Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Learning to Love the New Las Vegas

Last year, a strange combination of events helped me learn to accept the New Las Vegas: the glittery, MTV-loving, over-populated, traffic jammed, over-priced, worse-than-hyperbole Las Vegas. The Vegas I had been working so hard at disliking ever since… well, ever since Steve Wynn planted a volcano in front of a casino.

It all started at last year’s Vegas Valley Book Festival. I dragged my husband downtown for a day of listening to authors, but what I really wanted to hear was the last panel of the day on “Old Vegas, New Vegas.” New Vegas clearly trumped Old Vegas during this discussion, and that’s when my inner Old Las Vegan reared her ugly, progress-hating head. My post about the panel made me sound like I was ready to strap myself to the next casino slated for implosion—which, actually, wasn’t too far off how I felt that day.

Re-reading that blog post was the first step toward accepting the New Las Vegas, and two books finished off the job. Both are firmly rooted in the Old or New Vegas that they describe, and in reading both books, I had to admit that the transformation of Las Vegas was both predictable and necessary. Maybe not likeable, but unavoidable. This is a city with no logical reason to exist, so we have to re-invent ourselves every decade or so.

The late Susan Berman, author of Easy Street, the True Story of a Gangster’s Daughter and Lady Las Vegas, was an expert on Old Vegas. (Local journalist and author Cathy Scott wrote about Berman’s murder in Murder of a Mafia Princess.) I stumbled across Lady Las Vegas at the library, and while I enjoyed the nostalgia Berman’s words evoked, I had to admit that none of Old Vegas’ “founders,” if you will, would have hesitated to re-create the city’s image if it resulted in more profit. My own dad wasn’t a mobster, but rather a “known associate” of gangsters and a former bookie out of LA, and he was all about the Benjamins.

My journey inside the New Vegas began with a book review in the New York Times. Last year two books set in Vegas hit the charts: Charles Brock’s Beautiful Children and Joe McGinnis Jr.’s The Delivery Man . The NYT’s review of McGinnis’ book made me groan out loud because one of the main characters is a prostitute. I pondered this aspect of his book in a blog post: "Can anyone write about Las Vegas without a prostitute as a main character? I mean, realistically speaking, with 2 million people living here, just how many call girls can we possibly have?" To my astonishment, Mr. McGinnis sent me a thought-provoking e-mail. This is my story of Las Vegas; give it a chance, he said, and so I went out and bought the book. A better chronicle of New Vegas I have not yet found. McGinnis’ characters sound like so many people I’ve known, and his jaded teenaged prostitutes might have shimmied out of our phone book’s voluminous escort section; totally, scarily believable. Reading McGinnis’ fictional characters, it was easy to draw a straight line from my own loosely-supervised and decadent Las Vegas youth to the characters he described.

That was when I had to admit it: the Old Vegas was dead, except in the memories of the few of us who remember her. I’m not all that crazy about the New Vegas, but I’m doing my best. Now I wonder what the New New Las Vegas will be like—a waterless ghost town? A haven for some as-yet-undiscovered vice? A pioneer in building mass transportation to pull in gamblers? Who knows how our neon-encrusted city will adjust to the future, but one thing is for sure. It will be interesting.
Photo courtesy of Justin Taylor at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/737069

Looking for Las Vegas Info?

Newcomers to Las Vegas tend to complain about a lack of non-gambling things to do. If you’re waiting for friendly advice from your neighbors on day trip destinations, or for an invite from co-workers to a barbeque, well… I hate to break the news to you, but chances are you won’t have much luck.

The best way to uncover things to do around here is to pick up a paper. Of course, you can always check here at the Vegas Girl Blog, but for a truly comprehensive listing of everything that might be happening in the valley, you might want to bookmark a couple of mass-media web pages like the Review Journal’s Neon, CityLife, and Las Vegas Weekly.

A couple of new entries into this category are BLVDS Magazine and the Home News, which publishes neighborhood-specific papers for communities throughout Southern Nevada. Visit the Las Vegas Sun’s page and scroll down to find a neighborhood.
Photo courtesy of Svilen Mushkatov at bigphoto1.blogspot.com

Atomic Las Vegas

If you remember duck and cover, mushroom clouds, and bomb shelters, you’ll definitely want to visit the Atomic Testing Museum at 755 E. Flamingo. Even though I was born about the same time above-ground testing was banned in 1963, the artifacts on display took me back to a time when the threat of nuclear war loomed large; when I was a kid growing up in Las Vegas, the underground tests still shook our breakfast table periodically. For those whippersnappers who think the Cold War was a battle fought in the Arctic, the Atomic Testing Museum will fill in the holes in their education.

