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Fifth Street

September 24, 2020

In this issue: A Fan's Dilemma | Reid's Western Legacy | Melvin and Howard | Sparking Better Transportation | Media Sommelier


WHAT I AM ABOUT to tell you is a fact. Or maybe it isn’t a fact, or maybe it shouldn’t be a fact. That’s what we’re here to decide.

I was born in Wisconsin and lived there my first 11 years. This inherently makes me a diehard fan of the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Wisconsin Badgers.

I don’t know who made this rule, but many sports fans adhere to it, and this is how I have lived my life for five decades. I have been operating on the assumption that this is how it is, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

But here’s another fact: I have lived in Las Vegas for 37 years of my life, far more than any other place. So why do I assume I must maintain my status as a fan of the sports teams I was associated with as a child?

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Let’s take this a step further. I lived in Wisconsin for 11 years, but, to be honest, I don’t remember the first five. Nothing. I’ve seen pictures, and a few Super 8 videos, so I know I was really there, but in those years of crying, crawling, learning to walk, and riding a Big Wheel, I couldn’t have cared less about the state’s teams. I became aware of them around age 6, I’d say, and eagerly jumped on board. I wore a faux Packers jersey for a class picture in elementary school. I had a youth-size Packers helmet that still holds a place of honor in my garage. I reveled in the exploits of Bucks forward Bob Dandridge and Brewers shortstop Robin Yount. But what this means is I was directly tied geographically to those teams for just six years. And by the way, not once during those six years of Dairy State fandom did I visit the hallowed grounds of Lambeau Field. (I’ve been there several times in recent years, but didn’t come close to it as a youth.)

Under the presumed rules of my life as a fan, there was no problem adding the Vegas Golden Knights to the roster of teams I support. For whatever reason, Wisconsin does not have a professional hockey team, which left open the possibility of supporting a team from another region of the country.

That was pretty easy, but what about the Las Vegas Raiders?

I cannot possibly support the Raiders, right? I am fully invested in the Packers — much more so than the Brewers, Bucks, or Badgers. I lived and died every week with Brett Favre in the 1990s and have done the same with Aaron Rodgers in the 2000s. I was a fan even in the bleak years of the ’70s and ’80s, when the Green Bay quarterbacks had names like Jerry Tagge and David Whitehurst.

I can’t give up the Packers — I just can’t do it. It’s a lifetime contract, seemingly etched in my DNA. But does that mean I have to shun the Las Vegas Raiders? Can I be a fan of two NFL teams?

Which triggers a memory. In the mid-’70s, I distinctly remember that while I was a Packers devotee like all the other kids in my town, my favorite players were Kenny Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, and Cliff Branch. Stabler was the quarterback and Biletnikoff and Branch were the wide receivers for — you guessed it — the Oakland Raiders. They were great players on an exciting team that was performing at a much higher level than the Packers were.

Maybe this is a precedent I can take advantage of. When I was 9 and 10 years old, I was a fan of the Packers and the Raiders at the same time. Apparently this was relatively acceptable then, so maybe it can be today. Maybe I can dedicate at least some of my support to Raiders up-and-comers such as Josh Jacobs and Henry Ruggs III.

I’m feeling better now. This whole thing was really bothering me, but I’ve come to realize that my obligations to most of the Wisconsin sports teams are really quite tenuous, unnecessary even, when you look at the numbers, when you consider the possibility of another option.

I realize not everybody follows the rigid rules of fandom I have followed all these years. But I know that many sports fans deal with these questions. Which team should I support, and why? Can I switch allegiances? Will I think less of myself if I do? We want to be able to articulate good reasons why we support one team and not others.

So, here goes something new: I’m happy the Raiders beat the Carolina Panthers in their season opener last week. And I’m hopeful they will win a bunch more games this year. Maybe they’ll even make the playoffs. That would be great!

Deep breath. I was a little nervous at first, but the truth is, that didn’t hurt much at all. I think I can do this. As long as the Raiders don’t face the Packers in the Super Bowl, I’m in their corner.

With this newfound freedom, I boldly declare: When Las Vegas gets an NBA franchise, I’m prepared to dump the Bucks entirely and embrace my hometown team.

