Memory in the City of Desire
For the anniversary of the tragedy we said we’d never forget, Chuck Twardy tours local memorial parks to examine the state of our public memory
Thu, Sep 11, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Scott Den Herder
It is a typically blistering summer morning in Las Vegas, and while most residents and visitors glower at electronic monitors of one sort or another, thousands of others guide their sealed, cooled vehicles along the highways and streets.
I am in mine, on Russell Road, pre-airport curve Russell Road, about to turn into my wretched little 1980s subdivision. Ahead, in the center turn lane, I spot a scrap of fabric and immediately recognize the alternating red and white stripes. So I pull over and wait for a break in traffic to rescue the small American flag, still partly attached to its white plastic mast, newly detached from its patriot vehicle.
It was one of the thousands that sprouted from vehicles after September 11, 2001, then faded in the sun, tattered in the wind and fell off, already forgotten by those who pledged so earnestly never to do so.
What happened to all those little flags? In the months after the terrorist attacks, it seemed every fourth or fifth car had at least one flapping wildly, at once a defiant assertion of national solidarity and a tribute to that awful day. No doubt they littered city streets around the nation, but their cycle of bloom and decay was particularly poignant in Las Vegas, the city that has made a mission of forgetting. The late Hal Rothman—remember him? The once-ubiquitous commentator on all things Las Vegan?—called it “a city that implodes its past.”
It certainly is a city that invests little in remembering. Sure, tales abound about the glorious mobster heyday, when everybody got comped to everything and they paid you $5.95 to eat prime rib. Clark County has a history museum, and you can even watch a video about Las Vegas history on the Las Vegas Sun website. But where are the great public monuments, the memorials to civic sacrifice, the sites of shared experience you find in almost any other city?
Zip ahead six years, to another convection-oven morning. An equally curious friend and I, in another sealed and cooled vehicle, tour city parks to probe that question. Parks are natural repositories for memorials in most cities, but in Las Vegas, they are just about the only places devoted to remembering. Man-made monuments, as in stones and plaques and the like, are found there, but in several cases, the memorials grow.
Take Children’s Memorial Park, on West Gowan Road, between Torrey Pines and Rainbow. Built in 1993 at the urging of then-Councilman Scott Higginson, it remembers children who have died. It takes us a while, though, to figure out what, exactly, is the memorial. We stroll the broiling grounds—utterly devoid, of course, of children or anyone else—until we find the answer: trees. At a partly shaded display, sun-faded sheets of paper are tacked to a sheet of plywood under a pane of well-scratched Plexiglas. One is a diagram of the trees planted around the ball field in front of us. Some trees honor individual children, others more than one.
If you want to remember a child who has died, you can make a donation and have an ash tree planted in the park, a city spokeswoman later explains by e-mail. She quotes Higginson’s “hope that the beauty of the park would bring peace and would inspire families and the community to remember the laughter and joy of the children who play there and the echoing voices of those who do not.”
The city takes special care of these trees and has replaced several that have died or been destroyed by “excessive wind,” says the spokeswoman. The memorialized children are named at the kiosk, but the city does not keep track of their families: “We have not had anyone call and say they have moved.”
The children remembered here died from various causes, so in a sense the park is about a general grief at unexpected loss. But whose grief? Certainly to lose a child is a cruel blow, but must “the community” remember those “echoing voices”? Is a public park the place for private remembrance? When you take your children to Children’s Memorial Park, do you sense a host of leafy specters?
In 2006, the nonprofit group Nevada Child Seekers, the Nevada Broadcasters Association, Metro Police and the city joined to remember slain children specifically at Children’s Memorial Park. Two trees, two benches and a plaque set these children apart. Their deaths, like all crimes, have a public side, and maybe it serves us all to remember such evil, and to resolve to minimize it to the extent we can.
Although these benches and trees honor all such victims, and join a series of similar memorials planned throughout Nevada, one horrific event spurred this memorial-in-a-memorial—the murder of 3-year-old Crystal Figueroa, whose body was found in a trash bin in January 2006.
