The People of Las Vegas, by Amanda Fortini
February 7, 2020 12:22 AM   Subscribe

"Consider these demographics, and one starts to understand why the people of Las Vegas get overlooked... I have often wondered whether the general ignorance about Las Vegas is born of laziness, snobbery, or an altogether more insidious impulse. Las Vegas was, of course, déclassé and embarrassing from the start: founded by the Mafia, the first “unaristocratic” Americans, as Tom Wolfe wrote, “to have enough money to build a monument to their style of life.”
It’s frequently said that Las Vegas has no culture, but that’s not true. My Italian relatives from Illinois—my aunts with their Carmela Soprano hairdos and long acrylic nails—love it for a reason. They love playing the slots downtown at the Golden Nugget and going out for martini dinners at old-school Italian places. (At one of these, I heard Pia Zadora breathily sing about her “accidents and arrests.”) They love Cirque du Soleil shows, where you can sit and watch first-class acrobats fly across the stage while you sip from a plastic cup of beer. Las Vegas is vernacular culture—“prole,” Wolfe called it—and thus, he notes, “it gets ignored, except on the most sensational level.”
Those who think of themselves as cultured and educated look down on Las Vegas as garish and brazen. But concern about “good taste” is often just socially palatable code for classism and racism. This is a working-class town that’s nearly 33 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian. It has one of the largest populations of undocumented immigrants in the country, and the eighth-highest rate of homelessness."
posted by growabrain (27 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
I spent the ages 6 mos. to just before 6 living in Las Vegas. It was the first place I knew of as "home" and it actually took a really long time for me not to think of myself as being from there.

I hadn't been back until last year when I went to see Lady Gaga. It was fascinating -- certainly, just about ... everything ... had changed in 30+ years, but it still felt recognizable.

(I went to Circus Circus because it was one of the few places that you were able to take kids when I lived there. It was exactly the same. It was well-maintained overall but still, exactly the same. I think even some of the prizes for the games were the same. My friends were all like "ha ha awesome" when I posted photos of it, because, I assume of Hunter S. Thompson, and I was mostly "that's not why I went but ...")

I did take a day to leave the Strip area and I went to the Arts District. That's still up and coming and I was there early on a Thursday anyway. I did get a chance to go into Rockin Bettie and Glam Factory and the staff of both stores were so friendly and fun. (When I was there, the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo was going on because, Vegas, and the man in front of me at Glam Factory was there for that. After he left, I remarked to the staff of the store that my cab driver from the airport had asked if I was in town for the "convention" and I later realized he was talking about that. They laughed and said "You should totally be flattered!")

When I was waiting for the bus, a man struck up a conversation with me. Having enough years of city living underneath me, I'm always a bit on guard when this sort of thing happens -- is he going to start aggressively hitting on me? Is he going to ask me for money? Neither of those things happened. He just genuinely wanted to chat and ask questions about my camera.

And I think that extends to every interaction I had with people in Las Vegas who actually live there. Sure, I know the people in the hotels and restorts are paid to be "nice" but most of them just seemed genuinely friendly and genuinely interested in people's lives.

I do hope to go again and spend more time outside the main drag (I have some ambitions on going back to my old neighborhood but I think I'd need to find a Lyft driver who'd be willing to indulge such things if I don't rent a car).
posted by darksong at 4:11 AM on February 7 [17 favorites]


I think a lot about how destinations/tourism towns are perceived, it's because I live in one myself, Niagara Falls. There's this weird thing that happens where the town sort of loses its sense of self (at least when perceived by those who are just passing through).

But if you spend time in a town like Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, Orlando, you'll discover the town that is underneath the tourist town that most people interact with. This is where you'll find the real culture, the best food spots, the hidden bits of nature that are off the beaten path, the people that work and live and breath their own city.