Geoff Schumacher is the vice president of exhibits and programs for The Mob Museum.

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ON SEPTEMBER 30, a documentary titled The New West and the Politics of the Environment will debut locally on non-commercial satellite TV network Link TV. (Check here for other air times.) It’s a 90-minute look at the environmental accomplishments of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who retired in 2017 after more than 30 years of public service. Longtime environmental activist John Hiatt, who’s currently conservation chair for Red Rock Audubon, and relative newcomer Elspeth DiMarzio, of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, previewed the film for this edited conversation with Desert Companion’s Heidi Kyser.

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HK: So, what did you think of the film?

JH: I thought a couple things. One, I thought they kind of oversold some of Senator Reid's stuff. At the same time, they really undersold him, in terms of the subtleties of things he did that had really big effects. That’s what makes history interesting, is to know those details and how things actually work behind the scenes. … When people are making films, they probably don't want to offend some people, so they make everything look good and like no one’s a villain, but there were some things in there that I certainly thought made other people look better than they really were.

HK: Do you want to give an example?

JH: Yeah, John Ensign. (laughs) Reid basically credited (former U.S. Senator) John Ensign for doing all the SNPLMA (Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act) stuff. John Ensign, when he was elected, was very much against that … and he was dragged kicking and screaming into that whole thing with SNPLMA, but Reid pushed it along, and one of (previous congressman James) Bilbray's former staffers worked hard to get that done, and then suddenly Ensign stepped forward and took credit for the whole thing.

HK: How about you, Elspeth? What was your overall take?

ED: I loved it. The reason I'm in Nevada is because of Senator Reid. I came out here in 2009 to work on his 2010 election campaign, so I feel like my experience with the senator is really from that time on the campaign side and then with the Sierra Club and energy work we did. But I also learned a lot about some of Senator Reid's previous work.

HK: So, I'm going to be cynical, since that’s my job. The press release says the film is, “part of a programming lineup focused on politics this election season, where PBS SoCal and KCET explore the past, present and future of democracy.” There are a couple clips in the film of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi talking about Senator Reid. Is this a veiled campaign piece for Biden?

ED: (laughs) I honestly had not thought of that until you just asked me. I had gotten e-mails about this with some questions about Sierra Club's work with the Moapa Band of Paiutes maybe 6-9 months ago, so I know it's been in the works for a while. … I think the point is taken that things like public lands and the future of our energy are at stake in this election. There's no question about that. But I really just saw this film as a tribute to (Reid).

JH: I agree with Elspeth. I think it's mainly about Senator Reid, and not about current political campaigns, other than the increasingly divisive political situation that we're in. … Certainly at the time Ensign was elected, Senator Reid publicly stated, "We're both for Nevada. We're going to work together."

HK: The film focuses on half a dozen or so landmark projects or pieces of legislation Reid was involved in. Did you feel like anything was missing from the selection?

JH: I do think some things were missing, actually. There was no mention whatsoever of Walker River and Walker Lake, which he spent an awful lot of time and effort trying to preserve with only very modest success. So, I think that's something that should have been there, if only to show just how difficult water issues are in Nevada.

The other example is the 2002 Clark County lands bill, which enlarged the SNPLMA disposal area (lands available to be sold for private development) in the Las Vegas Valley. The previous bill had not really put NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis as a prerequisite for disposal of land, but the 2002 Clark County bill did, and the result of that was that information about the Tule Springs Fossil Bed area became much more widely known than it had been, which led to the creation of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, a very good outcome for that area.

HK: Speaking of SNPLMA, the section on that was surprisingly short in the documentary, I thought. There are those who do feel that was an effective way of balancing growth and conservation, and others who feel it enabled sprawl. What was your take?

JH: Growth was going to happen in the Las Vegas Valley anyway, and what was happening before were these land trades, which were horribly unequal. People would trade 10 acres in Lake Tahoe for 1,000 acres in the Las Vegas Valley. Part of that was the problem with the BLM's appraisal procedure, where the rules required them to appraise the land for what it had been used for or how it was designated. So, land in Las Vegas was appraised for its value as grazing land. We hadn't had grazing here for 50 years or more! So, people would basically get land at a few thousand dollars an acre, and within 48 hours turn around and sell it for five to 10 times what they paid for it. I mean this was gross rip-off of the public, so even if SNPLMA wasn't wonderful and even if it allowed growth to continue sort of unchecked, it at least reimbursed the public at a relatively fair rate for what they were losing. It didn't hugely enrich certain developers and groups that were able to do those land trades.

