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As We See It

[Neon Eden]

Is it time to start embracing the decay of Las Vegas?

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Decay becomes us: A new local book looks at decomposition dead on.
Jae C. Hong, AP

Las Vegas has never been much for introspection. We were like the guy at the party with the high-grade Bolivian marching powder, our own bottle of fine single malt Scotch and a bevy of women leaning in to hear our witticisms.

Of course, it was all borrowed money and we were wanted by authorities in three states, but as long as the music played, we kept moving.

So just a few years ago, the idea of a collection of essays based on the notion of decay in Las Vegas might have seemed unimaginable, preposterous even. All was new and lustrous. We were too caught up in our own dazzling mythology to see the corrosive power of dusty wind, a glowering sun and our own self-delusions.

Now, though, the release of the book Fade Sag Crumble: Ten Las Vegas Writers Confront Decay is fitting and timely as the city enters its fifth year of recession with the prospect of several more to come.

The 10 writers take on decay of the spirit, the body and the body politic. Many of the essays are personal while subtly pointing to our common predicament.

It’s worth buying, first because it’s a great read, filled with fun and funny stories that will have you forgetting you’re reading about decay.

Some favorite passages:

Jarret Keene describes his middle-aged punk rock dreams, which are designed to distract him from his job as a corporate hack: “I wear $1,000 Hugo Boss suits and $200 Italian shoes. I have my hair styled at a spa. I am rotting inside and out.”

Steve Sebelius writes an angry philippic on our civic and political culture: “It’s a city based on illusion, deception, and deceit, a city of underwater homes, leased cars, plugged hair, capped teeth, and fake tits ...”

Stacy J. Willis writes hilariously of a midlife crisis that leads to an ill-advised trip to a plastic surgeon, who calmly tells her what’s wrong with her face. All the while, “He keeps glancing down at my tiny breasts like Banksy eyeballing the side of a clean white building.” (Banksy is the world’s most famous “street artist.”)

The collection should also serve, though, as a catalyst for a broader conversation about decay and the city’s future.

As I watched boom turn to bust the past few years, I figured—naively, in retrospect—that with the reckoning we would have a citywide dialogue on what went wrong and where to go from here.

To be fair: Many have been doing triage just to save their businesses or our governments from further collapse.

And clearly we can point to some examples of the dialogue happening, among Gov. Brian Sandoval’s staff, the Clark County School District and Brookings-Mountain West at UNLV.

Still, for more than two years, my colleagues and I have asked, “Who’s talking? What’s being said?” We keep asking because, as far as I can tell, we’ve settled into a strange complacency wherein it’s okay to be sliding into Detroitsville.

As UNLV professor Stephen Bates writes in his essay “Death in Vegas”: “In fact, people in Las Vegas don’t raise a fuss over much of anything—trigger-happy cops, venal public officials, supine medical regulators ...”

We should start making a fuss because what we have is all we’ve got. Aside from some promising developments Downtown, especially the opening of the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, there’s no money for public projects and there will be no new building in Las Vegas for many years.

It’s not all bad, though. We can embrace “the increased appeal of decomposition,” as the Neon Boneyard’s Danielle Kelly calls it. It’s a fancy phrase for owning our history, rather than blowing it up, as Andrew Kiraly writes, “in the dubious name of progress.”

And the building stagnation doesn’t mean there can’t be another Las Vegas reinvention. It would be different this time, though: A reinvention of the spirit instead of a makeover of the Strip or our image. Rather than slapping on yet another new mask—Mirage, theme resort, Palms, luxury resort, etc.—we would have to honestly assess our history and ourselves.

It’s a terrifying prospect, but I see few other options.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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