Old and New in Las Vegas

I took the long way there, driving first down into the Strip and its madness. It was 11pm on Sunday night and I wasn’t expecting a calm scene but not quite this. People milled about everywhere, tourists clamored as if it were the night before, cabs honked, music blared, lights flashed. Vegas.

I managed to work my way past the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, the Wynn, some new buildings that weren’t here when I was last in town three years ago. The Sahara, the Riviera, others on the north end that few weekend visitors manage to reach.

Two blocks later, I found a more typical Sunday night. Not a person was around, no music blared, the only lights were streetlights. I was the only car at the intersection; I uncomfortably waited for the light to change. Silence in Vegas is unnerving.

I spent a bit of time on the Strip later that night, visiting a good friend from Omaha and her husband and neighbors. We met at the Aria, a major central Strip development that fell victim to the recession. Its towers remain largely unoccupied today although much of the central casino is in full swing. Soon I was on my way back, stopping to take in the bright neon and spectacle of the scene along the Strip. People milled about, some trying very hard to prove how fancy they were, others waiting to get done with work and go home for the night, others more like me just trying to take in the scene.

Fremont Street used to be Vegas before the Strip elbowed it out of the spotlight. Here’s where movies used to be filmed (some still are) and the stars used to stay and gamble and go out. I happened on it accidentally, finding a very good rate for a room in the well-regarded Golden Nugget. I walked through the slightly musty and glittering lobby and to my elevator, taking me to a pleasant 8th floor and a clean, comfortable, spacious room at the far end of the hallway.

After spending the following day driving around Las Vegas, working in chain coffeeshops (there isn’t much of an indie coffee scene here), I met a friend for a very good tapas meal and then we wandered around Fremont. A massive curved archway above, the length of a whole block, was lit up in millions of LED lights and played Don McLean’s American Pie across the entire screen. Tourists stared up at it, cameras and cell phones documenting the sight.

Some fantastic neon signs lined Fremont Street and the other blocks in the area. A classic Las Vegas sign, a spinning stiletto heel lined in red neon.

We walked over to a nearly-empty bar and managed to enter a conversation with a local artist and his friend, ending up chatting with them for hours, tasting new concoctions by the bartender, closing down the place. This was a different Vegas, one I didn’t know existed. These were real people, substantial personalities, a genuine bar scene. These places weren’t trendy, attention-craving fantastical journeys; they were just nice spaces, simply a functional and comfortable backdrop for the people within them.

The scene outside was conflicted between these two worlds – one authentic, the other authentic in its faded attempt at glory. Fremont Street used to be the place to be, now these casinos had become a has-been accepting its place in the new hierarchy.

Next door, this new Vegas was emerging. Despite the empty condos and half-finished casinos on the Strip, here some semblance of culture was taking root. One of our new friends at the bar walked out with us and wandered the neighborhood, excitedly pointing to a store down the street nearing completion – it was a new locally owned independent coffeeshop.

View pictures from Las Vegas here.

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