I have to confess a bit of queasy ambivalence when I see the bulldozers, block walls and banners signaling the start of a new suburban housing subdivision in the valley these days. On the one hand, sure, I’ll grab the pom poms and cheerlead any hopeful green shoot signaling economic comeback squeezing up out of the cracks. On the other, the sight of new homes taking root calls forth an echo of that former, fabled savior that failed us, the growth machine. (Didn’t someone mumble something a few years back about economic diversification or something?) But I can’t ambivalize too hard. I’m a child of the Las Vegas suburbs, after all (Sunrise Manor, represent), who emerged from master-planned placelessness to love and embrace Las Vegas’ sense of place. Indeed, when I tell people I grew up here and enjoyed a stable, conventional, milk-and-cookies, middle-class upbringing, they always pronounce this alien in their midst, the defier of stereotypes, a remarkable specimen — for not growing into, I guess, a chain-smoking, slot-addicted reptile-man who lives at Dotty’s. Kind of a low bar, isn’t it? My internal monologue always answers: Not doing something or not turning out a certain way isn’t remarkable. Doing something is remarkable.
Take Ruby Duncan. She is remarkable. The political activist fought for benefits for struggling families, leading a famous 1971 Strip rally to protest federal welfare cuts. Or take Otto Merida. An emigrant from Cuba seeking a better life, Merida took advantage of one of our nation’s abundant natural resources — the endless opportunities of a meritocracy — to become an embodiment of modern American success as the head of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce. These are just two of the figures in our third installment of “We Just Had to Ask,” our annual package of Q&As. This time around, we corralled a handful of longtime Las Vegans — seminal, necessary, colorful figures in culture, politics and business — and had them share their origin stories. What brought them here? What drove them here? What was Vegas like back in the day? Each Las Vegan — from former state Sen. Joe Neal to rock ’n’ roll bar owner Tommy Rocker to ballet patron Nancy Houssels — has a fascinating (and funny, and inspiring, and sometimes surprising) story to tell. For all their riffs and anecdotes, however, what I like most about these pioneers is an attitude they share, unfashionable as it seems these days: a pragmatic optimism that sees absence as opportunity. Ruby Duncan didn’t see an organized activist movement in Las Vegas — so she started building one herself. Nancy Houssels, a dancer on the Strip of yesteryear, saw an opportunity to be part of something more special and enduring than a two-shows-nightly existence, and helped shape Nevada Ballet Theatre into a cultural keystone in the valley.
The details differ. Each endeavor required a tailored grit, a customized talent, but the first thing it required was a commitment to stick around and devote themselves — another rare posture in an era of restless attention that’s always on the lookout for a bigger pond. I’ve heard many a newcomer friend consider Las Vegas, all nascent and troubled, and declare it the Wild West. I don’t think they mean it as a compliment, but I take it as one. My internal monologue says: Tame it. Start something. Build something. Thrill us with a new institution.