enculturating las vegas into the next millennium... art, dance, film, music, poetry, theater, history, nature and everything else that enriches the lives of those who live and visit southern nevada... Since 2003...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

105 Years old and still going...

Looking back at my five years living Downtown and of course looking back at the last 105 years of my hometowns existence one has to think what the hell are we doing here? But in the end we look at Las Vegas as a benchmark so to speak in the evolution of urbanizing the desert, for better or for worse. Granted, for awhile our rampant growth got the best of us as we blinded ourselves with the sparkle of ever increasing tax revenues and our bulging budgets. But in the end our good fortunes caught up with us and we found ourselves picking up the pieces of a broken economy. I moved Downtown when the economy was hot and now the economy is barely at room temperature. In either case we are still here working hard to make things better for ourselves and our community no matter what the statistics may say nor the boondoggle of our political morass.

Historically Las Vegas is a part of Americans obsession with the need to go West looking for fame and fortune and completing the prophecy of our manifest destiny. Even my own family in the 1960's came out to find a better life. My parents arrived in the great expanse of the Mojave Desert to see what all the hype was about. My aunt Clara was already here working for a guy named Bill at the Eldorado Casino in Henderson in the mid-sixties. She was the first women dealer in that community and one of the few in Las Vegas at the time. My aunt convinced my father to come out and try his fortunes in Las Vegas. Though my father would be leaving the "Borscht Belt" of New York and places like the "Nevele" and other Jewish resorts where he worked, he decided to cast his dice and see what Las Vegas had to offer. With my mother in tow he came to Vegas and has never left. Like a good-ole-timer he always complains out loud how good things used to be back in the day when "the boys" were around. He liked Las Vegas when it was a small community and everybody knew everyone. Though I remind him that Las Vegas is becoming a great international city; he retorts, "don't believe all the hype"; I just smile.

From an Anthropological point of view Las Vegas really has no reason to exist, at least not in its current form. Civilizations tend to gravitate around water sources such as major rivers, lakes and oceans. Places where there is an abundance of flora, fauna and arable land where agriculture can take place. Yes small bands of people have survived in inhospitable places such as the Kung-San in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and the Aborigines of Australia. Small bands or even tribes of less then 100 people can survive in areas of limited resources, just ask the Paiute's who lived in the valley for a millennia. Add a couple of million to the mix and now you are talking about a major reliance on the power of human ingenuity.

San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad Engine #3649 
arriving in Las Vegas 1905
This image used with permission from
UNLV Special Collections
Not to repeat myself but again looking back 105 years and thinking how people could have survived without air-conditioning is mind boggling. Even though I am only 36 years young I remember years ago when you drove past Jones Boulevard heading West there was not much out there but hot desert. Summerlin was not even a thought in someones mind. I even remember my father taking me out to shoot his rifle not far from Sunset Park. Now imagining what Las Vegas was like just a few feet from the railroad tracks over 100 years ago is truly unimaginable. I remember in 1999, the year I dedicated my life to the museum field, going to UNLV Special Collections and looking through their vast archives and seeing the photos of people surviving in this harsh environment. Those people, those immigrants, those Americans building what would be just another little town of wooden structures in the middle of nowhere dedicated to filling steam engines with a bit of water so they could reach there destination.

One of my favorite photos at Special Collections and possibly one of my all time favorites period is that of two unidentified woman standing next to Engine #3649 of the Salt Lake, San Pedro & Los Angeles Railroad. This photo, which was taken here in Las Vegas in 1905, is almost perfectly proportionate and shows the scale of both our humanity and of course our ingenuity. Upon studying this photo you wonder who these woman are. Are the subjects a mother and daughter or better yet a grandmother and grand-daughter? Why are they travelling? Is Los Angeles there final destination or is it Salt Lake perhaps? Looking at the way they are dressed they are obviously not of modest means but rather of middle class or better. Though we may never know who these women are we wonder to ourselves what they thought about our desert. Even when Engine #3649 pulled into Las Vegas there were no permanent structures to speak of except for the Stewart Ranch (Mormon Fort) a few miles away, which they would have never seen from where they are standing. We were barely a tent city with an old railroad car as the train depot.

It is images like these that open our imagination to the past. We look to our past to see what life was like while at the same time be thankful for what we have today. I do not think I would give up air-conditioning or all the modern conveniences of contemporary life but I am willing to look to the past to see how they survived and implement a little of those survival tactics today. Getting back to the basics in these challenging times is not a bad thing. If anything the economic downturn has taught us, that we must look at our community for the great things it has to offer rather than complain about what it does not have. Goodness knows there is a lot of positive things about Las Vegas if you are willing to go out and seek them. We must look at how to simplify things in our lives and appreciate the beauty around us.

Visiting places like UNLV Special Collections is a great way to look back in time. It is a time capsule and a repository of our past. A place where prominent families and businesses have left there papers and photographs to be preserved far into the future. Though Las Vegas is a city that prides itself with destroying its architectural past we actually have quite a history that can be felt and touched everyday. There are dozens of historic neighborhoods that can be walked, there are several museums dedicated to Las Vegas and Nevada History that can be visited and if you are one of the lucky ones to know a few of the private collectors in town they may show you their prized Las Vegas memorabilia.

As Las Vegas celebrates 105 years the time has come to reflect about what we want our community to look like 105 years from now. We should not sit by and wait 105 years but rather start making the changes today and resetting our way of thinking. Some may leave Las Vegas and many have because they have lost there jobs, but there are many of us that have decided to stay either by choice or by necessity. Whether our staying in Las Vegas was a choice or not, this is a perfect time to see where Las Vegas came from and where we can take it. Las Vegas is a city that developed out of necessity whether it was to supply the trains with water or to create a place that people can visit. Now that we are well aware of our community's vulnerabilities we must look to our past and reflect at how our community reset itself during challenging times. The time is now to use our ingenuity and reshape our community for its future and this can only happen if you are willing to embrace it.

Yes we conquered the desert but let us hope that the desert will not conquer us.

Happy Birthday Las Vegas...

For more information about UNLV Special Collections please visit there site at http://www.library.unlv.edu/speccol/

Brian Paco Alvarez enculturating Las Vegas into the millennium...

posted by Brian Paco Alvarez, Curator and Chronicler of Culture at


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