HK: The way the documentary juxtaposed Reid's opposition to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository and his push to have Basin and Range designated as a national monument, it seemed obvious the two were connected. Yet, when I was reporting on the national monument designation, I would ask people if it was just a mechanism for obstructing the railway to Yucca Mountain, and I clearly remember everyone saying, oh no, that had nothing to do with it, the monument should exist because of its intrinsic cultural and natural value.

ED: That seemed to me like what John said earlier about Senator Reid including things in his bills that had consequences that might seem unintended to others. So, declaring this as a monument did two things for him, things he felt were priorities and were also priorities for lots of Nevadans.

JH: There's a rancher who has allotments in Garden Valley and lives in Adaven, which is just west of Basin and Range, and he has been working with Senator Reid for a long time, long before Basin and Range was designated, and he was strongly opposed to the nuclear railroad, and his parents both suffered as downwinders, and he's probably suffering too. So, Senator Reid really had reasons other than Yucca Mountain, but it was kind of one of those things — putting a nail in the coffin of Yucca Mountain was really a side benefit to doing Basin and Range.

HK: The final thesis of the film that I jotted down was, Reid pioneered a new pragmatic environmental politics for the American West. Would you agree with that?

JH: Not really. Look at what happened to Senator (Bob) Bennett in Utah, when he passed the Washington County bill for Southwestern Utah, modeled after what Senator Reid had done here in Nevada. His reward was being turned out by the Republican caucus at the next election (in 2010). So, I think, based on that, it's not a model most politicians would run out and embrace.

ED: I do think Senator Reid, in a lot of ways, was ahead of his time, so some people are just catching up to the work he was doing many years ago. And I know my colleagues in other states point to the work he's done in Nevada to say, look, it can be done in Western states. We are a bipartisan state, so I think that leadership and pragmatism are not something you often see.

JH: I would say something that was there in the film but could have been emphasized more was Senator Reid's real understanding of how the rules work and how you exercise power, which is by getting into leadership. ... And he set out to do that. So, he got a lot done.

ED: You could have another documentary on Senator Reid's mastery of Senate rules.

HK: Are we going to have anyone like that again any time soon?

JH: I don't know, and it's not obvious that Nevada will have a person in leadership in Congress. You sacrifice a lot to do that, personally and professionally. So, we'll see if someone wants to do the hard work and take the lumps to be a leader. One thing Nevada does have going for it is, we're an insular state and we have a history of people gaining seniority in Congress and doing a lot with it.

ED: I feel like our Democratic congressional delegation is doing really great work right now and continuing part of Senator Reid's legacy, but in terms of taking on that role, I kind of see Governor Sisolak doing that. In the last legislative session, we saw him work on bipartisan pieces of legislation and champion issues that I think he feels are in the interest of Nevada, and I think he's charging ahead with some clean energy work in a way I haven't seen anyone do since Senator Reid. 

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IN THE LAS VEGAS of Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, released 40 years ago this month, Raquel Welch is headlining at Caesars Palace, and Howard Hughes is sneaking in the back door of the Desert Inn after hitching a ride from a friendly handyman named Melvin Dummar. It’s simpler and more intimate than the Vegas of today, but it’s also clearly the same place, built equally on the hard work and ambitions of small-timers like Melvin and the power and influence of wealthy corporate titans like Hughes.

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The eccentric Hughes (Jason Robards) crashes his motorcycle in the desert outside Tonopah, where Melvin (Paul Le Mat) finds him and offers him a ride back to Vegas. While driving into town at dawn, following an overnight downpour, they marvel at how lovely the desert is just after it rains. But as they head down the Strip on their way to the Desert Inn, Demme captures just as much beauty in the rain-slicked streets and the mix of the neon lights and the rising sun.

