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Fifth Street

October 15, 2020

In this issue: Housing Injustice | A Chat with Dave Hickey | Media Sommelier | My Wild Backyard


KENADIE COBBIN-RICHARDSON, executive director of West Side redevelopment nonprofit Nevada Partners, and Tyler Parry, UNLV assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies, have ideas about how to fix Southern Nevada’s affordable housing problem. But — and this is a big but — none of them will work, at least not on their own. Like most forms of inequality, the housing injustice that leads people of color and poor and marginalized populations to be segregated in bad neighborhoods with substandard dwellings doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s part of a larger complex of oppression. In less than an hour, Cobbin Richardson and Parry touched on education inequity, mass incarceration, public transportation, rent control, student loan debt, and voting rights. And they were just getting started.

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“Any solutions we come up with have to be inclusive of all those factors,” Cobbin-Richardson said, “because even if you solve one problem, these others can hold you back and pull you back in.”

So, think of these ideas not as complete unto themselves, but part of a broader approach. 

 

ON THE STATE OF THINGS NOW …

Cobbin-Richardson: Not to oversimplify it, but we still have a lot of land that we can build into, but yet, for low- and moderate-income people, it's about to become unaffordable. Some of the houses that, in 2010, were about $400,000, are about $1 million today. …

We can't get to a point where we max out and no one can live anywhere, particularly when it comes to looking at what that does to communities of color. When you look at all the things that are happening — in consideration with climate change — something has to change, and I believe that we are the generation to change that. Our generation and, I'm assuming, those that are coming up behind us, we have to do something. … I really feel like the world stopped with COVID-19. We could have this inflection point to pivot and go another direction, because I believe that if we continue the direction we're going, it's not going to work.

Parry: I'm glad you said that. It brought a lot of things to mind. On one hand, I think about the Green New Deal that was proposed about a year ago, largely developed and spearheaded by Representative Alexandria O'Casio Cortez and then taken up by the Bernie Sanders campaign. And from what I could determine, (it was) a very popular piece of policy, though I think it was deliberately misrepresented by a particular side of the political aisle as being too expensive. I think it included a $180 million investment in public housing, with some sort of housing affordability act within that particular bill. But now, as you mentioned, with COVID-19 hitting in the trillions of dollars through the stimulus and/or bailouts through the federal government, it doesn't seem so absurd anymore.

 

ON BARRIERS TO OVERTURNING TO THE CURRENT SYSTEM …

Cobbin-Richardson: That's a big question, because it really has a lot to do with, historically, where we've come from. We can't divorce ourselves from how we arrived here. Segregation and racial discrimination have been part of the very fabric of this county, so why can it continue …? I think right now, people are, perhaps, willing to open up and see how these things have continued throughout generations. … But I am shocked that it's even still a conversation, as though it means something, as though the AFFH (Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, an Obama-era policy meant to induce low-income housing construction in the suburbs ) rollback didn’t just happen a couple weeks ago … I see that groups like the National Realtors Association oppose that rollback and have come out about what it really means, and that’s what it’s really going to take (to change things). It’s going to take people who can discern what's actually happening, and not conspire to look the other way, and then denounce it. 

Parry: I'm glad you mentioned the White House, because that was one of the topics I wanted to pursue in this conversation. It was just yesterday, July 29, Wednesday, that Donald Trump tweeted about pushing low-income housing out of the suburbs. …

I explain to my students that racist policies exist within coded language. It is no longer accepted in law to specify race or ethnicity within a legal code. So, the way in which people have gone about this is through aspects of white flight and the very creation of the suburbs, which, as I tell my students, was white people moving out of the urban area and creating a sub-urban community to prevent association with Black people. And this occurred primarily throughout the great migration of the late 19th century and mid- to late-20th century.

So, Donald Trump's bragging about rolling back this policy is particularly worrying for people because it’s hard to imagine that he or somebody within his cabinet doesn't know the implications of this. … When we talk about racist laws and legislation and the perpetuation of racism in the real estate industry — whether conscious or unconscious — that's what we're talking about. There is a link between where a child grows up and how that impacts their circumstances eventually.

