going on a website, VegasVernacular.org, and will be the focus of concurrent shows at three downtown art galleries starting Oct. 4. It’s strictly nonprofit and community minded—thanks to a Creative Commons license, anyone who’s interested in putting together a project drawing on the painstaking work Vegas Vernacular has done will be able to so. It’s refreshing to see a few dozen Las Vegans pitching in for an egoless (photographers are given only collective credit for their work) civic project that, ultimately, will benefit everyone.

What makes this cloud-computing-era community barn-raising even more fascinating is that many new arrivals have been drawn to Vegas Vernacular. Enticed to Las Vegas by the prospect of remaking the desert metropolis, one of the first civic projects they’re embracing is one that seeks to preserve the native culture from the crush of redevelopment that they’re bringing with them.

You get the sense that Las Vegas is folding in on itself. The self-sufficiency, to say nothing of the self-respect, of a tourist town is always a tenuous thing. This was one of the things that the late UNLV history professor Hal Rothman understood and articulated better than anyone who writes about tourism. His Devil’s Bargains (the Las Vegas chapters of which are some of the best stuff ever written about the city) had the thesis that tourism was precisely that sort of eponymous deal: For every dollar that’s pumped into the local economy and job created, there’s something, somewhere lost.

For more than a half-century, we’ve been fine with that. But this is different. It’s not tourists who are trying to get a bite of authentic Vegas while their very presence changes it forever. It’s the locals.

Which leaves the city in a strange predicament. Downtown redevelopment has been the cornerstone of city policy for the past three mayors; state governments worked to diversify the economy since before Grant Sawyer was governor (for those doing the math at home, he was first elected in 1958). Perhaps we as a community have been so set on rebuilding and refocusing that we haven’t asked ourselves exactly what bargain we’re striking.

In this case, it seems straightforward. One arm of the Downtown Project is setting off a shock wave of growth, and the charming hand-painted signs that most of us haven’t given a second glance could be the collateral damage. But since the signs are recognized as local treasures, another arm of the Downtown Project is documenting them before they’re gone. It’s the Vegas analog of Alan Lomax recording folk songs on the Mississippi Delta.

Here’s the twist: These signs will be far more visible than ever. The artists are getting recognition, aficionados get to enjoy them, and a crop of new Las Vegans gets to participate in a community project and bring to light a heretofore neglected local craft.

Still, it’s worth asking as downtown Las Vegas transforms: What other bargains are in the offing?

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Thursday, Sept. 27 If it’s late September, it must be time for the Las Vegas Bike Fest, the annual celebration of internal combustion and two wheels. Come for the custom bike shows and vendors, stay for the parties, stunt riding and bikini contests. You really can’t lose. Through Sunday at Cashman Center and other locations, LasVegasBikeFest.com.

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