Based on the real-life story of longtime Nevada resident Dummar, Melvin and Howard only spends a short amount of its 95-minute running time in Las Vegas. After his encounter with Hughes, Melvin moves from place to place in Nevada, California, and Utah, which is where he’s living when he receives what he’s led to believe is Hughes’ last will and testament. The real Dummar achieved fame (or infamy) for spending years in court fighting to prove the authenticity of that will, which would have entitled him to inherit $156 million. But Demme’s witty, discursive film, written by Bo Goldman, doesn’t get to the will until its final 20 minutes.

Instead, it’s mostly the story of Melvin’s itinerant life as a lovable loser, always looking for the next scheme to make it big. He pushes his wife, Linda (Mary Steenburgen), to try out for a game show pointedly titled Easy Street, and when she wins, he blows the prize money on a Cadillac and a boat, so he can appear rich. When he works as a milkman, he’s more concerned with becoming the milkman of the month than with bringing home enough pay to support his family.

Even as Melvin consistently gets in his own way, he’s pretty much impossible to dislike, thanks to Le Mat’s easygoing performance and Demme’s freewheeling direction. The end credits boast that the movie was shot “where the events actually occurred,” and Demme captures an authentic sense of life in small desert towns and prefab houses, of the chaotic relationships of people like Melvin and Linda, who keep breaking up and reuniting. Steenburgen deservedly won an Oscar for her performance as the sweet but determined Linda, who gives Melvin every possible second chance but always looks out for herself and her kids.

Melvin is powerless in the face of flashy enticements to quick money, and when Hughes’ will is literally dropped on his desk, it looks to him like his ship has finally come in. The real Dummar died in 2018, a decade after losing his final court battle over the Hughes will, but Las Vegas is still full of Dummar types, looking to the city’s spectacle and glamour to make their dreams come true, even if they don’t quite know what those dreams are. Hughes is long gone, but wealthy patrons like Sheldon Adelson and Jim Murren can still bestow their generosity on the city’s Melvin Dummars.

When Melvin and Linda get married (for the second time) in Las Vegas, they spend nearly every dollar they have on their tacky ceremony, and then immediately start working for the chapel as professional witnesses. The Las Vegas of Melvin and Howard is a place where romantic dreams come to life, and the dreamers get hired to pay those dreams off.

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ENVISION A FUTURE when our public transportation is accessible to everyone, regardless of income or location. Where owning a car is a luxury and not a requirement. A future where our transportation is carbon-neutral and electric. City streets, instead of being made for cars, are designed to be walkable, with wide, shaded sidewalks and plentiful bike lanes. Imagine what a future like this would mean for you and your community.

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This is all possible through Transform Clark County, an ambitious county initiative that involves rewriting the county’s master plan and development code — pretty much the DNA of our physical cityscape — over the course of two years. But without genuine community input, this process will go as most things do: It will benefit those who already have power and influence, and leave behind the very people it should be prioritizing.

It’s no secret that Las Vegas’ public transit leaves a lot to be desired. Amid the pandemic, for those of us lucky enough not to have to commute, the issue of public transit may have faded into the background. But that’s not the case for many essential workers, many of whom are low income-earners and people of color. Their struggles with public transportation may become even more difficult. A proposal called the Clark County Lands Bill, a discussion draft of which U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto issued in February, would make Las Vegas even more hostile to those who wish to commute by foot, bike, or bus. The proposal would allow the city to sprawl farther into the desert — even outside the Las Vegas Valley. This completely ignores the fact that it’s already nearly impossible to live in the city without a car. If implemented, the lands bill will intensify pollution and exacerbate the urban heat island effect. With the economy struggling from the pandemic, and the ever-encroaching impacts of the climate crisis, we are in a moment of unique flux. In this moment, we have a chance to rebuild toward climate action and create a more just city for everyone.

We’re in an especially good position to begin change through Transform Clark County. Many important aspects of environmental action are out of the hands of the county. But if Clark County places justice — social, economic, and environmental justice — at the center of its new initiative, we could make significant strides toward a better future.

Of course, it’s unlikely Clark County will do this without prompting. So far, the county’s outreach for Transform Clark County has been dismal, so the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition has put together its own outreach program to engage the public for their input. The coalition is also leveraging the collective power of its partner organization’s members to center the ideals of environmental and social justice. To the average person, the planning process may seem dull and inaccessible (in spite of the very snazzy website Clark County has put together). But for developers and other entrenched interests, a county’s planning phase is the perfect time to exert pressure to get what they want.

