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A less-than-limited Las Vegas engagement

Socialization, alienation and art—the musings of a Las Vegas transplant

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Not in Baltimore anymore: Transplant Molly O’Donnell’s Las Vegas experiences have been a mixed bag.
Photo: Bill Hughes
Molly O'Donnell

I moved to Las Vegas to go back to school. At least that was the text. The subtext was a change of scenery and a general giving up on my old life. It wasn’t a bad life, but it felt aimless much of the time, and scattered the rest. I was everything I thought I wanted to be and nothing at the same time: a freelance writer, an academic editor, a part-time college teacher, an aging roller girl and a socialite.

Toward the end of my time in Baltimore, the socialite seemed to be dominating every other role. It’s not that I think it’s bad to have friends, or vices, it’s just that I sensed there must be some work out there for me to do. Going back to school for my Ph.D. seemed the logical step to rescuing my idea of who I was.

I envisioned this person as an earlier version of me, who prized reading and writing above all things and barely ever wore makeup. I had friends but comfortably spent time alone. The socialite I’d become wondered if sleep counted as alone time.

If I point out the irony of moving to Sin City to escape my vices, you’ll think I have a firm grasp of the obvious. Last summer, in Baltimore, I stood onstage at the Stoop (a storytelling series), smiling dumbly into the blinding spotlight. The emcee joked that since I was on my way to Vegas for a Ph.D., I must hope that not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. I knew then that Las Vegas must either have a giant chip on its shoulder or else a tremendous personality to endure the stereotype.

Author Molly O'Donnell

Author Molly O'Donnell

Full disclosure: I moved here having visited family in Henderson many times. I had seen the pink, identical houses of the suburbs stretched out in the sun like sedated flamingos. So I wasn’t one of those who’s stunned by the fact that people actually live here. Strangely, I think I’m more offended by this idea than people who are actually from here, many of whom seem to embrace the stereotype of Sin City with pride.

My ruffled feathers aside, I am still taken in by things like the Luxor pyramid. My eye is naturally drawn to the crystalline night sky, the heavy moon competing for attention with the Strip. I’m always looking up here, staring at a sunset that looks like an epic Turner seascape. Inevitably, I focus on that beam of light shooting heavenward, which can be seen from anywhere in the Valley. Every time I think how pretty that light from Luxor is, I feel slightly dull for being taken in by the empty, plastic sheen of it all.

Las Vegas is, on an obvious level, about this fakery. Sure, there’s the Strip and all the world-class, $200-a-ticket entertainment and even art there. But when the art is something like the Bellagio’s recent 12 + 7 exhibition about CityCenter’s opening, it’s hard not to see these types of attempts at culture as elaborate marketing ploys. Perhaps this is somewhat unfair. I do remember seeing an exhibit of French landscape paintings in the same space a few years back. Despite the small size of the gallery, it seemed a remarkable improvement on the hodgepodge initially compiled by Steve Wynn, which seemed based solely on monetary value with little thought given to the paintings’ relevance to one another.

Notwithstanding obvious artifice, there have to be perks to the assumption that the city is solely about glitz, right? It’s easy to seem edgy in a city filled with brown, crumbling row houses.

Those Baltimore row houses are part of why Las Vegas is so strange to me. I used to live in a rundown house that was more than 100 years old. Now I rent a condo built in the ’80s that’s probably considered old by most people here. I used to spend whole days in cafes, reading and chatting. Now I occasionally drive to Dead Poet bookstore, which is in a strip mall on the other side of town. I used to ride my bike down alleys to bars. Now I don’t ride anywhere except down Harmon in the bike lane. When I first got here, I tried to ride my bike to the Strip at night. Yes, I am that stupid. After nearly being killed by 10 cars and cursed at by at least 15 drivers, I took to the sidewalk only to nearly run down about 50 tourists myself. I decided I was lucky to be alive and should never attempt that again. There are a few groups of bike enthusiasts who ride everywhere here. The fact that many of these bike aficionados have been hit by cars doesn’t encourage me to take my giant, slow-moving beach cruiser out on the town again.