 

ON THE PROBLEM (REAL OR PERCEIVED) WITH THE REAL ESTATE INDUSTRY AND HOW TO FIX IT …

Cobbin-Richardson: It won't work without public and private working in partnership. … And I don't think the private sector is incentivized in any way to be concerned about low-income housing. I do believe tools like opportunity zones are helpful, but I don't think that people who are in business to make money — and that's what business is for, so there's nothing wrong with that — are motivated to do much more than that. 

From a public standpoint, I believe it's incumbent on our legislators and agencies working in the housing market to ensure that all their residents and constituents have a place to live. Therefore, they need to work in sincere partnership with those who are privately (building those homes). There are many cities that have successfully done that; particularly, I'm inspired by what's happened in Boston and Atlanta. In Boston, they did inclusionary zoning that required that, wherever you're building, a certain percentage be dedicated to low-income housing. … I think we should be using those kinds of tools to make it attractive for the private market to be a part of that effort.

 

ON DREAM-BIG SOLUTIONS …

Cobbin-Richardson: Mine does have to do with destinies being determined by ZIP code. … Nevada Partners is in an opportunity zone. We have had lots of conversations with developers and planners who work in Ward 5, and what I would like to see is investment in the neighborhood. West Las Vegas is central to everything in the city. It's 10 minutes from Downtown. Honestly, it is perfect real estate. But if you go to the top of the Stratosphere and look at Las Vegas, you will see lights everywhere except in West Las Vegas. It's a dark spot. That just means it's been largely ignored. Downtown Project revitalized Downtown; of course, the Strip consistently goes through revitalization, new casinos being built; but nothing happens here. … 

Other big ideas include education, but the reality is, these kids have parents — one out of two people in this neighborhood — who don't have a high-school diploma. So, we know that college is a really big leap for them. How do we take a kindergarten class, and move it up, step by step? Maybe by having a casino sponsor all the first-graders in the entire neighborhood at various schools to make sure they have the resources they need to move forward where they are?

And housing choice is another great opportunity for people to move out of that poor neighborhood and into more resource-rich places — but if you're asking me for the big ideas, they're about bringing those resources back to the neighborhood, where the connections exist, where people have been there for years and your family is all around you within three blocks. That would be something monumental. … How to accomplish that? You can't legislate where people eat or work, so it would require people to believe that we're all in this together and, this is a great restaurant, so I'm going there. 

Parry: We need to adjust our societal stereotypes surrounding public housing, because one thing that has become apparent to me is that when people who aren't familiar with public housing hear terms like “Section 8” or “that side of town,” there's immediately a lot of negative assumptions that come with it. This has everything to do with historic aspects of racism and classism that have permeated American society since its inception. I think a number of people don’t even realize they're buying into racist tropes when they assume that, because a particular side of town or area within a neighborhood is occupied by people of color or marginalized people, that they're buying into that racist trope that's an inheritance of segregation and slavery from America's founding. So, we also need to understand that public housing can be vibrant, it can be wonderful, and wonderful people are often the product of public housing, and an investment in public housing, the children in public housing, will make society far richer and far greater than the current model and system that we have. 

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WITH MANY OF US still holed up in the bizarre normal of the pandemic, it often seems as though not much is happening while so much is happening: ideological standoffs consuming daily conversations, a post-COVID president issuing tweetstorms from the White House, and a second wave of coronavirus said to be on its. With everything feeling so out of gear, we decided, what the hell, why not give Dave Hickey a call? Although the celebrated maverick writer and art critic — author of Air GuitarPirates and FarmersThe Invisible Dragon25 Women: Essays on Their Art, and Permanent Wave — left Las Vegas years ago, he’s still deeply associated with the city, which he wrote about often. We spoke to him from his home in New Mexico. What, we wondered, is he making of all this?

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What do you think about the president testing positive for COVID-19?
It’s too good. It can’t be real.