Thanks for sharing this post. It's a lovely read.
posted by Fizz at 5:22 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


I love this bit: "At its root, such writing is often not about the myths of Las Vegas but about the myths these writers hold about themselves, and how those play out against the backdrop of this city." And then going on to talk about these guys who are basically cosplaying Hunter S. Thompson. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is probably my least favorite/re-readable of HST's works, in part because it seems less about the ostensible subject as it is about establishing Hunter S. Thompson™. I don't think that it's a coincidence that the book was not only adapted into a movie starring Johnny Depp, who seems to think he's gonzo instead of being just another drunk asshole, but also took up much of Bill Murray's hagiographic HST movie Where the Buffalo Roam.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:53 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I really enjoyed this essay. I've been to Las Vegas about 10 times for work, and it's not somewhere I especially enjoy going. The handful of times I've been able to get off-Strip -- to the Pinball HOF, a 51's baseball game, a couple of downscale restaurants -- I've enjoyed it. Next time I'm out there I will try to make more time to get away from the glitz and enjoy some of the other amenities.
posted by slogger at 7:03 AM on February 7


Las Vegas has some of the best food in the country, and almost all of it is in random strip malls rather than the Strip.
posted by Gadarene at 7:10 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


I lived in LV for a couple of years, it's a pretty damn good option for a person with little or no social capital who wants to establish a middle-class lifestyle. It probably has a better ratio of affordability to opportunity for good jobs than just about good-sized city in the U.S. (though that's probably slowly but steadily decreasing for the last decade or so). There are lots of things for families to do that don't involve going anywhere near the Strip (Springs Preserve, lots of playgrounds, some good parks, great variety of moderate-priced restaurants), six months a year of really good weather, traffic outside of the Strip area is not bad, and beautiful mountains to look at or visit nearby. And having the strip nearby to see shows or just take in the spectacle of LV a few times a year is nice.

Shortage of good schools and hellacious summers were the reasons we didn't consider staying long term. If they could fix the former, we probably would have worked harder to deal with the latter.

It's an easy place to dunk on, but anytime people trash a city as not having culture I feel safe dismissing their opinions on a lot of topics; I also used to live in another city that got the same critique (Shenzhen, China), and I've found that people who dismiss the culture of a city filled with millions of living human being just because it doesn't meet their standards as a tourist destination are not going to be able to provide me with much of value on other topics either.
posted by skewed at 7:39 AM on February 7 [14 favorites]


That’s some excellent writing and journalism there. (Two different things.)
posted by scratch at 7:48 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


My cousin teaches at UNLV. I remember when she took the job, about twenty years ago now, give or take, my mom was asking the predictable "why Vegas of all places" question. My cousin said that of all the major cities in the United States, Vegas is one of the few where a young person has many options to make decent money without a postsecondary education. She felt it meant the students in her classes were there because they really wanted to be, not because they saw college as a prerequisite for a comfortable life. At the time this was such an unexpected perspective on Las Vegas for me that it's stuck with me all these years - that the things that make it "Sin City" also make it a place of unique opportunity.

I've been reminded of that over the years as almost every college gymnast I've known has spent some time in Vegas doing Cirque, because let's be real, where else in the States do you get paid to do gymnastics?
posted by potrzebie at 8:21 AM on February 7 [9 favorites]


Not finished with the article, but the first few paragraphs and the comments here are really making me want to visit Las Vegas.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:24 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I have friends in Las Vegas. They avoid the Strip unless they're going to a concert there, or if they have out of town guests who just have to see the sights. Partying on the Strip is what most people think of when they think of Vegas, and to a lesser extent Fremont Street. The fact that the locals avoid the Strip should tell you that there's a lot more to life there, especially considering how many people continue to move to Vegas. There's also some great outdoors options out there, which a lot of people are surprised to hear about since they think Vegas is just a glittering spot in a desert. It's a city that has long had a reputation for being filled with transplants, and while that has been true, the population has matured to the point that they feel like they are home in Las Vegas. The transplants who moved there in the 80s, 90s and 2000s have tended to stay. They've had kids and the kids have grown up there. The population feels like it has "stuck" more than it has in places like Phoenix.
posted by azpenguin at 8:44 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Those who think of themselves as cultured and educated look down on Las Vegas as garish and brazen. But concern about “good taste” is often just socially palatable code for classism and racism. This is a working-class town that’s nearly 33 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian. It has one of the largest populations of undocumented immigrants in the country, and the eighth-highest rate of homelessness."

This is a slightly odd way of thinking about it. I seriously, seriously doubt that the relatively-confined tourist district of Vegas, which is what everyone thinks of as "garish" and "brazen," reflects much of the culture of the minority and homeless populations of the city. It was built pretty much independent of local concerns and is marketed to people from out of town, primarily people who have the money to do things like fly out into the desert to lose money gambling--not the highest threshold in the world the way the place is set up, but not nothing. The Strip is not predominantly a working-class or POC destination. If you want to say the tourists' tastes shouldn't be mocked, either, cool, but invoking the minority population of the town residents to defend the architecture in that one district which largely exists in indifference to their interests is analytically sloppy.
posted by praemunire at 8:45 AM on February 7 [14 favorites]


I have nothing but good to say about the emergency rooms and pharmacies of Las Vegas. (No, I never travel without getting sick or injured. It's a tradition.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:49 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


But if you spend time in a town like Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, Orlando, you'll discover the town that is underneath the tourist town that most people interact with. This is where you'll find the real culture, the best food spots, the hidden bits of nature that are off the beaten path, the people that work and live and breath their own city.

