The Land of Disappearing Things

Fading Vegas and the art of memory

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

These places rise, they fall. For Las Vegans of a certain age, it’s still hard to believe that the Landmark is gone, even though it was hard to believe it was ever here. The Hacienda, once the home of my adolescent tennis battles, is now just a neon polo player stranded in the middle of the Strip, miles from home. And there’s this: a little playground in Green Valley Ranch where, as a toddler, my boy climbed, hand following hand, along the bent green metal bars. Yesterday my wife and I walked to this memory patch and found only a sandpit encircled by a chain-link fence. No doubt a squishy surface and static-generating plastic play gym are soon to arrive. In all cases, the progress is undeniable: The Hacienda became the Mandalay Bay. The Landmark became a parking lot.

All of these things, great and small, once were visions, and then they were built, and then they were gone. If one of life’s tests is for us to accept that we hold only a temporary lease on our cities, our homes, our possessions, our bodies, then surely Las Vegas is a fine school.

And, in a city built upon fantasy, it should be no great surprise that even the concrete embodiments of our dream-life wind up oddly etheric. Dreams, after all, last only a night—and usually you can’t remember much except that you were being chased down a hallway, and then you fell, and then you were in a restaurant, arm-wrestling with Jimmy Connors.

But, the deep philosophy of letting go aside, there is something reassuring when things stick around a little while. The view of Frenchman Mountain over the north end zone of the Silver Bowl—yes, that’s what I still call Sam Boyd Stadium—fills me with memories of Saturday afternoons watching a catlike quarterback named Sam King zip the Rebels downfield. It reminds me, for instance, of what it felt like to see the Rebels score a touchdown. The Silver Bowl, much like the Landmark, has the sentimental power of having been a white elephant almost from birth. Urban dreamers and creatives of all sorts should cherish their white elephants: A city’s unsung songs are locked in its useless spaces. The Silver Bowl endures, but the Desert Inn has disappeared. Justice is blind indeed.

Fallen things: the illuminated diamond on the Dunes marquee, the stylized backward-Z that once introduced the word “Stardust.” The details claw at the memory, looking for a perch. Fallen things: The face of the McCullough mountains, which once looked, at sunset, like a shaken silk sheet, settling in slippery red ridges. My alliteration is not accidental—the sight of the mountainside once brought to mind the sound of snakes and children’s slides. Now it is a series of terraces, flowing locks shaved into flattops, awaiting houses like ornamental hats from the age of Gatsby, fabulous monuments to economic self-realization. Fallen things: The Convention Center Rotunda, that marvelous flying saucer, illuminated pale green on winter evenings when Jerry Tarkanian’s soaring Rebels charted a course for the basketball heavens.

Enduring things: The neon guitar outside the Hard Rock Café, which once proclaimed, in a single soundless strum, that we had arrived. The natural area behind Sunset Park, which burned in 2000, regenerated itself and, by the miracle of county ownership, never became the site of a Smith’s grocery store. Enduring things: Bonnie Springs, the face of Lone Mountain, the Gilcrease Orchard, the St. Viator’s soccer field, the UNLV North Gym, Piero’s, El Cortez.

There’s no logic to any of it—which Polaroids retain their color, which go pale in the brighter light of memory. We’ll have to let go of it all, sooner or later. But if we keep our eyes and minds attuned—if we’re watchful as time crumbles—we just may be surprised at the outcome of all this disappearing:

Everything endures. The desert still hums at the heart of the city, the fallen neon still glows, and on every phantom jungle gym, the kids play on.

Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Education

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