Are you concerned about the direction in which we are moving as a country?

Yeah. I’ve written two books subtitled Art and Democracy. If we don’t have democracy, I’m sort of out of a job.

I’m guessing you must be anyway, at least for now, with COVID shutting down the year. Are you social distancing?

I’m staying home. I’ve been tested. I’ve had a flu shot. I had a chest X-ray. I seem to be okay, although I have a cough I’ve had for six months. So whatever is killing me is not in that area.

Are you still smoking?

Yes, of course.

Any cabin fever these days?

Libby (1) and I go out and drive around once in a while, but I haven’t been out of town in a long time. I’ve been sick. I had an attack of Transient Global Amnesia earlier this year. I had been teaching a course on architecture at Harvard and was on the plane to Boston. When I arrived, I didn’t know who I was or where I was. I did know to call Libby. I registered at a hotel I never stayed in, and I was looking out at the water and I thought it was the Bellagio. So I gave Libby the name of the hotel. She called the police, they came and got me. They took me to Mass General. It took me four days to recover. I was in the hospital for six days. 

Do you remember not knowing?

Yes. It was real ordinary. I just didn’t remember who I was, or where. Libby came up there, and I recognized her, and that was sort of the start of my recovery. Anyway, I got everything back except for two things, both of which I miss. I lost all of my computer protocols out of my brain, and I can’t read French anymore.  

So there was damage?

There was some subsequent damage.

What happened to the course you were teaching at Harvard?

I had already done most of the classes, and then I did the last classes on Zoom after I got back here. I kept getting sick after that. I’ve had viral pneumonia. 

What about writing?  
I did just finish a long essay for the catalogue for Michael Heizer’s City. (2) I have a big piece on (artist) Joseph Cornell I’m about to start on. That’s for the National Gallery. So I’m just thumping along best I can, trying to keep my head down, stay out of traffic. 

Did you go spend any time with Heizer?

I didn’t talk to him at all. I don’t like Michael, but I like the work, and I wrote it up real well, I think. Gagosian (an art gallery and publishing house) is going to publish it.  

So it’s complete? 

He’s through with it. It’s done.

What’s the release date for the catalogue?

I have no idea. The COVID thing has postponed it a whole lot. COVID drove a truck through Larry Gagosian’s business.

Speaking of which, what’s going to happen to the art world at large during this time?

I think the art world needs to get smaller by half. There’s always a war between institutional art and art people make to sell, and I think they should just divide it up. I like people who make art to sell. And I like to write about it. But I don’t care much about installation art or stuff like that.

Are you saying that the art world is too populated?

There are too many artists. There are about 10 million too many artists. And most of them don’t make art. They teach school. So I would rather just deal with the people who survive.

Kind of Darwinian.

A little bit. Or Hobbesian. (Laughs)

As a writer, and an art and social critic, is there any part of you that wants to write about what’s happening in America right now with Trump, McConnell, COVID-19, impeachment, racial injustice.

Hmm, no. There’s a part of me that wants to watch NCIS every day. I could write things. I would have to go out and look for work, but I’ve never done that. 

Whatever happened to your book Pagan America

I just didn’t write it. I misconstrued it. I decided I had a different take on it, so I just left it. I never could find an editor I was comfortable with. 

You are a 2020 inductee into UNLV’S College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame, which was postponed due to the pandemic. After years of battling and criticizing the college, how did that feel? 

That’s okay. I don’t mind that. It’s just the way it is. I’m a difficult person. I had a hard time at UNLV, but no harder time than I would have had anywhere else, probably. I was going to come (for the ceremony). A visit to Vegas would have been nice.

Do you miss it here?

Yeah. I like Vegas. I miss it a lot.

After writing two books (3) on Facebook and your experience with it, you’re not on there much anymore. Why is that? 

I forgot my password, and I can’t get on anymore. (Laughs)

What else is on deck?

I’m kind of done with everything. I’m too old to be doing young people’s art, and I’m too young to be dealing with old people’s art. So I’m kind of out of it. I do want to write this piece about Cornell. That’ll be nice. I don’t have high expectations for anything. I’m 81. That’s too old to be writing about art.

