Monday, April 19, 2010

The Great Neon Distraction

May 24, 2008

When you live in Las Vegas you don’t live in the same city that attracts millions of visitors each year. There is an entire city outside that one shiny little section of road called “The Strip” and, as cities go, it is a bit of a disappointment. For millions of visitors Las Vegas is a chance to get away from real life, real responsibilities, and (for the many who are conflicted over their personal philosophy of proper behavior) real-world morality. Many a tourist has had to learn the hard way that some things do NOT stay in Vegas. It’s a fantasy, a dreamworld, that can easily come crumbling down for drunken tourists who throw away their savings in the casinos and strip clubs, get arrested, get their ass kicked, or catch a nasty STD (herpes does not stay in Vegas). Still, it’s a good time, if you want to party hard and have money to burn (and this is essential- Vegas is expensive as hell now, for anyone who hasn’t been here in the last decade). I enjoyed myself immensely when I first moved to Las Vegas three years ago. I spent many a day in work, hung over, on three hours of sleep, trying to stumble my way through meetings. It is a place that is created for, and thrives on the concept of the one week visit. Living here is another thing entirely, if you were ever looking for any substance. The problem isn’t necessarily the locals- there are some honest and true cultural efforts going on beneath the surface here. Art festivals, beer festivals, and a university—but the Strip acts like a cancer, sapping most of the positive energy from the outer edges of the city. Countless efforts at pure, grassroots, non-corporate fun are subsumed by the great neon distraction in the middle of the city. The simple reality is, Las Vegas is not for the people who live here. The powers that be will always be more receptive to the enormous volume of cash dumped into the casinos by rich idiots, than to the measly income taxes paid by the actual residents of the city. And like any other cancer, the Tourist Vegas has managed to suck the life out of some of the most enjoyable parts of any city, most disappointingly, the major university that sits a few blocks from the Strip, UNLV.
I love college towns. I love unrestrained fun, created for its own end. I love the excess, the youth, the energy, the corruption of innocence, the cheap beer, the house parties, the rich democracy of ideas, the bold openness, and the diversity of the people. While no college town fulfills these ideals perfectly, I love these communities for what they are: an attempt at a better way of living. When I moved to Las Vegas I was looking forward to the casinos and mega-clubs and dumb girls, but I was really excited to live near a bustling college area. I assumed that I’d be spending a lot of time near UNLV, walking around with friends, going to parties, college bars, and meeting interesting people. One drive through the “college area” was enough to burst that bubble.

The college area of town is a miserable stretch of road, about three blocks long. There are a couple bars, the dorms and campus are right across the street, and there are smokeshops, hookah bars, and bookstores: staples of a college community. But the crowds are missing. We’ve tried going down there on weekends, Thursdays, during the school year, during the summer—we’ve explored during every conceivable time that a party might be going on. Hell, we even went to a UNLV basketball team (and their basketball team is a big deal) and the scene is just not there. Never the wild carefree crowds of people in the street, stumbling around drunk, enjoying themselves, with that palpable visceral atmosphere that so many other college areas have. What happened?
One of the main contributing factors would have to be the fact that so many students are really just residents of the city. They live with their families and attend classes at UNLV. A nice girl I used to date out here did just that. She got her degree, but without ever being absorbed into the campus life. It was through her that I learned that many of the attendees of UNLV don’t actually live on campus. BOOOORING! There is a whole other kind of learning that comes from leaving home and actually going to college. Kids, don’t miss out on it!
And then there’s the idea that I touched on earlier, that the Strip sucks the crowd right off the campus. To test this theory I did what any intrepid investigative journalist would do, and decided to go out drinking and find a college student to interview. After a number of beers at a new pub I ran into a friend of a friend who I learned was a pre-dental student at UNLV. When I asked him where the college scene was, I quickly realized he had no idea what I was talking about. He recommended a few bars near the campus (the same two I’d already visited), but I quickly realized he had no frame of reference. He didn’t really know how much better things could be. He told me about a few new bars that are at the south end of the strip, no where near the college, and advised me to go there to meet “the college chicks.” But there’s my point again: new bars, nowhere near the college. Las Vegas had managed to suck them away into a bar that is, by normal standards, pretty decent, but its expensive as hell and trendy and shit. Way to go, Vegas.
Of course, I could just be confusing cause and effect here. It’s entirely possible that the mediocre college atmosphere exists because the student body simply never created it. After all, if Las Vegas is a magnet for visitors who are looking to play the part of materialistic, name-dropping, fame-whoring, shallow dullards, why should I assume the typical students attracted to the school would be any different?

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