Arranged in chronological order from the beginning of the atomic age during the last years of World War II to today, the museum offers a rich variety of displays that include hands-on exhibits and video. To get a taste of what witnessing an above-ground atomic test was like, visit the Ground Zero theater for a shaking, ear-shattering re-creation. “I think my hearing is damaged,” my son said after we viewed the film. I told him that watching an actual test would have been far louder and scarier. (This led us to a discussion of the Pepcon explosion, which I remember well.)

My favorite display was the information on the Jackass and Western Railroad, a short railway used at the Test Site to transport nuclear powered rockets. A couple of years ago, I wrote some material for the folks at the Boulder City Railroad Museum, where the historic locomotive from that railroad now lives. Being the museum geek that I am, I was dancing with excitement when I discovered this connection.
Photo Information: My picture of the exterior of the Atomic Testing Museum. Photography is not allowed inside the museum.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Henderson & High Octane

My husband was in heaven at Henderson’s Super Run Car Show last weekend. “Ah, the smell of racing fuel,” he said when a hot rod cruised by. As you might have guessed, he loves all things with internal combustion. I think the car show is wonderful fun—the crowd is friendly, the cars range from classic to newfangled, and the street-party atmosphere is reminiscent of the old Mint 400’s Tech Inspection. I had a good laugh watching Henderson’s Finest, along with a couple of Fire Department boys, checking out the car with the stripper (sorry, no photo available). Yessiree, everyone was very safe watching that girl demonstrate the proper use of a mobile stripper pole.

Check out the Las Vegas Cruisin’ Association’s website for a list of upcoming car shows in Las Vegas: http://www.lasvegascarshows.com/
Photo Information: My hubby's pics of some classics on Saturday night.

La Strada dell'Arte and the Las Vegas Festival Season

As soon as the weather even thinks about cooling off, the Las Vegas festival season begins. One of my favorite festivals, La Strada dell’Arte, was held September 27 and 28. This festival features art done with chalk on the sidewalks, and what these artists do is simply incredible—as you can see by these pictures. This year the juried offerings seemed scarcer than in prior years, but the amateur/impromptu artists looked pretty organized. A smart bunch of folks brought umbrellas, and it looked like groups of people staked out positions along the only shaded portion of sidewalk in the park. Admission was free; a bag of chalk and kneepad along with one chalk art square cost $5 (but were truly priceless). In addition to looking at the sidewalk art and the extensive arts and crafts show, we watched a demonstration of ice sculpting, which looked like whittling ice with a chain saw. Incredible. When the Cordon Bleu chef was done with his sculpture, the human statues took their positions. I felt bad for them because it was humid and about 90°. I couldn’t imagine standing in the full sun with all those layers of clothing draped over me… which explains, of course, why I’m a writer and not a living statue.

Next weekend, the grand-daddy of all Las Vegas art festivals hits Boulder City: the venerable Art in the Park. Held in three beautiful downtown Boulder City parks, all of which come complete with mature trees and cool shade, you can spend most of your day there. Admission is free. I recommend parking in the outlying lots and taking the shuttle, which is just a few dollars; follow the signs once you arrive at the outskirts of town.

Keep your eyes peeled for these types of events throughout the fall--pick up a copy of City Life, Las Vegas Weekly, or check the Neon Insert in the Friday edition of the RJ/Sun.

You can read the Las Vegas Sun’s article on La Strada dell’Arte at:
Photo Information, top to botton, of my pictures on Sunday at the Sidewalk Chalk Art Festival: Both professionals and amateurs showed off their talents with chalk and cement; the finished ice sculpture; human statues.

A Las Vegas Favorite: Gilcrease Orchards

Last Friday, the MAfO (Meeks Academy for One) visited Gilcrease Orchards, a local favorite I had not visited before. Like so many beloved, moldy-oldy Vegas locations, Gilcrease was once on the outskirts of Las Vegas, but now sits surrounded by tract homes.

For a small admission fee, you can pick your own fruits and veggies. Customers drive around the perimeter of the farm, parking next to their fruit or veggie of choice. The vegetable gardens are situated on the east end of the farm, and orchards are planted to the west. This time of year is squash season, which put me at a disadvantage because I don’t know beans about squash. (Pun intended.) My son and I took home an unripe squash (don’t ask me what kind), a bell pepper, an eggplant, and a zucchini. Although we struck out on picking any fruit from the trees, we still bought a gallon of yummy apple cider made at Gilcrease. Call or check Gilcrease’s website to find out what’s in season. Next up, of course, will be pumpkins!
Photo Information: My pictures last week at the farm. Does it look hot? 'Cause it was hot.