Home means Las Vegas: Natives offer up their unique perspectives on the city’s evolution
Thu, Jan 13, 2011 (midnight)
One could argue, and many have, that nothing about Las Vegas suggests this is a good place to settle down. Our desert soil isn’t ideal for tree roots—family or otherwise. We consistently appear at the bottom of the good lists and the top of the bad ones. Our health care system, schools, social services and cultural outlets are regarded as dismal or nonexistent. And, while Vegas’ one-industry economy services more than 30 million tourists each year, its 2 million residents are often forgotten or overlooked. When that many people visit your collective front yard, it can be difficult to see the home behind it.
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But it is a home.
Founded in 1905, Las Vegas began as little more than a railroad stop on the route between Southern California and Salt Lake City. When gambling was legalized in 1931, the city began its transition into the Entertainment Capital of the World, attracting new residents with the promise of a decent wage without extensive training or education.
And so this tiny watering hole became one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States, and as the city has struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of growth, a complex relationship has emerged. Las Vegas has a reputation for being a transient town, one whose residents refuse to take ownership of the community, even after residing here for years. Complaints of apathy and lack of civic engagement run rampant.
Yet, for many, home literally means Nevada. Thousands have been born and raised in Las Vegas and still live within its borders. Here, we take a look at the lives of six of these natives, born in different eras of the city’s history. None of them has ever lived inside a casino, some have never gambled and all have watched the look of confusion cross people’s faces when they say, “Yes, I really am from Las Vegas.”
To say that Gretchen Payne spent her entire life in the same city isn’t quite right. Technically, she never moved outside Las Vegas’ city limits, but in Payne’s 75 years her hometown has changed so dramatically you might wonder if it’s the same city at all.
Payne was born in a small home on Fremont Street in 1935. Her father—originally from Brownwood, Texas—moved to the dusty town of Las Vegas from Los Angeles in the early 1930s to teach at Southern Nevada’s first high school, aptly named Las Vegas High. The population was somewhere between 5,165 (the Census recording in 1930) and 8,422 (the Census recording in 1940)—nothing compared to the most recent Census estimates, which place 567,641 people in Las Vegas alone and an estimated 1.9 million in Clark County.
“It was a small town,” remembers Payne, whose father taught science and wood shop and would eventually become the Las Vegas High principal. Her family even moved into a house built by the school’s wood shop class, along with Payne’s father and grandfather, on 8th and Clark streets. “At that time Clark wasn’t even paved. They had to oil the streets just to keep the dust down.”
Payne’s Las Vegas was a small town where everyone was connected. Her husband’s brother was her family’s milkman, and her father taught her husband, Don, in high school.
To some extent, the small-town feel remains to this day. The third Monday of each month, the Paynes attend what they call the Old Time Media group, an unofficial collective of people with long ties to the city. It includes former newspapermen, current politicians and more stories of Old Vegas than anyone has time to listen to, even though they try. They keep up to date with their current lives, give updates on ill acquaintances who need prayers and reminisce about old friends who now have streets named after them. The man who runs the Clark County Museum attends whenever he can, not because he’s technically that connected to Vegas’ past—he’s been here a scant 12 years—but simply to learn from those who are.
The skyrocketing of Las Vegas’ population didn’t erode its towny vibe. Nor did the boom shock. Don worked in public relations for the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce from 1964 to 1992. His job? To encourage people to visit Las Vegas. Or, as Gretchen jokingly puts it, “He’s the reason for all this traffic.” Don’s job satisfied, and it gave the couple plenty of opportunities to travel around the world. They enjoyed exploring, but one thing was constant—they were always happy to come back to a place they could call their own. Home. That, they believe, is one of the reasons they never seriously considered relocating. Vegas was where they’d settled and raised eight children—nine, when you count the foreign exchange student who became close to the family and eventually married into it.
“We wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Don. “This is home.”
