This Has All Happened Before

Closures, layoffs, brain drain: History might be repeating itself in Las Vegas, but we can't stop trying to make it

We’re not destroying the planet. That’s the good news. You can go ahead and drive that Hummer and shower yourself in bottled water, secure in the knowledge that Earth has seen much, much worse.  That brings us to the bad news: what we’re actually doing is destroying the planet’s ability to sustain certain kinds of life, such as honeybees, bananas and, y’know, people.

People are not permanent. This planet will continue on, unfazed, long after its ice caps have melted and refroze, trapping us in state like so many Captain Americas. In a few billion years, the Earth will succumb to some form of cosmic fuckery—the death of our sun, most likely—but by then, you and I will be long gone and none of this will have mattered, not even the weird, selfie-based warfare the Kardashians are waging on each other right now.

Las Vegas is susceptible to those same cosmic pressures, in a way of speaking. You can see them playing out in Downtown, right now. Zappos has lost a goodly number of employees to the vagaries of Holacracy; our nascent startup culture has suffered several high-profile losses (though it looks like Zirtual has gotten an eleventh-hour reprieve); First Friday has vanished (temporarily) into limbo; and The Bunkhouse, Insert Coin(s), and Coterie have all closed their doors.

Brain drain is this town’s perpetual curse. Many of the people who add vital elements to this town’s cultural repertoire end up leaving Vegas; it’s just a thing that happens.

But worse than any of that is the human cost of these failures—those people put out of work and, discouraged by local prospects, compelled to leave town. Some of them will talk their way into other startups, despite having CVs full of meaningless titles like “Senior Activation Catalyst,” while others will finally get started on that book that tells you to quit your job at the post office and, God damn it, pursue your dream of becoming a Senior Activation Catalyst. But a few of them—those people who noticed the city around them and tried to make it a better place to live, like my friends Dana Satterwhite, owner of now-defunct TastySpace gallery and Danielle Kelly, recently resigned Executive Director of Neon Museum—are losses that cut deep, not just because I’ll miss them, but because they made Las Vegas a smarter, better place to be. You could point to them as evidence that this town isn’t just a bottle-service clubhouse for bad actors—the Los Angeles equivalent to the Hamptons.

Brain drain is this town’s perpetual curse. Many of the people who add vital elements to this town’s cultural repertoire end up leaving Vegas; it’s just a thing that happens. Eventually, everyone bumps against Las Vegas’ unspoken truth: Even if all of us wanted to remake this place into some culturally-rich, egalitarian desert paradise with the world’s best schools, the world’s best doctors and so on, we couldn’t do it because that’s not how we built this engine to function. Las Vegas is fueled by hard drink, depleted bank accounts and raw Kardashians. Much as we’d like to pretend, it can never be Palm Springs or Portland, because that’s not what the rest of the world wants us to be. If we can’t supply soulless Beverly Hills trust-funders with a place to be true to themselves, what good are we?

Now, before I fall too far down that particular hole, let me tell you why I hold out hope for this city: it’s because I’ve seen this Las Vegas extinction cycle come around before. In the late 1990s, I watched as my friends left town in droves, lighting out for cities with more established cultural scenes. (I myself moved to Seattle in 2002, and stayed there 10 years.) I saw several of my favorite hangouts shut down: Enigma Garden Café, Fremont Street Reggae and Blues, Club Utopia. And I probably don’t have to tell you what the 2009 financial crisis did to Vegas; the Fontainebleau will do that until someone can afford to tear it down.

And yet, construction has not stopped. The Las Vegas Valley’s population continues to grow. Resorts World looks like it’s really going to happen. Downtown Summerlin is bustling. Fremont East is preparing to welcome a raft of new businesses: Oddfellows, The Venue, Smashed Pig, Chow and Flippin’ Good will be open by fall. Long-dead Arts District spaces are being filled with new, vital businesses. The same city core that was largely flophouse motels in the 1990s is now home to young professionals and families.

HustleIn spite of the astronomical odds against us, Las Vegas keeps happening. And it’s not unthinkable that even some of our most painful losses could be redeemed in relatively short order; in a year’s time, we could make a new Bunkhouse, discover a gallery whose inventiveness rivals TastySpace or Trifecta, or even build a startup that actually survives in the global marketplace. We’re the only things in this urban sandbox that can founder or flourish. Much as the Earth probably wouldn’t mind if we went away, Las Vegas’ buildings and streets won’t feel one way or another if we fight to make things better, or simply leave.

If you’ve had enough of this place, that’s completely understandable. This is not an easy town to love, or even like, several punishingly hot months out of the year. If you’ve reached and breached your Peak Vegas, do yourself and your friends a favor and get the hell out of here. We won’t hate you for it; in fact, depending on the weather, we might even envy you a bit. And we’ll be happy when you come back to visit, and happier still if you come back to live here. In the time you’re away, Las Vegas will grow and change, and maybe given some distance, you’ll remember why you wanted to be here in the first place.

If you choose to stay here, do yourself a favor: Plant something. Do something to preserve the ecosystem, even if the ecosystem seems to tell you it doesn’t want to be saved. Go to the gallery shows, support the small businesses, listen to the bands, take in to the street fairs. You can even keep calling bullshit on the haters and the opportunists, but don’t let yourself join them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a busboy or the eccentric billionaire head of a online shoe retailer; we all have it in us to do something to make Las Vegas worth living in. We’ve all got to do our bit to save the bees and the bananas.

Vegas Seven