There are two ironies about the city of Las Vegas’ Downtown Beautification Office, which sends people with parking tickets, DUIs and domestic-violence offenses on to the streets of downtown Las Vegas to clean them up, in lieu of fines or jail time. The first is apparent right away, when you approach the office—converted from a nondescript house set down behind an asphalt parking lot. It’s not a place that inspires much confidence in the beautifying ambitions of the city.
But the Downtown Beautification crew leader on duty, Mike DeLessio, does. He usually takes the first 20 people who line up for the first of several shifts. This morning he’s got three people waiting by 6:15. By 7 he’ll have more than enough to fill his crew. He collects their cell phones, which he locks up for the shift. Everyone is given an orange jersey. The DUI offenders have to wear jerseys with the letters “DUI” printed on them—sort of like a scarlet letter.
DeLessio splits the workers into crews of two each, gives each a map detailing their route and opens up the shed in front of the house. The cleaners grab dollies, bungee cords, garbage cans, trash bags, brooms and dustbins, and head out at 7:30 for their three-hour shifts. They’ll cover a large square east-west between Maryland and Main and north-south from Bonanza to Clark.
The rules are clear: You will clean sidewalks and gutter lines. You will top off overflowing trash cans. You will remove paper, bottles and glasses from planters. Workers who finish early will turn around and start their routes again. Workers can’t enter stores or casinos, unless it’s to use the bathroom. No cell phones. No eating. DeLessio, product of Brooklyn and Long Island, is hearty in that particularly New York way, but even he doesn’t like being played.
Like the worker who confessed to carrying his cell phone with him on a shift, or the one who walked past DeLessio in a casino, having just played the slots. DeLessio can’t send anyone to jail, but he can bounce them from the crew. Last year 92 people got sent home. So far this year he’s dismissed 10.
DeLessio spends part of the shift driving through Downtown, checking on his crews—giving them a brief beep to let them know he’s there. The workers are mostly Latino and black, and mostly men.
The program’s been around for more than 20 years. The office used to be in the basement garage of City Hall—DeLessio’s office was his truck. It would probably still be there, but the basement was where undercover cops would head to work, and they didn’t want offenders to be able to recognize them in plainclothes.
DeLessio moved to Vegas from New York in 1984 and took a job with the city repairing concrete and laying asphalt. A few years later he was transferred to the Beautification Office, where he expected to be around for only a month. That was 20 years ago. Last year 1,374 people came through there. Generally, an hour of work equals $7; some sentences may earn double time, or $14 an hour. Sixty percent will be back. “We got career workers,” he notes.
But not Cynthia Perez, who pulled a left out of the middle lane, got stopped by a cop, got ticketed and then got nailed for driving without a license. Her fine amounted to almost $1,800. When it “comes to paying bills or paying fines, you pay fines first.” But with a fine like that, you go to work for DeLessio. She is working off the last six hours of a 360-hour community-service sentence that has taken her eight months to complete.
As Perez and another worker make their way up and down the streets between Ogden and Stewart, grabbing papers and cigarette butts, bottles and cans, I realize the second irony of the office’s work: The crews are working hard to keep Downtown clean for tourists … so that tourists will come down and trash the streets.
Perez takes it all in stride; the only thing she doesn’t like are the mandatory DUI tags. “It’s made to embarrass somebody,” says Perez, “a little extra source of punishment.”
I finish up chatting with two reluctant cleaners—both asked not to be identified—who are working their way through the Stewart Street parking garage opposite City Hall. One is in for domestic violence (48 hours), the other for allegedly being drunk behind the wheel during an auto crash—though he insists he wasn’t drunk and wasn’t actually driving. He has more than 500 hours to complete, and is lining up three or four days a week to get through them as fast as possible. “Never again will I allow myself to be arrested,” he says. “You live and learn. Life comes at you fast.”