Bike accidents, bookstores and houses aside, there are all those jingling slot machines. Being edgy must be easier where no one’s looking for edgy, surrounded by showgirls and Elvis impersonators.

As Wilde put it, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” There must be as much freedom in insincerity as there is in a lack of cultural expectation. This freedom is evident in the burgeoning arts scene Downtown that hosts First Friday. The all-encompassing monthly event seems more like a street fair or block party than an arts happening. People from all walks of life are in attendance, not just crusty anarchists and warehouse-dwelling artists.

At first the ancillary nature of the art made me grimace. After an initial uncoiling and a sip of beer, I began to appreciate the unpretentiousness of the event. I was suddenly unconcerned about the fact that I was conspicuously not wearing skinny jeans. My distaste for self-conscious coolness was trumping my disenchantment with the non-artiness of First Friday. The idea of what art is seems to have expanded Downtown to include wood whittling and a crazy, Daniel Johnston-type one-man band. It’s hard to take issue with that kind of hilarious variety. Plus, there are tons of actual people in attendance, which is not always the case when things are strictly about art.

Back home, I half-heartedly tried to open an art gallery in Baltimore’s version of an up-and-coming arts district. I also tended bar in the neighborhood for a bit. While being on the front end of a project like that is exciting, it’s not without challenges. “Challenge” seems like an understatement when you find yourself yelling at a man in the street who is pissing on a mural your friend just painted. Nor does “challenge” cover instances like your adjoining neighbor burning down his property in an attempt to collect insurance money. These kinds of experiences shed light on how far a community has to go to resurrect a neighborhood. Apart from battling perceptions of the area, there are these actual effects of long-term urban blight.

Las Vegas’ creative freedom doesn’t seem to have protected it from these problems. A while back I had read about a Downtown coffee shop and gallery, Henri & Odette. The place looked so chic with its stylish typeface and Norman Rockwell storefront that I pictured myself musing over a cup of coffee there. Because Las Vegas was proving to be an alien landscape, I was in search of a vestige of home: the quaint, the charming, the snowflake-like quirkiness. When I made it down there to check the place out, it had been refashioned into a by-appointment gallery. The coffee sign in the window had vanished.

When I spoke with owner Jennifer Harrington about why she’d gone to appointment only, she said, “The coffee shop was really just a vehicle for the gallery. I feel like people in this town need another reason to go see art.” Her understanding that the arts community gets a lot of lip service and not a lot of foot traffic is not a new one. Admittedly, though, I was mostly interested in the coffee shop, too. Despite the change at Henri & Odette, Harrington has high hopes for her forthcoming project: an arts collective in a larger gallery, with plans for a coffee shop. Around the corner from Henri & Odette, the place will likely open in March with new collaborative legs.

Harrington’s perception that Las Vegas residents need more persuasion to be interested in the arts than in other cities might be true. But I seem to remember a lot of heavy drinking and partying at arts openings in Baltimore, which had little to do with the installation people were supposedly there to see. Either way, places like cool little coffee shops are generally where people get clued in about local arts, but this can prove a catch-22 because those types of venues need customers to survive.

This question of sustainability is what brought Mark Salvaggio here. A graduate assistant for the UNLV Urban Sustainability Initiative, Salvaggio is part of a team partnering with the City of Las Vegas on a project to gauge and inform sustainability initiatives. This project (Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey) works to discover resident perceptions used to create government plans for ecological and social development. Results are still being finalized, but Salvaggio and his colleagues’ report was able to offer findings from focus groups: “While participants have a strong sense of pride about Las Vegas as a growing, dynamic city, they also perceive that the city’s rapid physical and economic growth comes at a cost to their sense of community.” Though this seems to point to growth as the culprit, increasing transience in the downtrodden economy now seems to be a contributing factor.