Garre Mathis grew up in a sprawling Las Vegas filled with peach trees, grapes and artesian wells. Cows and horses roamed family lots, each of them at least an acre. When it rained and the main road through the neighborhood flooded, Mathis and his friends would canoe down the rainwater. He doesn’t remember wearing a lifejacket, though he hopes he did. It was the ’50s. People did a lot of silly things back then.
That main road—Charleston Boulevard—still floods when the desert rains hit, but now it’s cars getting stuck in the underpass, not canoes weaving through miniature rapids. Mathis’ childhood home was eventually sold. Today it’s the McDonald’s off Interstate 15.
This is a recurring theme in Mathis’ personal history, and in Vegas’ history too. Most of the landmarks of the 64-year-old’s past are gone now, replaced by something newer and shinier, or razed to make room for a city population bursting at the seams. The juvenile detention office where his father used to work is now a Clark County Health Center. The paths leading to the edge of Hoover Dam, where Mathis would watch his braver friends stand and fling old 33s into the black abyss, has long been blocked off for security and safety reasons. A former car racetrack is now the warehouse section of Industrial Road. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, the immediate desert surroundings are gone. Mathis can still remember being at home on the night of June 17, 1960, and noticing flames coming from the Strip. He and a friend hopped on his horse and rode through the desert toward the flickers until they were close enough to see. There, they sat and watched as the El Rancho casino burned to the ground.
Some of Las Vegas’ changes might have been inevitable, but Mathis isn’t convinced it had to be this way. “It was greedy, greedy people,” he says. “They destroyed our market. They just bulldozed everything. It’s a shame they haven’t kept old places.”
Luckily, exceptions exist. Mathis is pleased that the city is resurrecting its one-time post office as the Mob Museum, and that the structure that first brought his family to this town—the dam—isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Of course, the name is still up for debate in his mind.
“I still call it Boulder Dam because that’s what my dad called it,” he says. “My dad always used to say, ‘I don’t care what president did what. It’s the Boulder Dam!’ So that’s what I call it.”
Mathis and his wife, Jan, a reading strategist and schoolteacher, have three kids, all born in Las Vegas. Those kids are all grown up now with litters of their own, also born in the city. The family is proud of its multiple generations, and Mathis says many of their experiences are the same. They still camp, fish, four-wheel and hunt—just in different places. The outskirts of town are far different now than when Mathis was a younger man.
“It’s a good place to live,” he says. He never quite understood why all of his kids itched to get out of Las Vegas once they became adults. “They all did manage to leave for a while, but they all came back.”
Now, his kids refuse to let him sell his Southwest Valley home, a 3,200-square-foot tract house purchased for $75,000 in 1976. The home might be too big for Garre and Jan, but the kids are always visiting anyway. The family has planned “date nights” together that involve watching shows like Big Love and The Vampire Diaries, and the grandkids enjoy the spacious backyard.
Through it all, Mathis says he’s never considered moving away. He spent a few years in Idaho for college and that was enough for him. “I knew people who sold their property at the height of everything and moved to quieter places, but I never considered moving. It’s quiet enough here.”
Except if the grandkids are over, of course.
Lunchtime at Harley Harmon Elementary School in the late ’70s meant a sea of homemade sandwiches. Each day kids would file into the cafeteria with their brown bags or plastic lunchboxes, pull out their all-American meals and chomp away without a care.
Except for Stavan Corbett. For him, lunch was nerve-racking, because his meal wasn’t like the others. Instead of a PB&J, he had a burrito. At the time, that qualified as foreign among his peers. So, simply wanting to fit in with the others, the Vegas-born Corbett downplayed his Hispanic heritage and his lunch. “I would keep my burrito hidden under the table and just raise it up quickly whenever I had to eat. I didn’t want the kids to see it, because I knew they’d make a big deal about it.”
Now the COO of a community development company, Corbett chuckles at the memory. He remembers running into another Hispanic student for the first time a few years after the hidden burritos, in second or third grade. “Our glances crossed and there was this moment of recognition, like, ‘Whoa. There’s another one of us.’”