Thanks for sharing this post. It's a lovely read.
posted by Fizz at 8:22 AM on February 7 [8 favorites +] [!]


(I hope this isn't too much of a derail, but...)

Fizz - I love Niagara Falls! A couple of summers ago, we wanted to take a vacation close to home (TO), so we went to Niagara Falls for a week and did all of the (slightly) less touristy things that we never get to do when doing the typical "Relative from Another Continent is Visiting and Needs to See the Falls" day-trip. We hiked in Niagara Glen, watched boats pass through the locks on the Welland Canal, saw the weekly classic car parade on Queen Street, and had dinner at one of the best restaurants I've ever been to: Cafe Nautica. I still dream occasionally about the bread. It was so great.

So yeah, if anyone is anywhere near Niagara Falls, get out of the centre to see other things - and absolutely eat at Cafe Nautica.
posted by jb at 9:04 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I don't think you can talk about Vegas without addressing the fact that it's not sustainable in terms of water resources. This isn't unique to Vegas but it is certainly an egregious example.
posted by Ferreous at 9:25 AM on February 7 [10 favorites]


I don't think you can talk about Vegas without addressing the fact that it's not sustainable in terms of water resources. This isn't unique to Vegas but it is certainly an egregious example.

Vegas certainly isn't sustainable as far as water. However, Arizona is a far more egregious example than Las Vegas. The water in Vegas supports a population. The water in Arizona supports a population and massive agriculture operations. California is a big part of the problem as well. If you like almonds or pecans, do a little research on how much water it takes to grow them, and then remember that huge amounts of these are grown in California, and that Arizona has huge pecan orchards. Arizona is in big trouble with regard to water right now and some people in rural areas of the state have dry wells that they can't afford to have drilled deeper. Nearby agriculture operations are sucking the aquifers dry.
posted by azpenguin at 9:34 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Actually, Las Vegas is pretty conscientious about water.

I adore Vegas. I don't gamble, but I love the weather and also the tell-it-like-it-is culture. People are happy there. They have a purpose. They enjoy a good show. They believe that sex work can be legal and empowering for women. They sit around and acknowledge the absurdities of life and say fuck it, I'm just going to enjoy myself. The last time I went, I went alone (my social network is mostly Boston/Cambridge liberal elitists, and I didn't want to drag that with me), and had a blast on a driving tour of the desert and eating crepes at the Bellagio. Hope to go again in the next year or so.
posted by Melismata at 9:38 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


It doesn't get mentioned by the author, but Vegas is the home of UNITE HERE Local 226 aka "Culinary". At roughly 60,000 members it is one of the more the more powerful and militant local unions in the country, and my comrades there have managed to force the gaming industry into providing wonderful middle class jobs, with affordable health care, pensions, good pay and a hundred other benefits. They do all of this in a "right to work" state against some of the most powerful corporations in the world. They are as diverse as the author describes and a truly beautiful representation of what is possible in this country. Solidarity!
posted by Unioncat at 9:43 AM on February 7 [35 favorites]


Las Vegas has some of the best food in the country, and almost all of it is in random strip malls rather than the Strip.

I'd go back just for the Thai food and the In'N'Out Burger, yes. Also the In'N'Out Burger is like 2 blocks off the strip, but is right next to a Holiday Inn with 50 cent roulette. That's a day all by itself.

I'm still trying to figure out how a random strip mall out in the eastern part of the city manages to consistently do crawfish and crab boils at a higher level than anywhere I've ever been outside of Louisiana. They fly crabs in from Maryland daily, and goddamn if they don't show up every crab shack on the eastern seaboard.
posted by Mayor West at 9:55 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


... that makes me jealous, Mayor West. I miss Maryland blue crab so much. My visits usually fall outside of crab season, and the last couple of times I was on the east coast at all in summer things didn't fall out right for a proper crab feast. Dungeness is fine, but it's just not the same.
posted by tavella at 10:27 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Actually, Las Vegas is pretty conscientious about water.

