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Ideas: The Purpose of the Past

Desert Companion

There’s a surprisingly practical reason to learn the city’s history: greater empathy.

In the summer of 1933, a newly minted lawyer named Paul Ralli arrived in Las Vegas, where he planned to launch his legal career. One of the first people to write seriously about Las Vegas, Ralli vividly described the small town he had chosen to call home.

“The town impressed me as being very different from any other American town,” Ralli wrote in Nevada Lawyer, his 1946 memoir. “It had a touch of Mexico’s Tijuana, where people loitered in the streets, and the tempo was slow. There was a lack of formality in the air, and absolute disregard for social distinction. The people were friendly, and money was loose and plentiful. The bars and gambling halls were packed to capacity, and Boulder Dam workers were pouring their earnings into the town. Loafers and moochers roamed the streets, and women of questionable reputation rubbed elbows with society.”

You can see it, right? If you have lived in Las Vegas for a few years and venture now and then beyond your leaf-blown suburban enclave, you recognize the authenticity of Ralli’s summertime city. Many things have changed over the past 86 years, but Las Vegas retains “a lack of formality,” the bars and gambling halls are still “packed to capacity,” and “loafers and moochers” still roam the streets.

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Paul Ralli’s Las Vegas is still with us in some ways. When he arrived in Las Vegas “with ten dollars in (his) pocket,” Ralli reports that he registered at a local hotel. He does not give the hotel’s name, but it very well could have been the Victory, built in 1910 and a very affordable option on Main Street, just north of Bonneville Avenue. I think of the Victory, because it still stands today. It is closed and in bad shape, but it endures, somehow avoiding the wrecking ball of Downtown redevelopment.

About 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to look inside the Victory, to walk its halls and peek into its rooms. It was closed, but it had only recently ceased serving as a low-rent refuge for the city’s “loafers and moochers,” its “women of questionable reputation.” Some of the rooms are very small, with no bathroom and only a sink jutting from the wall. But imagine the human dramas that unfolded inside this building, from the hot, dusty days after the railroad came through the valley to the hyper-drive population infusion of the 1940s and ’50s to the hollowing out of Downtown of the 1970s and ’80s.

Newcomers often describe difficulties adjusting to life in Las Vegas. As Ralli recognized back in 1933, Las Vegas is different. It can take a while — several years even — to get used to the place. But there is one surefire way to become more comfortable with Las Vegas, or any city, really, and that is by learning its history.

Please do me this favor: Never utter the words “Las Vegas has no history” or “Las Vegas doesn’t care about its history.” Not only are these statements false, but they are counterproductive to your enjoyment of living here. The “Las Vegas has no history” mantra is presumably based on the fact that Las Vegas is a young community or that the collective mindset is completely focused on the present and future. The phrase “Las Vegas doesn’t care about its history” is surely inspired by the string of casino implosions in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In fact, despite its relative youth, Las Vegas has a rich and fascinating history, and it is very easy to access. Besides a long list of books and documentaries, several local museums are devoted to telling stories and displaying artifacts about the community’s past. The city’s history is all around us if you take a closer look.

As a longtime resident and student of Las Vegas history, I probably see the city a little differently than many others. When I travel the streets and highways, I see a blended vision of what once was, what remains, and what has emerged in more recent times. I constantly see black-and-white scenes playing behind the technicolor present. Of course, I possess no special powers — anyone can do this with a little effort.

An appreciation of a city’s past can make it a more enjoyable place to live, turning a meaningless jumble of buildings and people into a compelling story. Humans crave stories, and every city has one. To our delight, the Las Vegas story happens to be more interesting than most.

And once we look at a city as a story, or many stories, once we understand what has gone into its growth and evolution, we gain a deeper understanding of its complexities, and greater empathy for the people and institutions striving to keep it all together and moving forward. Imagining the lives of people renting rooms at the Victory Hotel, or the impending divorcés who once spent six weeks at what is now Floyd Lamb Park, or the Binion family occupying what is now a decrepit husk of a house on Bonanza Road, can engender a greater understanding of people other than ourselves.

The Las Vegas of 2020 could use more empathy. With its routine road rage, rampant domestic violence, chronic homelessness, and relentless drunken driving, to name just a few big-city challenges, Las Vegas today is rapidly losing its resemblance to the small town Paul Ralli encountered in 1933. A heightened awareness of the city’s history obviously is not going to solve such big and difficult problems, but it can be a valuable foundation for nurturing personal joy and community pride.

Geoff Schumacher is senior director of content for The Mob Museum and the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas.


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