It’s a hot winter night at Champagne’s Café. The venerable Maryland Parkway dive bar is packed tight with pretty girls, musicians, a familiar face here and there. And at the center of it all, in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Fuck Cancer” is Clay Heximer.
“You’re here!” he says as an acquaintance comes in. “Now it’s a real occasion!” The 40-year-old Heximer is like that: He treats you like you’re the most important person in the room, no matter who else is in that room. He speaks to your shared enthusiasms, goes out of his way to introduce you to his friends and isn’t afraid to be corny: “Thanks for coming out here on a school night.”
“Everybody’s touching me tonight, but it’s all men,” he tells me. “The more of these I drink, though, the better the men look.”
The reason that everyone is touching Clay Heximer is an understandable one: This night, February 13, is the one-year anniversary of the removal of Heximer’s cancerous right kidney, and this party is his way of putting a good spin on a bad time. He even included with the Facebook invitation a photo of the abdominal scar above where the kidney used to be. People are touching him because … well, because he’s still here, and it’s a real occasion.
But there’s something else about Heximer. He radiates good will. If this guy, this absolute mensch, thinks that you’re an all-right guy, then surely you must be. Heximer has so thoroughly charmed an entire section of town that he’s become its spokesman, cheerleader and de facto leader. Folks in his classic mid-century neighborhood, Paradise Palms, routinely call him “The Mayor.”
“Ahh, I’m drinking Bulleit,” he says, guiltily showing his glass. “I was gonna drink cheap tonight, but no one is letting me buy my own drinks.”
THIS IS MIDTOWN
Champagne’s Café is across the street from the Boulevard Mall, in an area Las Vegans have, over the past decade, come to call Midtown. Midtown’s borders are as difficult to pin down as Downtown’s—though they’re not as hotly contested, at least not yet. For the sake of this piece, let’s just say that Midtown is the area that closely abuts the stretch of Maryland Parkway that runs north from McCarran International Airport to Sahara Avenue. Roughly speaking, it’s a vertical rectangle that includes UNLV, Sunrise Hospital, the Boulevard Mall and Paradise Palms, which is nestled between Maryland Parkway and Eastern Avenue on Desert Inn Road. This is Clay Heximer’s territory.
Paradise Palms debuted in 1962, the brainchild of developer Irwin Molasky. It was Las Vegas’ first master-planned community, a pint-size Palm Springs. As designed by the renowned California architects Dan Palmer and William Krisel, every one of the neighborhood’s 600 mid-century modern homes is—or once was, before thoughtless remodeling—a space-age objet d’art, a masterpiece of geometric shapes and splashy color. Paradise Palms is a drop-dead beautiful part of the city—mature trees, green lawns, homes that look like no others in this Valley. And it’s the center of Midtown—and the seat of any renaissance the area might undergo.
After a downward slide during the suburbanization of the 1990s, Paradise Palms had its first revival in the early 2000s, with young creatives moving to the area, filled with the spirit of infill pioneers and a big appetite for mid-century modern aesthetics. By 2007, a whole mid-mod subculture had taken root there. But then the Great Recession hit, and Paradise Palms—with its groups of boomtime buyers who had bought high—was hit particularly hard. The rest of Midtown didn’t fare much better. You can still see the evidence of it: shuttered department stores, razed lots, properties falling into neglect.
Such was the state of Maryland Parkway when Heximer and his wife of eight years, Denise, bought a tri-level home in Paradise Palms in early 2010. (One of the first things Heximer did upon moving in was to inquire about a neighborhood watch program, which we’ll consider in a moment.) But even then, Heximer didn’t see Midtown as a failed enterprise … perhaps because it’s where he grew up, in a house a couple of blocks from UNLV.
“Maryland Parkway,” he says, “is the whole of my teenage years.”
MEMORY IN MOTION
When he talks about Maryland Parkway of the 1980s and early ’90s, Heximer describes a street that was much more vibrant than it is today. He reminisces about the punk and alternative record stores he once frequented, Benway Bop and The Underground. He remembers the “nickelodeon” arcade in the Promenade center across from UNLV, where he used to hang out. (“The quarter games only cost a nickel, but you had to pay, like, two bucks to get in.”)
And when he looks at Maryland now, he sees an opportunity. The 56-acre Boulevard Mall, easily Maryland’s largest concentrated stretch of retail, has been acquired by Sansone Companies, a commercial developer that intends to revive the property. The Regional Transportation Commission is considering a transit corridor along Maryland for express buses and, eventually, some kind of light rail. And UNLV is ever in a state of growing and changing; it’s not unthinkable that their fortunes could lift those of the neighborhoods surrounding it.
Heximer sees what many are seeing: Midtown could become a truly great urban neighborhood. But even if it doesn’t, he says, this is the part of town he wants to live in. “I don’t consider Summerlin Las Vegas,” he says. “I want to live in Vegas. I want to have the lights, and I want to hear trains and fireworks happening randomly at 2 a.m.”