Marc Anthony Colon, 30, and Gladys Perez, 26, Crystal’s parents, have been charged with her murder. Colon faces the death penalty for bludgeoning the child to death on a visit to Las Vegas.
Memory and desire. It is a timeless theme of literature, all about time. About how we surf the tide of past and future, now peering ahead eagerly, now gazing back wistfully. Thus T.S. Eliot elegizes April in “The Wasteland”: “… mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” Or consider the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Nobody comes to Las Vegas to do that.
Back in 2000, when the MGM Grand decided it needed some branding, it labeled itself “City of Entertainment,” and slapped “City of Desire” on its Studio 54 nightclub. Remember driving down Tropicana, that billboard with the dancing girl? No, because that’s gone the way of all branding, but “City of Desire” used to read like a label on the skyline beyond it. It still fits. The city is essentially about desire. Those who run it get what they desire by gratifying others’ desires just often enough. It is a process all about the future, about what comes next, not about what happened when.
The city of desire is the headlong rush into the future.
In what might be the most celebrated book about the city, 1972’s Learning From Las Vegas, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour found a Strip made for driving, archetype of every American suburban strip, dotted with “decorated sheds” and billboards. The city was about signs and signifiers—about branding, although that word had yet to enter common use. And it was about the car.
Now almost two years removed from the city, this ex-Las Vegan remembers mostly driving, navigating the NASCAR lanes of U.S. 95 and Interstate 15. In those moments I got to know my fellow Las Vegans. For the car is the American billboard of the self. Look at me: I pee on Fords. Or Chevys. My kid’s an honor student. Dubya Forever, dude. Nothing new here, but I began to notice in the mix of flags and decals a growing number of press-on memorials: a name, a date, maybe a cross or flowers. Drive-by memory.
The New York Times took note of the trend in 2005, tracing it, not surprisingly, to Southern California. You can go to a mall kiosk, or a website, and design a memorial to paste on your car. “In Southern California, where so much of life is conducted in cars, many people say it makes sense for death to be reflected there too,” the Times noted.
These rear-window memorials are close in spirit to paid memorials on the obituary page. By broadcasting your enduring grief, you keep the name alive in the eyes of strangers—at least those who care to look. The newspaper page (or computer screen) relays memory one-to-one. The trees in Children’s Memorial Park foist private memory into public view, and the rear-window decal heaves it down the highway, in a literal sense saving but figuratively fleeing the past. Portable grief amounts to another way to brand yourself. I want you to know I lost someone, and I want this fact noticed everywhere I go. And so memory has become another form of desire.
Memorials used to be about community. We erected a statue of a fallen leader or a plinth with the names of the town’s war dead, and gathered each year at the spot to hear speeches about our common experience. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed all that. Although architect Maya Lin recalled the roster of the dead, specifically from Sir Edwin Lutyens’ “Monument to the Missing of the Battle of the Somme” at Thiepval, France, she created a monument without national or civic reference.
For Vietnam represented the great unraveling of whatever consensus held this nation together. And its memorial was not about the war but for its veterans. Private therapy supplanted public commemoration. Subsequent memorials, from the Oklahoma City National Memorial to the one planned for Ground Zero in New York City, have been about appeasing various interest groups, but they wield Lin’s tools clumsily.
In Las Vegas, Firefighters Memorial Park on West Oakey Avenue marks the closest approach to a traditional public memorial. Within a ring of eight stone-mounted tablets, a firefighter’s helmet crests an ax, both atop a plinth shaped like a hose nozzle. A rail resembling a fire hose connects the eight stones. Firefighter and artist John Banks designed the nearly 10-foot-tall monument, which was dedicated in September 2002, as the nation marked the one-year anniversary of 9/11.
The ax and helmet recall the soldier’s impromptu memorial—rifle and helmet—a nice touch. But the nozzle and the surrounding hose carry the theme too far, and the nozzle’s huge scale overwhelms the axe and helmet.
No one is there when we visit, either, but it’s clear someone has been. On the plaque for names of fallen firefighters, someone has used press-on letters to add a name unofficially. Several of the yellow letters have peeled away.