By the time Corbett got to middle school and high school, the city’s Hispanic population had grown noticeably, thanks in large part to the growing number of construction jobs associated with the population boom. And with the increased population came changes for the community at large. One grocer selling ethnic food (Mariana’s) was no longer sufficient. Chains devoted to Hispanic food and smaller shops and restaurants serving other ethnic foods spouted up. Nowadays, Corbett says his east-side neighborhood has more minority-focused chains than it does standard fare like Smith’s.
Oh, and everyone everywhere knows what a burrito is.
“I grew up in a town where I needed to assimilate way more,” says Corbett. “Now, we are a mecca for diversity. You can get Salvadoran, Ethiopian, anything. In some neighborhoods there are still street vendors where you can get authentic food.”
Likewise, you can just as easily drive to Summerlin to shop at Costco.
“That’s the empowerment you have in this city,” says Corbett. “You can go to all these different areas and experience diverse lifestyles. You’re not limited. I try to expose my children to everything this city has to offer.”
Corbett is largely optimistic about the city’s future and what it holds for his three children—ages 13, 9 and 7. Growing up the son of two casino workers, he’s seen the reality of Vegas as a one-industry town, and he believes that is finally changing.
Corbett knows this city has a knack for reinventing itself, and with the population boom over, he sees the opportunity to fix social services and education, two areas he believes fell woefully behind as the population grew too quickly. It could be wishful thinking in tough economic times, but Corbett believes the talent and passion for building a Vegas community is there. He’s doing his part: In 2010 he successfully ran for school board.
“There is so much opportunity right now—to diversify our businesses,” Corbett says. “This is why I love Vegas. You always feel like you are right on the cusp of so much. You can set the standard here.”
Having a fake ID in Las Vegas was a given. Siblings Scottie and Ali Godino knew this. They both had fakes by the time they were 16, and they put them to good use. Scottie fondly remembers stuffing his Bishop Gorman High School uniform in the trunk of his car and hitting up Spearmint Rhino, Ra nightclub or one of the Station casinos for some baccarat. “That was the equivalent of basketball for us,” he explains. “It’s just what you did.”
Now 29, Scottie says his hard-partying days are long gone. “I have friends from out of town who come to visit now, and they want to go crazy, but as a local you get all of that out of your system early.”
That background has its benefits—and its consequences. It becomes part of your identity. When Scottie moved to South Carolina for a golf-focused college prep academy, he was known as “the kid from Vegas.” Sometimes you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy.
And why would you want to, anyway? An adage goes that the kids who live near the tracks are never the ones hit by trains. When you’re raised in America’s adult playground, you see the downsides of indulgence, sure, but you also know how better to protect yourself from temptation—and from vultures.
“Growing up here you have a street sense because you’ve been exposed to so much,” Scottie says.
His younger sister, now 22, agrees. “Vegas allows you to be an adult,” Ali says. “You can partake in all this freedom if you want to. It’s your decision here.”
When Ali relocated to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona after high school, she was reminded firsthand of the unique liberties allowed in her hometown. “Once, I made the mistake of walking outside a bar with a beer. I was yelled at so quickly. It was, like, ‘You cannot do that here!’ And, you know what, I feel like you should be able to do that.”
The incident made her miss home, where even if you never drink liquor on a public street corner at 4 a.m., you appreciate the right to do so. It might be a strange thing to find endearing about your hometown, but Ali just accepts that as part of the novelty of growing up in Vegas. “It is what it is, but I see slot machines in grocery stores and I find that comforting.”
Ali wasn’t really a fan of Tucson. “I guess it wasn’t Vegas enough for me,” she explains. “My family has been season ticket holders for the Rebels for 20 years. So, when U of A played UNLV, I wore Rebel red and sported all my UNLV stuff. All of my friends were confused, and I had to explain to them, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s my hometown team. I’ll root for U of A any day but when they play [UNLV].’”
But while Ali believes her bond with Vegas stems more from the familial ties and familiarity than the atmosphere or city itself, Scottie sees things differently. “I love that Vegas is a new town,” he explains. “We have the luxury here of being able to build what we want. If you want to start a business, you don’t have to adapt it to fit a specific old kind of building, like you might have to in a place like downtown Chicago. Here, you can give it your own sense of character.”
