Las Vegas Isn’t Struggling, It’s Transforming … and We Get to Help It Happen

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

In the summer of 2000, I saw the classic anime film Akira for the first time. Inspired by its representation of “Neo Tokyo”—a towering, neon-lit dystopia patrolled by motorcycle gangs in clown suits and kids jacked up on amphetamines—I took my camera down to the Strip to shoot photos that resembled what I’d just seen. In essence, I tried to make real-life Las Vegas look like Japanese animation. I don’t know if I was successful or not, but it’s telling that, in that particular time and place, I thought such a thing was even possible.

Las Vegas, as I knew it from the time I moved here in 1989 until the day I moved to Seattle in 2002, was at least 50 percent fantasy. New resorts were opening on the Strip at a furious pace; sometimes we’d see two major openings a year. We couldn’t blow up the old fast enough to make room for the new. Everything was so big and so outrageous that none of it seemed real to me. But the sprawl expanding from the Strip … now, that felt real enough. It was easier to believe in sawtooth roads, cheaply built tract homes and ugly strip malls; that world seemed more palpable than that other, cartoony world, with its year-old towers, neo-Sphinx and science fiction streetscape.

When people ask me why I moved to Seattle, I give them a variety of answers, some flippant (“I wanted to rehydrate”) and some genuine (“I followed a girl”). But occasionally, I surprise myself by saying, “I wanted to feel real.” I wanted to touch buildings more than a half-century old; wanted to feel anonymous on city buses; wanted to be part of what I considered a genuine city. And when they ask me the second part of that question—why I moved back to Las Vegas in 2012—I give them what’s become a slogan of mine: “Because Las Vegas finally wants to be a real city.”

It’s tempting to lament what, compared to the boom of the 1990s and 2000s, looks like a slowdown. People aren’t gambling as much as they used to, some Strip properties sit unfinished and, my God, won’t Resorts World hurry the hell up?

But that’s not the narrative that’s beginning to dominate our front pages and our conversation. When I talk to my friends—natives and newcomers alike—we talk about the transformation of Downtown Las Vegas into a vibrant urban hub. We talk about the plans to put light rail on Maryland Parkway, and to revitalize the area surrounding UNLV. We talk about the planned Modern Art Museum and the proposed Downtown Summerlin project. We talk about revamping our education system, about sustainability, about our need for high-density housing and office space. And thanks to the SLS’s conversion of the Sahara and the City of Las Vegas’ million-dollar investment in saving the Huntridge Theater, we’ve even begun to talk about the importance of historic preservation.

In other words: For the first time in my memory, the excitement over local projects is outstripping the buzz about tourist attractions. For the first time, people are talking as if they want to live here. It’s hard not to feel excited about that … and for me, it was impossible to watch this happening from Seattle and not want to be a part of it.

We have a long, long way forward. Employment is still down, homelessness is way up, and we’re still dependent on lots of visitors coming here to blow money on craps. But that doesn’t diminish my belief that this is the single most exciting time in the history of this city. If I were to walk the Strip with my camera today, I’m sure I could still pretend that I was in Neo Tokyo … but that fantasy would be tempered by the realization that something real is happening outside of that bubble, and it becomes more real and substantial by the day.