Story & Photos by Ron Bernthal
“Las Vegas is corporate, it’s over-building, it’s all about bars and money, no one can afford to live here anymore, it’s just too much and can’t last the way it’s going.”
Monti Rock, III, Las Vegas actor and comedian, June, 2006
Whether or not you agree with Monti Rock III in his description of present-day Las Vegas, it is a fact that the desert towns that make up metropolitan Las Vegas continue to grow at an incredible pace.
Las Vegas and its neighboring communities in southern Nevada attract almost 7,000 new residents a month. North Las Vegas, a residential area near downtown, was a dry and empty desert valley not too long ago, but it is now filled with more than 177,000 people, and lots of golf courses, swimming pools, restaurants, schools, shopping centers, dog grooming services, movie theaters, libraries and every other type of big city amenity. Last year it was the second fastest-growing city in the entire country, and it is just one of dozens of communities that continue to expand further and further into this desert valley, taking in new residents like a sponge absorbing water.
Henderson, Summerlin, Spring Valley, Paradise, Lake Las Vegas, Boulder City…the area is teeming with new people, new architecture, new cuisine, new schools and hospitals, new highways, and, yes, new casinos.
Folks outside Las Vegas, and some within, say that the growth can’t last, yet the population and building surge has defied predictions of doom and gloom, and new multi -billion dollar construction projects, like City Center and Las Ramblas, will soon be post- modern mini-cities of the future, with buildings rising into the deep blue sky like glass needles into an ocean. In the Coyote Springs Valley, mostly open desert 55 miles north of Las Vegas, development is now under way for still another “bedroom” community with thousands of additional homes, condominium buildings, stores and schools.
“The Las Vegas monorail (www.lvmonorail.com ) was originally established to move people easily between the Strip casinos, but we are now evolving into planning for an extension to the airport, and helping to relieve street congestion, improve air quality, and give visitors a pleasant transportation experience during their time here,” said Ingrid Reisman, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Las Vegas Monorail, an organization that understands the phenomenal growth of the city, and is looking years ahead at the area’s urban transportation needs.
Riding the air-conditioned monorail above and between the neon-lit strip casinos is a lot like taking a ride on the Disneyworld monorail. It seems unreal, more like a stage set in a theme park than a real-life urban people mover. Yet Las Vegas is not all about casinos, and it is certainly not all about “The Strip,” which actually does have a regular city street name, Las Vegas Boulevard.
Just a few blocks off the boulevard are residential communities, where parents and their kids live lives far removed from the business of gaming and quickie marriages. “It’s a different world than the strip, the city is filled with average neighborhoods, with stores, schools and little league ball fields, just like a typical neighborhood in any American city,” Ms. Reisman said as she prepared to leave her office, a few blocks from the Strip, for her home a few miles away.
Marla Letezia is another Las Vegas native who owns a successful business here called Mobile Billboards (www.mbblv.com). Several years ago she had the idea of putting colorful advertisements on the sides of small trucks, which would ply the streets of the city promoting local products like casino hotels and shows, as well as national brands like Saks Fifth Avenue and Subway. Her parents came to the area in the mid-1950′s, just 20 years after Las Vegas legalized gaming and no-wait marriage licenses to relieve a depression-era economy.
“In 1955 I grew up in a city that was very different than it is today,” Letezia said. “I grew up in a city with only 25,000 people, and watching this city grow has been an eye-opening experience for me. Sure, the growth has had some negative impact on infrastructure and traffic, but in many ways Las Vegas is still a small town, a place where a resident can still have some impact on politics, where you can go downtown to city meetings and know everyone on a first name basis. It’s a great city to have a business, because it is still growing and there’s no limit to what you can accomplish here if you put your mind to it.”
On an early June morning the aisles of Von’s supermarket on Charleston Boulevard, in the western suburb of Summerlin are beginning to attract shoppers. Outside the store the cool desert air gives no indication of the searing heat that will shortly bake this asphalt parking lot, and locals often shop early to avoid the mid-heat sauna-like temperatures.
Many of the shoppers are retirees, claiming, believe it or not, that the Las Vegas climate was a big draw. The average year round temperature here is 66 degrees, humidity averages 29 percent, and the sun shines about 300 days a year, so despite the summer heat, these senior citizen shoppers from Chicago and Dallas and New Jersey and St. Louis say that the year-round sunshine, plus low housing costs and property taxes, and 60 golf courses, and no personal state income tax, are all very favorable advantages.
Jobs, of course, are the other big draw for new residents. Since 1990 Las Vegas has ranked number one in high-tech job growth, and with more than 7,000 new residents moving in every month looking for places to live, the chances of obtaining employment in the residential construction market in southern Nevada are the best in the country. In May, 2006, the Las Vegas area job growth rate was 5.6 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 1.4 percent.
