Shared Spaces, Shared City

The promise of Henderson’s unlikely communitarianism

Photo by Svetlana Larionova Miller

The archery range at Whitney Mesa. | Photo by Svetlana Larionova Miller

Nearly every day, I walk out of my neighborhood, push a button to activate a flashing crosswalk light, and visit a cluster of public institutions, none of which is the DMV or the city jail. There’s a library, its jagged roof an echo of the silvery mountains to the east. There’s a rec center, elevated on a hill of crushed red granite and rather proud of itself with those three flapping flags out front. And then there’s an alabaster circus-tent amphitheater, where on mild spring nights Beethoven roams and kids roll down the grassy berm.

Here in Nevada, where politicians like to play at libertarianism, Henderson has managed to sustain an almost communitarian network of public spaces. It has done so even as seniors-only communities, with their active voters and general disdain for the taxman, have spread deep into the McCullough foothills. Budget cuts have been a regular part of the news cycle—the libraries and rec centers retire early on Saturdays and don’t wake up until Monday—but somehow there’s always enough good news to balance the bad. The libraries lost Mondays for a while, but some smart schedule shuffling brought them back. At my across-the-street haunt, the Paseo Verde Library, the parking lot is well populated by minivans; the carrels and computer stations are well used by students, seniors and small-business types; and the café is well remunerated by me.

Meanwhile, each year brings new parks to Henderson, some of them spectacular adaptations to both natural terrain and man-made ravages. Cornerstone Park transformed a waterlogged gravel pit into a wetlands surrounded by walking paths and beach volleyball courts. After development impinged on the prehistoric wonder of Whitney Mesa in the mid-2000s, leaving its north side shaved smooth and condos creeping in from the south, the city completed a pocket of preserve and recreation around the rest of the mesa. Today the area offers hiking trails, lush canyons, tennis courts, a BMX track and an archery range. The data backs up the anecdotes: The Trust for Public Land ranks Henderson fifth in the nation for park spending per capita.

Henderson, of course, is imperfect. It is, for instance, a place where senior-community activists protest a charter school’s proposed move into an empty shopping center and City Council members pander with mailers that proclaim, roughly, Fighting Against the School! Where else will that win you political points? The shopping center is at major cross streets, but the seniors fear the traffic, and the Council members fear the seniors. One might expect anti-tax types to celebrate a school opened with minimal construction or public expenditure, but the ideological catechism is simpler when all the answers are “No.”

After the horrific May 12 Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia, Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker that the decay of the nation’s infrastructure was not simply the result of fiscal challenges but of an ideology that has for decades sought to create decay, steering the nation away from public works and toward “market solutions.” Somehow, the article made me proud of my town: The market would not have built the amphitheater, where I recently took in Beethoven’s Ninth by the all-volunteer Henderson Symphony Orchestra. There is no market solution for my library that would maintain it as a resource for all. The market solution for Whitney Mesa would have been to coat the thing in condos.

I love the market. I shop there regularly. Like LeBron James, it has outstanding reactions and is always ready to change its uniform. It is at once frenetic and predictable: Coffee shops turn into Starbucks; desert lots turn into Target. It destroys and creates with admirable efficiency; it provides the bricks and ornament that give our cities their joyfully slapdash, infinitely changeable American texture.

But the market alone can provide neither the foundation of a community—the lasting institutions that turn a place into home—nor the mortar that holds us together. We will always need that flashing light that reminds us we’re in this together, asks us to slow down and gets us safely to the far side of the road.

Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Education.

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