In Las Vegas, Alone, Together

A smart new book and the dilemma of the Sin City local

Too many years ago, in graduate school at Columbia University, I minored in British history with David Cannadine, who went on to publish more than a dozen books. For his great work, a few years ago, Queen Elizabeth II named him Sir David. Despite having had no contact with him for about 20 years, I sent him a congratulatory email that began, ?You have no reason to remember me ?.? His response began, ?Of course I remember you. You?re the only person I?ve ever met from Las Vegas.?

A similar story begins geographer Rex J. Rowley?s wonderful Everyday Las Vegas: Local Life in a Tourist Town (University of Nevada Press, 2013, and, for the record, I wrote a blurb for it), and helps explain the value of this book. To be from Las Vegas provides a cachet, for good or ill. It gets people?s attention, but many of them expect you to be wearing gold chains and a polyester leisure suit (never mind that the 1970s are over), or they respond, ?But nobody lives in Las Vegas.?

Rowley?s book is an attempt to sort out what it means to live in Las Vegas and be a Las Vegan. They aren?t the same thing, as it turns out?and the difference matters. Rowley conducted extensive interviews with residents. In describing one encounter with a resident occupying that limbo state between being in Las Vegas and being of Las Vegas, he says her situation helps clarify ?the concept of the local: a time element and a sense of entrenchment in, or attachment to, the place. She has lived in Las Vegas long enough now that she has taken ownership of ?local? things in the city and even acts as an ambassador to newcomers. At the same time, she is still a Kansan. But she might change allegiances if she were to raise a family in the city.?

Raising a family is a solution for her and others, but the idea of taking ownership is at the heart of what it takes to build a great community?and we aren?t there yet, for several reasons that Rowley makes clear, intentionally and unintentionally.

Rowley?who grew up in Las Vegas and is now a professor of geography at Illinois State University?examines ?sense of place,? which often is defined as rootedness. Just not necessarily in Las Vegas, where for every two people who moved here over the past two decades, 1.3 left. Part of the problem is the number of people who move in and out of Las Vegas, but another part of the problem is the number who move around Las Vegas. Some years ago, a fourth-grade teacher told me that she had managed the impossible: a complete turnover of enrolled students from the beginning of the year to the end. Their families stayed in the Valley, but not in the same part of it.

If the wandering nature of Las Vegans makes it hard for parents to feel that they belong to a community (and in turn do something about it), it probably affects children, too. It might make them more interested in planting roots, but it also might make them more transient in their approach to where they live, who they know and what they do. As with education, a sense of community begins early.

Rowley doesn?t have the definitive explanation for the enduring transience of our community, but he offers a telling line from the great Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith: We are still, at heart, a boomtown, the outpost of ?the fast-buck guys that have no attachment. They never vote, they never care.? The attachment we need, though, isn?t just to ?Las Vegas? writ large (or, worse yet, to ?Vegas??the myth rather than the place), but to specific neighborhoods in the Valley. The broader civic attachment may need to begin with the smaller neighborhood one.

Another problem with community-building here pops up throughout Rowley?s book and may be best explained by the story of when my aunt in Phoenix would invite us down for a weekend and my mother would reply, ?Whose weekend?? Did she mean mine as a student (Saturday and Sunday) or my father?s as a casino dealer (almost always weekdays)?

This is and always has been a 24-hour town, but it?s also a seven-day-a-week town. Las Vegas doesn?t have just a 9-5 shift with rush hours before and afterward, but several daily rush hours, even on weekends. The different rush hours suggest a variety of different living schedules, making it harder to get everybody together at mutually convenient times.

Everyday Las Vegas also shows that the way we live here inures us to certain realities that would be jarring elsewhere. We expect to be able to access whatever we want, 24/7, even when we visit a different place where they roll up the sidewalks each evening, and don?t stop to ponder which of those worlds is better. We don?t give a second thought to the escort-service ads that greet us from mobile billboards, and often blithely brush aside the ways in which a city of bare-buns taxicab ads might subtly affect the way our children view gender roles. The city makes demands of us?it requires us to live by its rules and isolates us from one another in ways that make it difficult for us to come together to change the place. We are organized neither at the civic nor the neighborhood level, but at the level of the individual?busy, buffeted by life and at pains to imagine anything different or find the time to make it different.

Nevertheless, some among us are hopeful that we can both retain the Valley?s rebel character and make it the best it can be. Rowley himself has hope for us. We should do more to live up to his expectations.