New residents also come looking for love or sex or crime or mountains, or because they perceive Las Vegas to be an adventure, a city with unlimited possibilities. Yes, many come for the gaming, and while the tourists head directly for the glamour and glitz of the Strip casinos, locals tend to avoid that congested area and do their gaming in Henderson, or Summerlin, or Spring Valley.
The casinos that target locals as customers used to be smaller, with less expensive buffets and better odds, but with 1.8 million locals now living in the Las Vegas metroplex, the
so-called locals casinos are no longer small and non-descript. In 2001 Station Casinos (www.stationcasinos.com) opened its $500 million Green Valley Ranch, a 490-room casino located 10 miles from the Strip, and the company has been adjusting and expanding its casino building ever since. This year Station opened its biggest, and possibly the city’s most costly casino, in the community of Summerlin, an older upscale master-planned town 12 miles west of the Strip, in the shadow of La Madre Mountains, and near the entrance to the stunning Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Costing nearly $950 million to construct, Red Rock Casino (www.redrocklasvegas.com) is attracting locals and out-of-town visitors with its red sandstone and rock exterior, a three acre pool, huge spa, nine restaurants, and a 16-screen movie theatre.
“We do try and cater to the local market especially by creating a friendly ambience in the casinos, and by giving them the amenities we know they like, like close-in parking, activities on the premises, and making the casino more like a community center than a tourist attraction,” said Lori Nelson, a public relations executive for Station Casinos.
Las Vegas seems to have the best of two worlds, the beautiful and natural one that is filled with all aspects of a desert environment, including towering stone mountains looming in every direction, incredible wild flowers, and even winter snow, on 11,000-foot Mount Charleston, and huge empty desert vistas where civilization seems like millions of miles away just a quick ride either north or south on I-15.
The other world is about people, and thousands of “characters” that gravitate to Las Vegas, for reasons too numerous to list. At a new restaurant called Sapporo (www.sappororestaurants.com), on Flamingo Road in southwest Las Vegas, the interior was like many new structures in the city… modern, flashy, shades of blues and silvers, flat screen televisions and music pumping through the place like an LA nightspot. There, having dinner with friends to celebrate a film about himself in the CeneVegas Film Festival (www.cinevegas.com ), was Monti Rock III.
Walking among diners drinking passion mango martinis, the restaurant’s signature drink, or eating fresh sushi and sashimi, Rock’s gift of gab was quite apparent as he cruised the restaurant in his long white coat, feathered boa and wide brimmed cowboy hat, telling jokes, taking pictures with patrons, talking about his many appearances on The Tonight Show, and giving everyone a Vegas stage experience without having to purchase a ticket. It seemed to be a quintessential Las Vegas moment in a city that has perfected the art of the unexpected
These unexpected moments could happen in Montelago Village as well, a replica of a Tuscan village built on the artificial Lake Las Vegas. Like Paris Casino’s Eiffel Tower, Luxor’s pyramid, Strip’s Eiffel Tower and the pyramids, Treasure Island’s pirate battle, and the new waterfalls at Wynn, Montelago Village is another Las Vegas fantasy. At least the Mirage Casino comes close to reality with its name, since everything seems like a mirage here. But sitting at a patio table at Bistro Zinc (www.bistrozincrestaurant.com ), Joseph Keller’s new restaurant at Montelago, with a plate of fresh oysters, steamed mussels, Napa Valley white wine on the table, and Chef Keller unexpectedly stopping by to say hello, the reality of good food, sunshine, and lake views easily overcomes the uncomfortable juxtaposition of looking at the nearby Ritz Carlton Hotel constructed in the shape of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio.
Perhaps this is the secret of Las Vegas’ popularity; overwhelm visitors with physical comfort and great cuisine while mixing up their minds with strange, one of a kind, architectural wonders. Construction of Lake Las Vegas began in 1988, when developers envisioned a body of cool water surrounded by a Mediterranean-style resort. Big dreams often turn into reality here, and by 1994 the vision was realized with the completion of an 18-story dam in the middle of the desert, and an ingenious engineering bypass system that directed the flow of the Las Vegas wash into Lake Mead, creating the new Lake Las Vegas (www.lakelasvegas.com).
The lake not only provides water storage for the city’s landscaping needs, but is a recreational site as well, and two convention size hotels, a casino, shops, restaurants, and million dollar homes have sprouted on the dry hillsides surrounding the village, and within the faux Alpine village itself.
“Las Vegas has a much longer history than people believe,” said Doug Bennett, Conservation Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (www.snwa.com). “The city actually got its start because of water, when railroad inspectors noticed what local Indian tribes had already discovered, underground springs that sent fresh water bubbling out of the ground. The availability of surface water led the railroad to open a water and supply station on this desert spot and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Bennett explained that the area gets only about four inches of rain per year, and long ago exhausted the underground springs as its primary water source. These days the city needs to tap the Colorado River for 90 percent of its water needs, and despite the growth of population in the region, the city is still not anywhere near the panic stage when it comes to fresh water supply.