The city dedicated Police Memorial Park, off West Cheyenne Avenue, behind the Metro Training Academy and Northwest Area Command, in October 2001, barely a month after 9/11. Here, again, trees constitute the memorial. Each slain officer is remembered with a tree, and a plaque on a boulder. An officers’ spouses group pays for each new tree and boulder, says the city spokeswoman. The small grove of saplings stretches away from another Plexiglas-covered kiosk. Steps lead down to a short plaza in front of a low wall of bricks, on which other officers’ names are engraved. Here, family or friends may honor any Nevada officer who has died.
On the other side of the kiosk, however, starts an adjacent memorial grove, dedicated to people who have died of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is odd to find the two memorial groves together, each somewhat getting in the way of the other. Was there really no other space, in any other park?
We walk along a path through the park, drawn by a concrete semicircle near the end. We find a bench and matching trash can, and—not facing the bench but at 10 o’clock—a plaque on a concrete marker. Here, the Las Vegas 10-13 Club, a group of former police officers from New York City, honored their comrades who died on 9/11, a year to the day later. A legend inside a shield says that two trees in the park have been dedicated to those fallen officers. Just below, a flat cross formed out of a beam from the World Trade Center is fitted into the concrete, as is a smaller plaque, adorned by a cross and a Star of David.
Pieces of the Trade Center have become the relics of our time, like fragments of the True Cross in the Middle Ages. But here, instead of a gold reliquary in a church, the relic resides on a block of concrete at the end of a path in a park in Las Vegas.
Who goes there? In the cool of morning, maybe, or a less punishing autumn afternoon? Perhaps it offers solace to some of those ex-New Yorkers who knew comrades lost at Ground Zero. They can sit on the bench and gaze over the Valley they’ve made home, glance now and then at the plaque and cross. What common purpose does this serve? Similarly, a tree and rock might soothe a widow, or a fatherless child, but what does it mean to the rest of us?
All memorials are for the living, really, not the dead. They should be for all of the living, not just the survivors. The Firefighters Memorial has its flaws, but at least it anchors a place to gather and reflect on what all of us have lost when a firefighter dies in our service. And it reminds us that, in the absence of shared religious belief, public art offers a means by which we might stitch together common grief and values.
In a 2005 book, The Future Without a Past: The Humanities in a Technological Society, scholar John Paul Russo argues that we are discarding our heritage, thanks both to the digital age and to social goals that dismiss Western humanism. “The past is disappearing without a struggle,” Russo writes. “So apparent are the signs of the great forgetting that one risks belaboring the obvious.” Among them he numbers a decline in humanities degrees, a general scorn for memorization, the championing of the visual over the verbal. And he sees Las Vegas as the epitome of this: “The great forgetting sums itself up in Las Vegas …”
Noting that upper- and even middle-class students used to tour Europe, with Rome as the goal, Russo calls Las Vegas the home of the “Virtual Grand Tour.” Like the society around it, the city “hardly looks backward or pays homage to a cultural past.” And he flogs Venturi et al. for comparing Las Vegas with Rome. Sure, the Forum was filled with cultural signifiers, he writes. “But the symbols of the Romans had depth and density, as they were founded in religion, legend and ethos, whereas the accumulation of signs and symbols in Las Vegas is a flight of mere fancy, corporate logos, ads—thin, synthetic, replaceable.”
So much typical Vegas-bashing, you might say. Las Vegans have rolled with hundreds of tougher punches. But Russo has a point. If, as we so often hear, Las Vegas is the United States in concentrate, or its de facto capital, that is because it delivers, efficiently, what the rest of the country wants: a culture of desire without memory. Its halting efforts at making memorials reflect this.
In an essay compiled in his last book, Playing the Odds, Hal Rothman remembered Memorial Days past: “… [O]ne thing we don’t do as well as we used to is transmit the meaning of our society and the price it takes to keep all the prerogatives we take for granted.” He had a point, too.
Finding a common memory to enshrine, and doing so with grace, might help make the city of desire a city to remember.
A former art critic and columnist for Las Vegas Weekly, Chuck Twardy lives in North Carolina but visits regularly.