Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Las Vegas becoming less a phase and more a home for many

Parade participants wear American flags during the 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. MGM Resorts International was the presenting sponsor for the event.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Commercial real estate guy Kent Johns tells me he’s from Orange County. Shayla, one of the Beat’s baristas, says she’s from Reno. In April I will have lived here 16 years. Still, when people ask, I answer that I’m from Wisconsin. And back in fish-fry-and-cheese land, I tell people, “I live in Las Vegas but grew up here.”

It goes without saying that most Las Vegas residents came from somewhere else. From the 2010 census, fewer than 1 in 4 Nevadans — 24 percent — were born here. And to some degree, it makes sense that people identify with where they grew up.

But I’m talking about more than a birthplace. I’m talking about feeling ownership of Las Vegas, not feeling ashamed about living here, starting to feel enough pride that you want to make this place better.

People I know back in cheeseland remain in disbelief that I’m still here. They can reel off the lists of problems the city possesses as easily as the scores of this season’s Packers games. Lousy schools, political corruption, an electorate that doesn’t care about schools, the oven-like summers, health, prostitution and the kicker: the lousy economy and high ranking in the national foreclosure contest.

No one controls the weather, but few of us regard any of these with pride. Then again, too few of us fight for change.

Just before November’s election, an elderly woman who said she lived in Summerlin called to ask if she could vote against more money for Henderson’s library system. In turn, I asked about another ballot question: How did she feel about more money for school capital projects?

“Oh, definitely ‘no’ for that,” she replied, chuckling. “I don’t have kids in school.”

She is obviously living comfortably in a suburban cocoon somewhere, but she also feels little connection to Las Vegas. I know others who’ve lived here for years but keep their license plates from other states because it saves them from racking up thousands of dollars in car registration fees.

The many thousands more who fled their latte-colored homes in suburbia when the economy caved likely felt that same disconnect. Live here. Make money. Leave when it dries up.

Then again, maybe that sifting and winnowing is part of the long process of forging a connection to the city. It’s awful that so many lost jobs, homes and marriages in the recession’s economic maelstrom, but in some ways, those who figured out a way to stay may be the ones who feel Las Vegas is really “home.”

When the economy took a dive, foreclosures Downtown didn’t seem as plentiful as in the suburbs. That stands to reason because many of the homeowners have owned a home or lived in the area for a lifetime. In addition, many live in homes purchased inexpensively (not my own, which I bought at the height of the housing bubble as a great long-term investment that kept me close to my son).

Maybe that’s why you don’t hear it so much Downtown, the kvetching about how awful it is, about how they’re trying to amass as much money as possible before bolting for greener pastures. And rarely do I hear Downtowners remind me that, by the way, they aren’t really from Las Vegas.

Downtown truly is a Vegas rarity as it develops a culture based less on an industry whose chief aim is to take money while giving back as little as possible. In a growing number of blocks in the formerly abandoned Fremont East area, people are working on new modes of education, business, medical service. They’re also getting to know each other and connecting to the city in ways they may have connected to the tree-lined streets of Portland or Madison.

When out-of-towners come Downtown to give a talk, I’ve heard more times than I can count: “It’s great what’s happening here.” These are people from San Francisco, Portland and, yes, even New York.

One day my son will reach adulthood. He will make a choice to either stay here or leave. If he leaves, he will always know one thing: Las Vegas is home.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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