They are now. Having to put over a billion dollars into an intake system at Lake Mead because the water levels dropped so much will slap you into reality. It wasn't always the case, though, and sheer population numbers can overwhelm conservation measures at a certain point. Tucson has always been conscientious about water and I believe at one point our per capita use was one-third of Las Vegas'. That was before the LV area leaders realized that if they didn't get serious about saving water, there would be no more growth and the city would shrink.

Arizona, on the other hand is fairly conscious about water in the urban areas (although it depends which municipality...) and pretty much not at all in the rural areas. There's no limits on groundwater pumping in the rural areas of the state and multinational agriculture companies are taking full advantage. It's gotten so bad that even in the deepest red country out there, the residents are starting to think that maybe the government needs to regulate the water pumping while the wells are still viable.
posted by azpenguin at 10:44 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


The City podcast season 2 is about Reno, not Vegas, but it may be of interest to those in this thread. I'm sure a lot of the competing forces (new vs old, "tacky" vs "classy", gentrification vs affordability, who gets to participate in the economy, etc.) are similar in both communities. It's a pretty good series (the first season about Chicago is great, too.)
posted by misskaz at 10:57 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


I loved this piece.

I went to Vegas a few years ago with friends who were very much Strip-people, and I found out I am very much not a fan of the Strip. It's fun for a night, maybe two, but that's my limit. I really appreciated this window into non-Strip Las Vegas.

(I am also making notes on all the non-Strip places to hit up, since I'm heading back in late April. The main focus of the trip is visiting Zion, but I'll have a few days on either side on that.)
posted by invokeuse at 10:05 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


invokeuse, if you’re looking for something outdoors to do in the area, look up Black Canyon kayaking. It’s a stretch of calm water on the Colorado River just below Hoover Dam and I believe it’s about 12 miles or so. There’s hot springs you can hike to along the way. The river water is cool because of the dam. I wouldn’t do it in peak summer but late April should be good.
posted by azpenguin at 11:26 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


This post and the comments are lovely. Now I regret not going to a couple of conferences there over the years. Taking notes for next time.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:31 PM on February 7


I lived in Las Vegas for a couple years as a teen in the late 90s, and my family definitely had our favorite things to do far away from the Strip (a great Italian restaurant at a very minor-league casino, driving up Mt. Charleston so we could have a white Christmas, etc.). As a dorky uptight East Coast girl at heart, I don't think I could ever live there long-term, but I think it really shaped who I am in a lot of ways, from my sincere love of all things kitschy Americana, to the thrill I get in the great outdoors, to discovering alternative/punk culture that didn't exist in my school back east.

My boyfriend goes every year for work conferences and hates it.
posted by naoko at 8:01 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]


I went there for a conference last year and it was kind of frustrating to be stuck at the Mirage during the day. The restaurants there are very expensive and it’s a schlep to get anywhere. Fortunately my friend took me around town on the second evening and the last day. Next time I’ll do the seven hour drive because I’ll have my car. The strip is tough to get around on because it’s so damn long. If you go, either rent a car or figure out how to get places away from the strip, be it buses or Uber or whatnot. You’ll be glad you did. (I spent $33 on a burger, fries and lemonade at the Mirage. Thank goodness corporate didn’t bat an eye on the reimbursement.) Also Le Thai on Fremont Street is damn amazing.
posted by azpenguin at 8:24 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


I went to Vegas with a friend a while back. She had a good time at her poker tournaments, I felt stifled and in the wrong place entirely. All of the instincts I developed growing up in a tourist town were constantly saying “you are in the Tourist Zone, designed to siphon as much money from your wallet as quickly as possible”. One evening we hooked up with a friend of hers who took us to a night market well away from the Tourist Zone, and it felt much more alive, much more like a place to live rather than visit. I could see myself moving there, staying well out of the Strip most days, maybe getting some kind of job amongst the teams of artists who make the elaborate decorations for the tourist zones... it was still crazy hot and dry even after dark, it wasn’t like anywhere else I’d lived, but a youth in New Orleans followed by a decade in Los Angeles means that “where the people who make Entertainment happen go after they get off work” feels like home.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that

> In some ways, Las Vegans are like the permanent crew of a cruise ship—Las Vegas as The Love Boat, if you will—and the tourists, the real character actors, stream on and off, week in and week out.

sounds really, really true.
posted by egypturnash at 8:38 AM on February 9


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