thursday travelogue: las vegas: everything is possible but nothing is real.

Two Elvi and a Las Vegas signWelcome to fabulous Las Vegas
Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins
Las Vegas
Didn’t nobody tell you
The house will always win?
— “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” Brandon Flowers

Others have filed great recaps of the outstanding #simtech10 conference in Las Vegas, so I figured, as an urbanist, I could file my thoughts on our host city. No other place has such a pervasive and glitzy ad campaign, telling people that what happens there, stays there. It’s a casually well-crafted image.

And yet, leaving Las Vegas, I knew I would not miss the city. My friends from the conference I would — and do — miss tremendously, but Las Vegas is too loud, too brash, too in-your-face, too crowded … just too much. Every block on the strip involves running a gauntlet of card-slapping hired hands trying to push strip clubs and prostitution. Coupled with the slow-moving tourists and the overstimulation of sights and sounds, it resembles some kind of smoky, seedy video game.

Oh sure, I can recommend all kinds of things. Dollar drinks and the crazy karaoke characters at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Casino were a hoot. Our group dinner at Bradley Ogden in Caesar’s Palace was quite possibly the most delicious (and not coincidentally, most expensive) I’ve ever had. Our hotel, The Paris, was inexpensive and features the awesome Napoleon’s Dueling Piano Bar and fantastic Le Village Buffet, among other attractions.

Eiffel Tower, the Paris Hotel version

And yet one of my lasting impressions came from taking a 6 a.m. run with some friends, which seemed like being backstage at a carnival. People are still out drinking or stumbling in at that hour. You can see senior citizens sitting at slot machines — were they still there from the previous night or getting an early start? And cleaning crews attempt to take care of some of the profuse of refuse from the previous day’s carousing.

One thing the ads won’t show you is that, among the revelry, you can feel an undercurrent of sadness in Las Vegas. The unemployment rate is a staggering 15%, evidence of what happens when a boom goes bust. While the hustlers crowd the more unfortunate panhandlers off the strip, you can find people begging, busking or sleeping on overpasses and in the city’s less glamorous areas. And if you gaze at people mesmerized by slot machines for hours, blank expressions make you wonder if the machines sucked their souls along with their cash.

I started this entry with Las Vegas favorite son Brandon Flowers, but will paraphrase the band Living Colour for my succinct summation of the city: It’s a place where everything is possible but nothing is real. Decadence walks beside despair, splendor sits aside sorrow. The city runs rife with contradictions, of soaring reveries and dashed dreams. The one truth is that, ultimately, the house wins, and it’s mainly the city promoters laughing all the way to bank.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “thursday travelogue: las vegas: everything is possible but nothing is real.

  1. ‘fa real’ Tim. I hated Vegas🙂

  2. I’ve never been to Las Vegas. Had a couple of opportunities when I lived in Seattle — some friends organizing girls’ weekends or other getaways — but it never seemed worth it. I’ve been to a casino exactly once, in Niagara Falls, and found it deeply depressing. I’d go with the right group of people (um, #simtech11?) but it’s definitely not on the top of my list of life to-dos.

  3. Beautifully described. I was glad to have experienced Vegas but it was never really about Vegas. In the end, the memories I’ve taken away are of these amazing friends from the far corners of the country and how we laugh and interact with each other. It’s about the moments, not the location. *insert “I love you, man!” reference here*

  4. Great post on what you find when you peel back the layers of Sin City, Tim. That city is truly the most alien place I have every traveled and I stop by several times a year to see a program donor. In fact, she sold Bally’s the Paris property where you stayed.

    Las Vegas is the place where nobody knows your name, nor do they want to.

  5. Tim Nekritz

    MIKE: Word. Give me Saskatchewan any day!

    LORI: You’re not missing anything. Imagine even the tackiest street of Niagara Falls, dump in a couple of thousands tourists, heaping helpings of seedy elements and smoke everywhere, and you’re maybe halfway to Vegas.

    ROBIN: I reckon we have people who could have just as much fun in a cornfield in Nebraska, and that’s what is really important. : )

    DEBRA: “Las Vegas is the place where nobody knows your name, nor do they want to.” = awesome description. I guess that’s why I prefer cities that seem more genuine and friendly.

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