Las Vegas Reflections is Emmie Strickland’s second piece for Cult of Americana
I spent 2016 living in a place beyond my wildest of dreams. I moved to Las Vegas hesitantly, sure that I would despise residing in the valley of flooding selfishness and greed. However, I soon encountered the unexpected undertow that Las Vegas has; an intriguing, Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole effect that steered me away from my preconceived ignorance about it. It’s the veiled true beauty of a city who constantly is painting herself with more and more outrageous makeup, and I got to see it. Then, I fell under its mysterious charm.
Most travelers who make their way to this carved out valley of pleasures of the flesh don’t make it past The Strip. Like a field of tranquilizing poppies, the throng of bright colors and lights, and the promises of a good time ensnare the majority Vegas’ guests, ensuring that they don’t see beyond the glittering hotel rooftops.
People who come clinging to the myth that luck is their loyal escort are dragged under the waves as they pick away the time with games, drink, and glitz.
Siren songs in many forms call out to men and women, leaving their eyes glazed over, unaware of the world outside the faux Venetian gondolas and plaster facades of Roman fortresses. The airport is conveniently located at one end of The Strip, so there’s no physical way to even glance at Vegas’ other identity—its lesser-known, raw truth.
Upon announcing that I was moving to Las Vegas, people excitedly replied that they’d have two reasons to visit the city now. They come telling themselves that they were visiting me, a more wholesome reason to be in Las Vegas than the actual reason for their visit: that they were coming out here to succumb to the glowing lights like most everyone else. My circle isn’t full of gambling addicts or intense partiers, but these passing Vegas jokes made to me reflected that the drifting scent of the city of poppies travels far to touch the nostrils of many.
My ignorance allowed me to think that Las Vegas was composed only of greed and debauchery. Like any metropolis, the city of excess has an outer border composed of sleepy suburbs. I lived in Summerlin, the far-western area of Vegas filled with golf courses, retired couples, and a few families. I found Summerlin to be like any other whitewashed enclave of Starbucks and trimmed hedges, but this sliver of the city was hardly a decent representation of Vegas’ real self. Summerlin was the exception to what suburban Las Vegas truly was. I discovered the striking divide between Vegas’ public image and its private reality when trying to find a quicker route from Summerlin to a downtown coffee shop, adjacent to The Strip.
On a back street, the rear concrete wall of a parking structure for one of the resort-casinos stood opposite a row of alarmingly squalid houses. Towering at ten or fifteen stories high, the massive garage cast a vast shadow upon crowded, dilapidated, one-story houses; rundown cars sat in some of the driveways.
Garbage skipped down the cracked pavement with the occasional breeze like tumbleweed. People sat on their small front porches, smoking cigarettes, squinting across at the beige wall fifty feet in front of their sandy yards, as if hoping to see through it.
The shadow was overpowering and the scale of the concrete structure compared to the small houses made it seem like some kind of alien spacecraft looming, ominously, over its prey, slowly edging ever closer to overtaking it. A banner advertising a casino’s world-famous buffet was posted on the concrete wall of the parking garage, facing these distressed-looking homes— their daily view out their front windows.
While I drove, my eyes darted between either side of the street and the contradiction gave me whiplash as I witnessed some of these real inhabitants of Las Vegas. I hadn’t known this was what Las Vegas was.
The unveiling of this garish contrast between the gluttony of The Strip and this new view of my city choked me.
Children were playing soccer in the street and above them, lurked the edge of what the world recognized as Las Vegas; a collection of pleasure-oozing, grandiose shrines honoring every human vice. I drove between more rows of cookie-cutter houses just to affirm that this clash of existences was real. I had heard that southern Nevada was plagued by homelessness and poverty, but seeing these badly worn homes eclipsed by the looming Emerald City of the southwest was much more of an indicator of the reality than any statistic.
This was still fresh in my mind when weeks later, my ballet company performed a series of outreach shows at a swath of suburban elementary schools. Many of these schools were recently rebuilt and adjacent to brand new, quaint townhouse complexes. One school boasted an AstroTurf soccer field backdropped by a pristine view of the mountains.
Surrounded by vacant lots and overtaken by weeds, the final school had to have been dormant for many years. Peeling paint, extensive water damage, and burned-out lights marked the front office where we were greeted by the principal. She recognized the politely restrained anxiety in our faces, and she explained the plight of the school and its students, a speech she seemed to have given before. She said any kind of funds were basically nonexistent.
She told us how the majority of her students received free school meals, how many of them were part of families that had slipped under the poverty line. She told us that a few students lived in their cars.
Living somewhere in the middle of a place home to two extremes like this made me uneasy. Las Vegas is one of the most paradoxical places I will probably ever live. Money, and the chance of exponentially more money at the spin of a wheel. World famous nightclubs and then somewhere past where the Strip ends, some of the worst schools in the west. It’s the make-or-break game everyone plays when they start out a life there.
And yet, despite being unable to avoid the city’s two faces, there’s this indefatigable, electric pull that Las Vegas has which spans its entirety.
It is this web underneath the concrete foundations of casinos that snatches you from the surface if you stay too long. It distorts the consumerist mecca and rows of beat-down houses into a captivating desert delusion. It tugged hard at my East Coast heart, which had evidently suffered that romantic depravity of the expansive vistas of the West for some time. I let the beating sun melt me down until the sand whipping in the warm wind felt good for a change. And the mountains surrounding the city were no longer keeping me in, but instead keeping me safe inside.
It took a year of living in it to realize that I needed this confusing smattering of gold and dirt. The dusty valley bit me and as soon as the stars all align, like every desperate vagabond I will return. It still doesn’t make sense to me, but I will respond to that desert siren’s song, echoing in-between the red mountains, telling me to come back and witness this strange city of paradox once again.