Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Viva Las Vegas

Greetings to you from sunny Las Vegas.  After all the events of the past month or so (including last week that included 4 snow days, frozen pipes and driving to the airport on ice-slick roads surrounded by idiots) Kendra and I are having a mental health break made possible mostly by her folks and aunt and uncle.  It is head clearing to get away, we are grateful.

Had a lot of time to think and ponder this morning as I completed by final long run before the marathon I have foolishly signed up for on the 20th of February.  Nice thing about Vegas running, not many hills, tough thing, wind and extremely dry temps.  You don’t realize you are dehydrated until it is too late.

In the course of my 20 miles today I covered a dramatic cross-section of the reality of America.  From the intensity and wealth of the Vegas Strip to the grittier, more old-school Vegas of the Fremont area, over to the low slung buildings of UNLV (home of the runnin’ rebels) and past at least 5 wedding chapels, I encountered the highest of high rent districts and the lowest of low.  From my comfortable (but by no means opulent) room, I ran by rooms that go for thousands a night, older run down motels (some no doubt available “by the hour”) and even the cardboard and blanket hovels of the homeless shoved into the doorway of deserted buildings.  In addition I saw signs in at least 4 different languages and heard probably 5 or more languages spoken.

What a picture of America with all of its wealth, diversity, power and yet tremendous inequality!!!  This is a town built on rampant and massive consumption, yet now over a million folks call it home and it has become not just a big theme park in the desert, but an actual city with needs and realities. 

So as I ran, I thought about that.  What does so much inequality and diversity in so small a space say about our nation and about our historic leadership?  In thinking I came up with three thoughts….

1)      The mob would have run the homeless farther away from the strip than the corporations do.  Although we can lambast the multi-national corporations that have built these monstrosities along the strip, driving out any small businesses, making the entire town a high end Disneyland for adults…they can’t legally kick out the homeless and ensure we don’t see them.   You come to Vegas today and you know there are hurting people, that is isn’t all beautiful fluorescent lights. The mob, via intimidation, incentives and brutal force would not allow the couple I saw today, huddled together, begging for money (and they were just a few) on the pedestrian overpass between the Bellagio and Bally’s.  Those folks woulda been outta here.  That is not the image of Vegas, but it is an important reality that visitors need to see.
2)      That said, it is clear that social services in Vegas are challenged and lacking.  Despite the incredible wealth flowing through this town, you go more than two blocks off the strip and you see dilapidated housing, cheap weekly rental hotels and boarded up businesses.  Although the federal courthouse was impressive, it is clear that there is a lack of emphasis from the political leadership here on public parks, community gathering places, local police sub-stations and other basic social services.  And lest you think I only saw a bit of Vegas, remember, I ran 20 miles, up the strip, into downtown, through north Vegas and down to the University.  Certainly not the whole town, but a big part of it.
3)      Being a political leader in a town like this must take an incredible ability to balance interests, read the political and economic winds, relate to people of incredible diversity and be wise in leadership.  How do you balance the needs of the strip and the people who make the strip come to life?  How do you negotiate the incredible drop in real estate values, provide those basic services and schools when a large portion of those who move here are coming to escape taxes and have little interest in providing for schools they (as retired folks) will never send children too.  The temptation would be to fall into a ditch, either be a demagogue (man of the people) and rail against the corporations and their waste and extravagance, or be a stooge for those same corporations.  Going along a middle way there must be an incredible challenge, I wonder if anyone has really done it well.

We are having a good time here, good to be away and clear our heads.  But as with any vacation, if you take some time to look around, you realize that you can never really get away from the challenges of the world.  They are here too, even in Vegas. And what happens here, might stay here, but what has happened in the rest of the world, affects here, and the leadership of Vegas must respond.


  1. I attended a painting conference in Las Vegas about 6 years ago and I also went for a run - mine was only about 6 miles and I stayed on the strip. My observations were a little different, but I still saw hurting people. At night, as I walked through the rows of slot machines to get to the elevators to take me to my room, it was sad to see a cross section of people sitting like zombies feeding quarters into the one armed bandits. What was even sadder was seeing those same people with the same blank expressions on their faces still sitting at the machines early in the morning when I went out for my run. It makes me wonder if these are now the homeless people that you speak of.
    The other hurting people that I observed were 2 dimensional. I say that because they were pictured on cards thrust into my face as I made my way down the street. As I ran, the streets were littered with these suggestive cards and the women pictured looked as if they could have been brought to America via human trafficking from some third world country.
    I realize that our cities are full of hurting people. It's just that in Las Vegas, as you have observed, it is more out in the open.

  2. You both need and deserve this! What a great way to kick off your "new" year of 2011.

  3. Alice, thanks for your thoughts, I think you are right on, they are right out there in Vegas on many levels. What's interesting is that when you think about Vegas, that is never the way folks think it should be. It takes a little processing to think that those sitting zombie like in front of the machines, may 2 years later be those folks on the pedestrian walkways.

    @Paige, thanks!