And it doesn’t hurt that he’s loved the look of Paradise Palms’ mid-mod homes since he was a kid.
“There was no such [label] as ‘mid-century modern’ back then, but I looked at the houses and I knew they were neat,” he says. “I just knew they were cool lookin’.”
So the Heximers moved into their cool-lookin’ home … and discovered that their neighborhood had no neighborhood watch, or any other kind of organization to protect its interests.
“We were familiar with the Flamingo Club,” says Heximer, referring to the architectural appreciation group and roving cocktail party that brings residents of the Huntridge and John S. Park neighborhoods together once a month. “I’d assumed that someone would be doing something there to preserve Paradise Palms’ historical value, but no one was.”
Heximer soon founded an organization dedicated to protecting and boosting Paradise Palms. Four years on, the effects are readily evident: The Paradise Palms website recently received its 100,000th visitor, and Heximer regularly receives emails and calls from people interested in buying homes in the neighborhood—not to sit on, not to tear down and rebuild, but to have and to hold.
Shortly after Heximer began cheerleading Paradise Palms’ way out of the recession, the residents of the neighborhood began calling him “The Mayor,” and calling Denise “The First Lady.”
He’s accepted the title … but under protest.
“Oh, it irks him to hear that nickname,” says Dan Stafford, a third-generation Paradise Palms resident who lives in the home his family has owned since 1963. “He doesn’t want to be the face of this neighborhood. He just wants this thing to grow.”
THE COMPOSITION OF CLAY
Heximer isn’t much interested in talking about his childhood. He’ll tell you that he moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles when he was about 12 years old. He grew up with his great-grandmother; his mother “has a huge drug problem” and was prone to disappearing for long stretches. He tells the story haltingly then shrugs, sighs.
“Basically, a mess brought me here.”
He will, however, happily tell you where he is now. He’s in a wonderful marriage; scarcely a minute goes by where he doesn’t acknowledge how much he loves his wife. He’s an original member of Las Vegas’ punk scene; as the drummer for the Mapes, one of Las Vegas’ marquee punk bands, he’s helped to bring you such enduring classics as “Baby Ate My Dingo” and “Mouf.” Rob Ruckus, the bassist for infamous local punk band The Vermin, co-star of A&E’s hit show Bad Ink and a matchless arbiter of musical tastes, says that the Mapes are the real deal: “I consider the Mapes to be the bastard lil’ brothers of The Vermin.”
All that being said, when you speak to Heximer, you wouldn’t suspect he’s the guy in the luchador mask, playing drums for the potty-mouth band. His face is boyish, and his manner soft-spoken. He’s passionate for the aesthetic of Las Vegas’ golden age, enough to have spent two years volunteering at the Neon Museum and even more years photographing the motels and signage of vintage Vegas (long before the nonprofit group Vegas Vernacular began documenting that Lost Vegas for posterity). Heximer has amassed a collection of gorgeous historical shots that he could publish as a book tomorrow if he felt like it. (You can see some of them on his Flickr account.)
There’s just something so Vegas about the guy, full stop. He’s a sharp dresser; he drives a beautiful 1960 Ford Thunderbird; and he works as a waiter at a swank Downtown restaurant. He’s also begun taking advantage of having the lush Las Vegas National Golf Club practically in his backyard: The Club, enamored of Heximer, has taken to hosting monthly socials for residents … and is giving him free golf lessons.
“I’m really horrible at golf, but it’s free, so why not?” Heximer says. “It’s a sport you do [while] drinking, so I’m not against it.”
BEING THE MAYOR
Once they moved to Paradise Palms, the Heximers figured the first step was setting up a neighborhood watch program. They asked a police officer who lived in the neighborhood to help them acquire the signs and literature and to set up monthly meetings. It was the latter necessity that gave Heximer an idea: Could these monthly meetings be more like cocktail parties?
To his surprise, the cop said yes.
“He said that the point of neighborhood watch is to build your community and know your neighbors, because [if] you know your neighbor, you want to watch out for them,” Heximer says. “If you just park in your garage, close the garage door and walk into your house, you don’t know your neighbors, and you don’t really give a shit about them. I know 150 people in this neighborhood on a first-name basis.”
“Clay is the catalyst; he’s the glue,” Stafford says. “Neighbors know their neighbors now. If you go on vacation, five people watch your house … and three of those five have keys.”
Over time, those neighborhood watch meetings came to be about more than crime prevention and safety. The residents of Paradise Palms have banded together to do large-scale cleanups of public areas, to advocate for more green space and even to challenge other neighborhoods to friendly bowling tournaments.
Perhaps more importantly, Heximer has leveraged this community goodwill into increasing awareness of Las Vegas’ disappearing past. There is no more beautiful collection of mid-century modern homes in Las Vegas … and there’s nothing to keep their new owners from stripping away their pop appeal and plastering over it with bland beige mediocrity.
Except for the example of the Mayor and the First Lady, perhaps.
