Community Feeling, Down to the Bones

Tony Roma's illustrates how there's public good to be gained in having a place to come together (sometimes for ribs)

Not long after UNLV held a program called Game Change about “how Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute are Reframing Policy in Southern Nevada,” I learned that the Tony Roma’s on East Sahara Avenue had closed.

The confluence of these events got me thinking of how a think tank is like a rib joint. Stay with me, now …
Brookings and Lincy are research centers designed, as Brookings says, to “serve as a platform to bring ideas and expertise together and facilitate … discussions about the West’s future.” Lincy “conducts and supports research that focuses on improving Nevada’s health, education and social services.”

Brookings presents frequent lectures and publications by national scholars on important issues, and gives space and institutional heft to support faculty and others in their research. It promotes economic diversification and collaboration with other experts and regions to improve life in the Southwest. Director Rob Lang has become a valuable resource of information and ideas.

The institute has also backed bipartisan legislation—some of which gets bottled up because of opposition from Northern Nevada—and has provided data for the Legislature’s Southern Nevada caucus, which might vote together someday.

Lincy has several initiatives in research and action. Nevada has the nation’s highest percentage of 3- to 5-year-olds not in preschool or kindergarten, and Lincy is working with public and private institutions to try to fix that. It had another program to determine the gaps in mental health services (the gap that comes to mind is the Grand Canyon) and improve child welfare.

In other words, Brookings and Lincy provide a place for members of the community to share knowledge and ideas—an enlightened public square of the sort we long needed. These organizations provide what Bill Clinton had in mind when he told a local group that any community would benefit from gathering locals at round tables and requiring them to sit next to people of opposing views. They just might solve some problems.

OK, so what does this have to do with Tony Roma’s?

Tony Roma’s had tables. It served food. What better way to bring communities, ideas and expertise together than over some tasty barbecue?

Alas, Tony Roma’s at Sahara and Sixth long ago stopped bringing together anything like a critical mass of movers and shakers. But the neighborhood used to be one of the Valley’s most important spots. It seems strange to say in the age of celebrity chefs, but the nearby Sizzler (now gone), Marie Callender’s and Tony Roma’s were literally where the elite would meet to eat. Neighbors knew one another and talked there. They even hatched some projects, political and social.

Tony Roma’s also became a mob hangout, though less noted than some others. While perhaps unworthy of being on the National Register of Historic Places, it is where Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal had gone to pick up food when his car blew up on October 4, 1982, an event depicted—with some embellishment—in the film Casino.

The mob as we knew it is gone, as is the surrounding neighborhood, which changed economically (less upper-middle-class) and demographically (more diverse). Committed locals are trying to preserve, promote and revive a sense of community in the vicinity through events that bring them together and being active in the greater Downtown area. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing each other in neighborhood hangouts. These days, Downtown areas such as Fremont East provide hope for those kinds of discussions and connections.
So do Brookings and Lincy. They don’t do coffee klatsches, but Southern Nevada is blessed to have respected, legitimate research centers that connect people and generate new ideas. They reflect great progress in the local life of the mind.

The closing of that old Tony Roma’s, then, is an occasion to think about the underappreciated political and cultural role played by simple spots where people of different persuasions can meet and cut a deal. And perhaps the heir to Roma’s isn’t a restaurant at all, but a pair of think tanks dedicated to the discussion of what ails us—and how to heal it.