What does public input in this process even look like? If we’re playing by the county’s rules, it looks like filling out surveys on the Transform Clark County website (transformclarkcounty.com). We can start there, but we’re capable of more. We need to tell the county to electrify school and public transit buses, focus on building rail, and make it feasible to exist in Las Vegas without a car. These steps would create good jobs, help our economic recovery, and secure a better environment for future generations.

We need to make it clear that the current system isn’t working for us, and we demand something new. In this moment of uncertainty, we must take the opportunity to redefine how our county develops. The status quo isn’t tenable in the country’s fastest-warming city. Completely revolutionizing our public transportation is one of many ways the county can rebuild — and reboot — in a just and environmentally sound way. We must demand radical change in Clark County and beyond.

Ainslee Archibald is coalition coordinator for the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition.

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1. YOU NEEDN'T ROOT for a Raiders rival *loosens Denver Broncos ascot* to have been wary of the process that bequeathed us Allegiant Stadium in exchange for $750 million in public funds. Many were dubious, including experts who thought the process was too hurried, the job and revenue projections aspirationally rosy. Now, as the Nevada Current’s Dana Gentry reports in a story headlined “Stadium generated fewer than a quarter of projected construction jobs,” it appears some skepticism was warranted. One ex-lawmaker who supported the subsidy based largely on those projections now calls them “lies.” It’s hard to get a bead on the why of the disparity; those who know wouldn’t comment. Of course, this doesn’t mean that, post-virus, Allegiant won’t make it rain sports bucks all over the valley. But it does suggest that, when they consider huge outlays of public money on shiny objects, our politicos should, occasionally, against every instinct they have, exercise a little caution.

2. Here’s some eye candy for your news-scorched brain. The Atlantic’s website hosts a project titled The Fifty, which compiles photos from each state in the union, a new state added each Sunday. Nevada’s not yet repped, but 37 other places you might care about are. Each state gets a sizzle reel of gorgeous vistas, small-town streets, dramatic weatherscapes, and citizens at work and play. (Oddly, lots of trains, too.) Because the photos were mostly taken pre-virus, you may find the lack of masks and distancing as melancholic as bucolic — reminders of our lost world. But you might also regard it as the opposite: as granular testaments to the nation’s enduring natural and human richness.

3. That social media is addictive is nothing to tweet home about — we know. The accepted wisdom is that tech platforms have regrooved our neural pathways with advanced design voodoo to hook us on liking, being liked, and seeing our personal brands validated. But in this essay (a review of The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour), writer Max Read teases out another possibility: that we’ve “become scripturient — possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.” Perhaps our glurges of thumb-typing arise largely from within our tangled psychology, a compulsion the nerds are, naturally, happy to amplify and monetize. This insight combines with others (social media as a “monster that eats time”) into a convincing argument for unplugging your feeds. And because Read is a clear and entertaining stylist, don’t worry about high-centering on words like scripturient. He’ll get you through. Extra credit: Check out the sobering Netflix doc The Social Dilemma, a troubling peek behind the algorithmic curtain of all your favorite social media platforms.

4. Howard Bryant’s latest book, Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field, is a controlled burn, showcasing his vivid, astringent, unflinching voice as he uses sports as a lens through which to examine the hard realities of race in America. I emphasize his voice because I want to direct your immediate attention to his August conversation on Paul Holdengraber’s daily podcast, The Quarantine Tapes. Here are 38 minutes of Bryant telling it like it is, from heterodox views on Michael Jordan, the supposed power of athletes, and the George Floyd protests, to his observation that white Americans see themselves as owners of the American dream, with Blacks (and other nonwhites) as mere renters. Whites “feel they can revoke your citizenship anytime they want.” Regarding his own life under lockdown, Bryant worries that he’s overadapting to solitude. “The longer I go without people,” he admits, “the less I need them.” Worth a listen, then a read. Scott Dickensheets

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Photos and art: Raiders courtesy Raiders.com/Matt Aguire; Reid and film still courtesy KCET; Melvin and Howard courtesy Universal Pictures; bus courtesy Regional Transportation Commission

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