The image I had in my mind of Las Vegas before I visited the city last week was a very different one from the city I actually saw. The strip isn't really a glamorous walkway of lights and people, as it's presented in movies and popular culture; it's more like a congested section of highway slapped between crowds of buildings. Because of this, it's not pedestrian-friendly, as I foolishly assumed, and it takes an hour longer than you estimate to get anywhere or do anything. But time isn't supposed to matter when you're in Vegas: It's a 24/7 city where, unless you're an employee, you're doing the opposite of work.
I hadn't been to Vegas since the '90s, when I was a teenager, and my memory is terrible, so this visit was like a first time. When I arrived, I quickly realized that the place I had envisioned was based on the famous aerial view of the strip — Las Vegas from above at night is all blinking lights against a sexy, almost mythical pitch-black background. On the ground level during the day, the reality is that it's luxury slums and a mess of overbearing, bland, tan buildings shooting endless ads at you from LED screens — screens that don't have anything like the romantic effect of the old neon signs. And televisions are everywhere: in the bathroom, built into tables at restaurants, embedded in the ceiling. That's not a Vegas problem, though: Mounting televisions in every space once kept sacred for moments of silence and interpersonal experiences is the American way.
The interior of every casino and consumption-focused indoor space felt like a barely living version of The Sims; it looked like a chintzy duplicate of what the real world might appear to be from a computer screen. Top 40 pop blared from speakers inhabiting every inch of public space, so loud it was sometimes hard to talk to the person standing a foot from me. Then there were the endless smells, putrid wafts of cigarettes and cheap perfume at every turn. I'm aware that my sense of smell is much sharper than that of the average human, but Las Vegas fucking stinks. It's beyond the usual human overuse of Febreze and dryer sheets and body spray. You can taste every casino and hotel's specific brand of intentional funk.
A table at Battista's Hole in the Wall; a booth at the Peppermill.
But Las Vegas wasn't all terrible. I was lucky enough to be directed toward the things a person like me might most enjoy in the expensive cardboard city — the old and out-of-date things, mostly. For each meal, my family dined somewhere that was overwhelmingly kitschy and packed with the kind of lore I seek out in any city I visit. We gorged on piles of diner food inside the sassy sleaze of the Peppermill, which feels like a Patrick Nagel painting come to life. We dined on classic Italian underneath empty Chianti bottles, fishing nets and photos of famous folks from the '70s hanging from the ceiling at Battista's Hole in the Wall. We had the kind of fancy dining experience where your salad is made table-side by a waiter in a tuxedo who cracks his knuckles when describing the specials in an East Coast accent at the Golden Steer. We even had some of the famous hotcakes at Du-Par's, served up by a waitress in a uniform from another age.
Then there was the Neon Museum, a place where the aging neon signs from Vegas's not-so-distant past are laid to rest. The small outdoor museum's dusty trails are well lit and well kept, highlighting organized jumbles of signage of yore, like Sassy Sally's and the Moulin Rouge sitting next to famed names in lights like the Stardust and Binion's. Only a handful of these brilliant artifacts are still able to light up the night, but it didn't matter; getting to be face-to-sign with a piece of commercial history that once stood proudly atop building in a time I wasn't born yet brought a rush of feelings. Experiencing all of this color and character and seeing the innovative use of neon, fonts and lettering, illustration and imagination up close made me very happy to be in Vegas.
Some of the Neon Museum's many treasures.
Being in Vegas had me thinking a lot about Denver. Like Denver, Las Vegas is a young city in the American West. Like Denver, half of the landscape is cranes and construction sites. Like Denver, the current boom in Vegas looks like a lot of money, interest, influence, and development from companies and corporations outside of the city. Like Denver, Vegas is a juxtaposition of monetary excess and real-time poverty, which isn't hidden — it's out in the open to either be discussed or willfully ignored.
But what set Las Vegas apart from Denver (other than it being a gambling and entertainment industry town) was that as a city, Vegas feels like a place uninhabited by actual people. Everyone is either a tourist or a functional, moving part of the glitz. In Denver, part of what makes the Mile High City a draw for visitors and new citizens is our people. In 2015, we might be thought of as a beer town or a weed town or an-hour-away-from-the-slopes town. But we don't have what Vegas has in the way of an industry as identity. Denver is still a place created by human beings who have invested deeply in their communities.
As we grow, I don't think it is unreasonable to believe Denver could become as hollow as Las Vegas felt to me. I wonder what we will look like in twenty years. Will we be like Las Vegas, wearing a completely new face that has bleached out any signs of our recent past? Will our city become one giant, enclosed Greco-Roman mall with a ceiling painted to look like the sky and lit up not by the moon, but by Cheesecake Factory and Nike signs? I don't know. But in some ways, seeing Las Vegas in its current state of boom made me both curious and worried about Denver's future. There's always room for the shiny and new, but without the old and affordable to balance it out, we might be on track to become an empty wasteland of big, expensive buildings devoid of the human element that makes a Denver a nice place to be.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
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