That is precisely what he’s done with his labor of love, Born and Raised, a restaurant and tavern dedicated to the city of Las Vegas and its people. BAR opened in October and features rare Vegas photos on the walls, donated high-school yearbooks and other endearing bits of local memorabilia. The centerpiece: A chandelier with 100 tiles, each engraved with the name of the first 100 customers who brought in proof that they were native Las Vegans.
“After talking to people and getting to know the history of the town, we wanted to bring that sense of being taken care of back. We don’t want to be four walls with a big bar in the middle. It’s like De Niro in Casino when he walks in the room and asks everyone how they’re doing. We want people to feel welcome, and we take care of those regulars, those locals.”
The Godinos believe there isn’t enough of that anymore. “The casinos still take care of you, but only if you’re a high roller,” Ali says. “That’s not good. You cannot survive on bottle service alone.”
Scottie nods. He says he hates that aspect of the hospitality industry. In fact, he hates a lot of things about this city.
“I hate the direction it’s going,” he says. “These debt-ridden casinos and companies aren’t working. We need to get back to single-owned properties that don’t get lost in corporations.”
Still, Scottie’s not headed out of town anytime soon. He recalls working late one night at BAR. “I was completely exhausted and I thought to myself, ‘We really need to get everyone out of here and close so I can go to sleep.’ Then, I realize, we are never going to close. This is a 24-hour operation. That’s just how it works in this city.”
And living in Las Vegas isn’t so different, either. It may make you exhausted and it may have its shortcomings, but that’s just how it works. You push through it because you feel committed to its past … and to its future.
Tristin James Rivera is due to enter this world on February 26, the first child of newlyweds Agla and Chris. He will be born in a time when birth rates are down, theorized as an effect of potential parents’ heightened financial concerns. He will be born into a city that many feel is at a potential turning point in its history, when it can decide whether to learn from its mistakes and build a more sustainable economic and cultural future or continue on its current path and perhaps risk further despair and disconnect. He might not have a childhood filled with memories of grand casino openings and rapid development. Where his mother remembers that Cheyenne Road once traced the outskirts of town, the outer reaches of suburbia might not change during Tristin’s formative years.
What is known: that Tristin’s Las Vegas will be markedly different from Agla’s Las Vegas, and even more changed from the Las Vegas of natives who came before her. “It’ll be a lot different for him,” she says. “I think Vegas has become some cross between New York and Los Angeles. It’s all about this fake high-society life now. It’s become all about what you look like, what you drive. It used to be much more of a friendly neighborhood.”
Still, Agla says, “You make the world what you want.” If you want to see a small town dying, that’s Vegas to you. Or if you want to see a city on the cusp of opportunity, that’s also there. Agla knows the city’s shortcomings, but prefers to focus on the ways to combat and overcome them. Her husband’s job keeps them tied to Las Vegas, so there’s no point in focusing on the negative—and, hey, at least it isn’t Wyoming, where Agla lived briefly as an adult before returning because of what she saw as a narrow-minded philosophy and a lack of ethnic diversity.
“A lot of people don’t want to raise their kids here because the schooling here sucks so bad. There’s overcrowding, and that’s not going to build kids up for success, but you just can’t expect the schools to teach everything to your kids without your involvement. You have to take an active role.”
Agla fondly remembers her teenage years, when she rode horses and participated in the annual Helldorado Parade. “It was great because that is a parade strictly for Las Vegas and about Las Vegas,” she says. Helldorado Days is one of the longest-running traditions in the Valley, and most natives—Gretchen Payne, Garre Mathis, Stavan Corbett and the Godinos included—recall it being a distinct part of their lives growing up in Vegas. Its esteem within the community has diminished over time, but it’s still held every summer as a celebration of the city’s colorful history.
That history is one of constant reinvention, and regardless of what shape the next era of Las Vegas arrives in, one thing is certain: The natives will be here, watching, analyzing, loving, hating, influencing and being influenced by a city that has been so much to so many, but for them, is always home.