Leaving Las Vegas

“The balcony of my apartment faces west toward the mountains, overlooking the Las Vegas Strip; so, every evening when the sky is not overcast, a few minutes after the sun has gone down, the mountains turn black, the sky above them turns this radical plum/rouge, and the neon logos of the Desert Inn, The Stardust, Circus, Circus, The Riviera, The Las Vegas Hilton, and Vegas World blaze forth against the black mountains– and every night I find myself struck by the fact, that while The Strip always glitters with a reckless and undeniable specificity against the darkness, the sunset, smoldering out above the mountains, every night and without exception, looks bogus as hell…”

(Dave Hickey, Air Guitar)

For two-and-a-half years I also saw what Hickey describes so eloquently. This occasionally sublime sunset from my balcony always impressed me, and although in some ways it seemed fake and just a bit too pretentious at times, I had never seen anything like it–the desert sunset–in Toronto. And that is how it went for my time in the desert of the southwest; constantly maintaining the premise of a real or legitimate city to evaluate my encounters. This desert city, however, made me confront myself. At first I despised it (it wasn’t a “real city”), then I adapted (acceptance), then it was if I knew nothing else–as if an indelible brainwashing had taken place (denial). Not entirely able to grasp exactly what it was that I was experiencing at the time, it seems ironic to me now that words could only come to mind after I had ousted myself from Las Vegas and had arrived back in Toronto. But, something had changed. When I arrived home everything that was familiar to me wasn’t anymore–it was now as foreign to me as Vegas had been the first time I had seen the full force of its blazing neon against the relatively gaudy backdrop of nature. Had my opinions become as transient as the city itself? Had Vegas convinced me that the ideal notion of the New York grid, and the Toronto neighbourhoods, was, indeed, bogus?

Having also lived in New York, and of course having grown up in Toronto, my stylistic preferences, or vision of place has always consisted of a highly concentrated urban form composed of an eclectic mix of historic and modern structures connected by easily accessible mass transit. Perhaps an acceptance of Las Vegas that tends to be overly simplified in one’s mind to the mile-long “strip,” can be attributed to ignoring the obvious stylistic differences and appreciating the “off-the-strip” elements of urban vernacular. Some might consider these elements a minute counterbalance to the overriding premise of the dominating casino culture. However, I suspect that this “context quarantine” is more a cultural construct than an honest realization of how these elements and concepts create a sense of familiarity and home–even if home, in my reality, was two thousand miles away.

The gritty authenticity of fledgling North Las Vegas, within the arts district of West Charleston, shies away from the reflected dazzle that defines the city and encounters a new reality; a reality where one could easily identify with Greenwich Village in New York, or even the artists’ haven of Queen Street West in Toronto–even if these elements existed on a comparably smaller and grittier scale. Although these very distinct places are geographically stratified, and are obviously at different stages in their urban development, all have one defining and unifying element in common: they are replete with the overtly designed and constructed artifice of “popular culture,” and hence were familiar to me, even if the glitter of the popular Las Vegas strip wasn’t.

The physical recollection of these hauntingly wretched objects is unmatched by the sense of awe felt when I discovered that a life actually existed immediately north, east and west of the strip (go south far enough and you will end up in Los Angeles). It was these scattered areas and forgotten wastelands abandoned by the fascinated tourist, and tossed a blind eye by the suburban dweller and whose urban development was cut short by economic neglect, where I found home. What made its presence most noted to me, and perhaps what could sum up all of the city’s neglected yet potentially urban areas, was the steadfast architecture of the Normandie Motel (and yes, Elvis slept here). Identified by historic preservationists as one of the last California ranch style houses left in the southwest, the Normandie, and its neighborhood, simply represented a real city’s ideals to me. Dividing the heart of North Las Vegas from the modern glittering strip, this relatively quiet area was of a hospitable and human scale; walkable even–which is noteworthy, as admittedly Las Vegas is not largely walkable or forgiving to the pedestrian. One could actually find refuge from the scorching heat in the forgotten mini-metropolis of pawnshops, hole-in-the-wall cafes, sporadic art galleries, and residential settlements. Basic, yes, and not exactly the type of city one laments over when describing an ideal urban condition.

In general, the urban assemblage of disparate parts that defines Las Vegas is not terribly accessible or confined to nostalgic ideals; as one will not find 100-storey office towers, renaissance revival architecture, easily accessible public transport or even the hectic and eclectic downtown life that Toronto boasts–not yet anyway. So, in the midst of this, how does one’s searching for a predetermined concept of place influence a perception, or ideal? Can a city change you? Or, do we project our ideals on an urban environment, even if under the most abject of circumstances. At the moment where I found the totem of city life that I was searching for and where the Normandie defined an atypical type of existence in an otherwise uniform landscape of commuter cars, lengthy suburban driveways, the indefatigable neon, and the hint of the familiarity of dense urban living gave me a sense of place on otherwise foreign ground. Was I simply justifying my bias that was based on personal experiences? Was this area simply a failed urban experiment, resigned to remain a deteriorating appendage to the populous strip and suburban bliss, forever? Quite possibly, the city limits in this case are not variable, and they have been pushed as far as they can go in many circumstances, Vegas is not an exception–it leaves planners and suburban dwellers little or no choice but to reinvest in the once forgotten city core. An assumption? Possibly, but maybe more of an educated guess. However, what I knew for sure, was that in this “in-between space” I had found the beginnings of a city, and a sense of home.

Effie Bouras Assoc. AIA, holds degrees in architecture and civil engineering. She has worked as an intern architect on the Guggenheim and Hermitage Museums in Las Vegas, and in New York. She currently works with Diamond and Schmitt Architects in Toronto.