“There’s a Realtor who’s an investor, and he keeps buying houses in the neighborhood and tearing them apart,” Heximer says. “He’s Summerlin-izing the neighborhood. He comes in, rips out the cool decorative screen wall, paints it tan on tan, and then tries to sell the house for an escalated amount of money. And it sits empty. I just don’t think that he gets it.”
What Heximer wants for Paradise Palms is the same kind of protections that the City of Las Vegas has bestowed on some of its historic neighborhoods. But similar protections, he says, will be difficult to secure: After all, Paradise Palms is part of unincorporated Clark County, which includes the Strip. Preservation statutes probably wouldn’t play well on Las Vegas Boulevard, where teardowns are just part of the business cycle. “If those protections existed [in the county], then the Sands would still be there.”
In mid-2011, the Heximers spoke to Clark County District E Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who agreed, in principle, that Paradise Palms deserved historical protection—and drafted an ordinance recognizing that such protections should exist in Clark County. Today, Heidi Swank—the Nevada Assemblywoman from the 16th district, and not coincidentally the founder of Flamingo Club—is working with the Heximers to make those historical protections a reality.
“We’re rolling the idea out slowly, so people don’t freak out,” Heximer says. “We need a 51 percent neighborhood vote [to get historical status]. And we want people to know that they can still paint their homes, stuff like that. It’s just when they begin ripping the architectural details away that we’ll say, ‘Hey, maybe that’s not such a good idea.’”
Not surprisingly, Heximer’s boosterism has begun to ripple over to Maryland Parkway, just a few blocks to the west.
“I’m friends with Chris G. now, and we’ve been working on getting Maryland Parkway better connected, from the airport to UNLV to Midtown to Downtown,” he says. “We’re trying to set up light rail down Maryland Parkway. Get a few more buses on the street. Trying to figure out what we need to do to get it cleaned up a bit.”
The only downside to all this hard work is that Heximer got so engrossed in it that he almost didn’t notice when his own train threatened to derail.
“Clay is one of the few people who could probably outdrink me,” says Rob Ruckus.
It was Heximer’s gift for boozy abandon that almost convinced him, one morning in February 2013, that what he’d woken up with was merely a hangover. When he went to relieve himself and passed nothing but blood, he secured a quick appointment with a urologist.
“I was thinking I had kidney stones, and they were going to put a catheter in me, and it was gonna ruin my day,” he says.
After he was “cleaned out”—“lying in front of an open window, with my pants down,” he says, grimacing—he was given a CT scan, which revealed a right kidney that was about “the size of a large lemon.” And it was wholly cancerous.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I have a big right kidney,” Heximer says, smiling slightly. “I guess the doctor thought I was just gonna get it.”
Eight days later—February 13, 2013—the kidney was removed, and Heximer began a day-to-day life, constantly wondering if the cancer would spring up somewhere else. He has seven years before he can declare himself formally cancer-free, but he recently aced another checkup—“I was fucking nuts until just now,” he says—and things look favorable going forward.
Still, it wasn’t that long ago that the gloom almost got the better of him. He bottomed out at one point—“If you’re going to just be in pain until you die, fuck it; there’s no point to sticking around”—but was ultimately heartened by the support of his wife and the community he’d built around him. His bandmates staged a huge, multi-band benefit show to help pay Heximer’s expenses until he could return to work, and his “constituents” pitched in, too.
“My neighbor is 80, and when I first got cancer, he was bringing my trash cans up and taking care of me,” Heximer says. “I’m supposed to be taking care of my 80-year-old neighbors; they’re not supposed to be taking care of me. But he was doing everything he could do.”
I WISH …
Not long ago, I asked Clay if he has a “wish list” for his neighborhood and for Midtown, beyond light rail and the historical protections. At the time he shook his head, but when I got home, I found this email in my inbox:
“Ya know, you asked if I had a wish for the neighborhood, and I said no. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m only able to say ‘no’ because of how much has been done in the last three years. Mid-century modern has become huge in Las Vegas, and Paradise Palms seems to be moving in the direction it was originally intended to go. We’re slowly seeing mid-century modern paint colors [pale yellows, aqua, a shade of orange called ‘harvest gold’] coming back to home exteriors, and empty plots that were being used for parking are actually getting fixed up. It’s a long process, but it looks to be going on the right path.”
As much as Heximer would hate to admit it, that’s the exact attitude Las Vegas needs in a mayor: This city needs someone who recognizes the hardscrabble charms of classic Las Vegas, and fights to preserve them by simply pointing them out to people who might not have noticed them otherwise. Whether congratulating his neighbors on their new paint job or graciously receiving free whiskeys at Champagne’s Café, the Mayor of Paradise Palms has never wavered in his belief that we’re all in the right place, and that he’s lucky enough to live right in the center of it.
“Vegas couldn’t have more,” says Clay Heximer, as he walks me out of his perfect mid-mod house. “It’s just a matter of looking for it. There’s every single possibility here. I couldn’t live anywhere else.”