“Most of the waste in water consumption is not from the obvious sources…showers, toilets, swimming pools, outdoor fountains, and other commercial uses,” Bennett said. “It is in the landscape watering where we lose the most. When residents water their eastern turf grass or non-desert flowers and scrubs we lose most of that water through evaporation and run-off. The big commercial hotels and casinos recycle their water and little of it is wasted, maybe only about three percent. Most people think just the opposite.”
Bennett’s department tries to persuade local residents to plant more desert-friendly lawns and foliage around their houses. Strict lawn watering rules, for both business and residential customers, is just one way to save some of that fresh Colorado River water. Many new residential condo towers and office buildings are now using “green” architecture and design in their initial construction. The Clark County School District is using artificial turf, waterless urinals, recycled materials, a storm-water filtration system, and electronic metering to monitor energy use, in their new award-winning Northwest Career and Technical Center (www.library.unlv.edu/arch/aia/awa2005/ub05018.html ).
The community of Las Vegas has grown from a small desert town with a few casinos, to a fast growing city of 1.8 million residents, with more than 25 million visitors a year. There is, perhaps, no better place to witness the still small town flavor of Las Vegas than at Cashman Field, the 10,000-seat home of the Las Vegas 51′s, the Triple-A minor league baseball club of the Los Angeles Dodgers (www.lv51.com). The 51′s take their name from the semi-secret government base approximately 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, known as “Area 51.” Reports of UFO sightings and alien activities in that area account for the alien logo on team hats and merchandise.
At 7 pm, with a hot sun bathing half the field, and dugout mist sprays keeping the players cool in the 100-degree temperatures, the game gets underway and the atmosphere in the stands, filled with working class families and kids carrying baseball gloves, is reminiscent more of small town mid-America than the flashy, casino ruled Las Vegas that most of the world perceives.
“My family and I come here quite often, and we have been living in Las Vegas our entire lives,” said Matthew Young, who brought his wife and three children to their usual seats down the left field line. “We are both working people and don’t have the time or the money to go down to the Strip, so we come to the ballpark or see a movie, or have a home barbeque. Most of our friends do the same thing, just like anywhere else.”
By the third inning the sun has almost set, a rare rainbow has appeared in the northern sky, framing the desert peaks that always visible from any spot in the city, and the night air has turned soft and sultry. It is my last night in Vegas and by 11 pm, when I drive back to my hotel in the western part of the city, there were few cars on the road, and the residential communities are quiet.
Shops are still open, after all Las Vegas is a 24/7 city, catering to thousands of casino and restaurant shift workers, but away from the neon glare of the casinos you could see the stars and hear crickets and desert frogs making a small racket in the backyards. I stop at an open book store and purchase Sun, Sin and Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas, a book by veteran Las Vegas journalist Geoff Schumacher.
Schumacher knows the city’s history well, and before I leave the next morning I call him to get more insight into this town. Our conversation helps me to understand why it is that Las Vegas itself, and not just the gaming tables, is so addictive to so many people.
He talks about town lots being sold in 1905 when the railroad came in, and the rough days of makeshift mining camps that followed, and why, in 1931, when legal gaming and no-wait marriage rules were instituted to help a depression economy, it became such a pivotal year for the city. Schumacher mentions the military bases that followed World War II, and how a small, desert town, with a few family-run and mob-controlled casinos, would quickly become one of the world’s most popular and famous tourist destinations.
As Schumacher talks of the pinnacle historic period, during the 1950′s and 60′s, when Sinatra and others played the lounges around town, and when both locals and out-of-town big-shots would frequent the casino bars and poker tables, it seems to me that, in many ways, Las Vegas is still trying, and succeeding, to be the same equal opportunity destination. Sure, corporations now run the casinos, and the 25 cent slots and $5 blackjack tables are fading quickly, along with $7 dinner buffets and $20 show tickets, but if Las Vegas began as a city for everyone, with the rich coming to play and have fun, and the poor coming to get rich and have fun, it is still, in many ways, offering that same opportunity.
In the Las Vegas of today there is still access to everything, for everyone. The glitzy and over-the-top casinos, the buffets, the high-end, famous-chef restaurants, they are all open to everyone, and most are still affordable, especially compared to other U.S. and overseas mass tourism destinations. The nearby desert trails and mountains, the construction jobs and high tech positions, the available drugs and sex, the baking summer heat and the cold starry nights…the city offers something for everyone.
Perhaps no one conveyed this observation better than British-born journalist Alistair Cooke, who lived in the U.S. and wrote often about American culture. “Las Vegas is everyman’s cut-rate Babylon,” he wrote. “Not far away from the Strip there is a roadside lunch counter, and over it a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution, ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’
Be sure to read…
Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas, Geoff Schumacher, Stephens Press, 2005
Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, Jeff Burbank, M. Evans and Company, 2005
Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century, Hal Rothman, Routledge, 2002