This “fragile community” is not news to anyone who has lived here for a while. Locals I’ve met frequently share this perspective. Tiffany Wilgar, a grad student at UNLV and a native-born Las Vegan, says, “Growing up in Las Vegas gave me the opportunity to experience everything from local bands to Cirque du Soleil.” Seeing this as a privilege, she also acknowledges, “Las Vegans can sometimes seem a little antisocial, so newcomers need to actively seek out whatever it is they want from the city.”

In this vein, I knew I’d have to be more outgoing to discover things off the Strip and be less prejudicial when I did. If there was no one at the arts festival in the park, I could at least watch the skateboarders pull stunts for a while. If the art at an opening was of the creepy fantasy variety (not a fan), at least there was free wine and people-watching. I had to try something. I wasn’t meeting anyone outside of school, and I was starting to feel like the suburbanite I was supposed to be when I grew up. You know, the type of person who can’t wait to see what’s at the Redbox on Friday night.

But I’m not ready to grow up yet. So, my boyfriend and I started an A&E blog to get to know the city. An indication that our perspective might be somewhat unique was first evidenced in the availability of our URL, artsvegas.com. We found the nearby Liberace Museum, with its fascinating collection of valuables (like a piano older than a similar one at the Met). We went to the Neon Sign Boneyard, the Book Festival, the Neon Reverb Festival ... We hung out by the fire at the Griffin, pretending to be in a pub in icy London. We went to everything that had the word “art” in its title. Sometimes we discovered cool things, like the photographer at the Boulder City fair who uses long exposure times to shoot ghostlike figures or the dancing hipsters spinning their way through a Los Campesinos set at the Beauty Bar. Touring the less-traversed parts of the city made it feel a little less alien. The people at these kinds of places feel familiar: People in search of the odd and unique, unwilling to settle for the Redbox (well, at least not every night).

As more friends came to visit, more things got checked off the list of unique things to do. I began to worry that I was running out of “interesting.” While I told myself I moved here to get serious and put away my socialite lifestyle, I slowly realized that both my fear of disappointment and the hope that inspired it meant something—I might not be entirely ready to give up that life. I still need cultural diversion, and maybe even a few nights a month as a vapid socialite. That can’t be that bad as long as I don’t go overboard again, right?

Realistically, though, there’s really little danger of that, considering I’ve made very few friends since I’ve been here. But the ones I have made are good ones, who never fail to invite me when they finally make it out of their own condo caves. This not entirely self-imposed oscillation between socialization and isolation unexpectedly makes me feel less scattered and aimless. For the first time in a while, I feel as if I’m accomplishing something more tangible, and the conversations I do manage to have seem more important and real. When my students talk about their lives, I actually care more than I used to, and when they laugh at my jokes and listen to my lessons, I feel rewarded.

Nothing’s perfect. I’m still homesick for my best friends a lot of the time. I still miss some of my favorite places and the green trees that grew near them. I still get a little lonely and wonder if I did the right thing, went in the right direction when I ran. For the most part, though, I feel better about who I am now, less like I’m wasting time and more like I’m working on who I could be: a better (or at least more educated) version of the person I started out as. And now that I know some of the places the cool kids play, maybe I’ll even have more friends and things to do when there’s time.

I’m sure to face a few more disappointments, but disappointments are part of what I should’ve anticipated. I moved across the country to find something different. To search for the familiar seems a ridiculous, if very human, thing to do. What is here is strange and otherworldly: the expected glitz blended incongruently with a community struggling with the decline of Herculean growth. Some of Las Vegas is still so new that Google Maps doesn’t even register completion of projects like Town Square. Locals like Wilgar are anxious to tell you about “the days when there was no development West of Buffalo, when Vegas was a small town. “

It’s no wonder so many find the city surreal. An oasis that ecologically speaking should never have been, Las Vegas is a reflection of decadence while simultaneously being a frontier for development. It’s home to an equally surreal group: transplants who bring their ideas of home and locals who remember the openness of past surroundings. Las Vegas may never be home, but its potential is part of what drew me here. Where there is possibility, there is hopefulness. And that can hardly ever be a very bad thing.

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