That is very Jethro Tull of you. I’m surprised. I thought you were an eternal youth and forever rebel.

Well, I’m pretty fragile. But I’m getting along. Now I have a $42,000 doctor bill I can’t pay. Writers write until they die. So I’m not really going to retire. I’m going to rest here for a while. I’m not dead. I’m smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and doing okay.

(1) His wife, Libby Lumpkin, a noted critic and curator, former head of the Las Vegas Art Museum and art advisor to Steve Wynn; (2) City is a massive Land Art facility on private land in Garden Valley, Nevada; (3) Wasted Words and Dust Bunnies

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1. IT'S THE SEASON for scary movies, and Las Vegas has plenty of indie treats to dole out. Following in the footsteps of the Nevada Women’s Film Festival and the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, Sin City Horror Fest is the latest local film festival to move to a virtual edition, with the October 22-25 free event hosted on the YouTube page of popular horror brand Kings of Horror. Kings of Horror has more than a million YouTube subscribers, which opens up a much larger potential audience for the fourth edition of Vegas’ premier genre festival. The lineup is the festival’s most expansive yet, ... 

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with 13 feature films and dozens of shorts, including entries from local filmmakers Joe Lujan (Billy), Heidi Moore (Dolly Deadly 1.5), and Christopher Styles (The Tunnels). On the feature side, the festival will host the latest film from legendary Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, Shakespeare’s Shitstorm, which is, of course, Kaufman’s take on The Tempest. The films will be shown live on the Kings of Horror channel, with one premiere time each, so you can have a genuine festival experience, including not getting enough sleep and rushing to scarf down unhealthy food to get ready for the next screening, all in the comfort of your home.

2. I like virtual film festivals because I’m still not comfortable going to an indoor movie theater, and that’s also why I love the West Wind Drive-In, the only theater I’ve been to since mid-March. With minimal new releases available to theaters, West Wind has been filling out its schedule with repertory programming, and from October 19-31 the drive-in will be showcasing nearly 100 horror and horror-adjacent movies in its “13 Nights of Fright” series. That ranges from vintage classics like Bride of Frankenstein and The Exorcist to recent franchises like Saw and It to family-friendly, spooky-themed movies like Coco and Casper. It’s a perfect way to have a movie night out of the house while remaining safe and socially distanced.

3. If you’re looking for a seasonally appropriate movie to watch at home while also supporting local film culture, the recent Shudder original release Scare Package is a perfect choice. It’s a self-aware horror-comedy anthology in which each segment riffs on various horror-movie conventions, from the cold open to the final girl. Chris McInroy, whose shorts have frequently played in local festivals, writes and directs a gore-filled story about a group of friends camping in the woods who run into multiple horror-movie threats all at once. Comedian and actor Baron Vaughn writes, directs, and plays three (brief) roles in a funny piece about a ghost who possesses a woman’s body and … shows her spoilers of her favorite TV show. McInroy and Vaughn are both using the skills they developed in Vegas (McInroy at UNLV’s film school, Vaughn at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts) to achieve acclaim and success in film and TV, and here they both get to show off their love of lowbrow horror.

4. I’ve also been watching horror movies to prepare for a couple of special Halloween episodes of my podcast Awesome Movie Year, which I co-host with local comedian and writer Jason Harris. We’ve now produced five seasons of episodes looking back at different years in film history, and for the Halloween episodes, we’re returning to 2007, the year we covered in our second season, to talk about Jeremy Saulnier’s debut film Murder Party and Michael Dougherty’s cult classic Trick ‘r Treat. The episodes will be out October 28 and 30, perfect for listening to on a dark and spooky night (or while you clean your kitchen). Josh Bell

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THIS DESERT IS snakier than I remember it.

No, not that desert. Not your desert. Not the Mojave.

Last year, I moved my family from Las Vegas to Tucson, Arizona — back to the Sonoran of my youth after 25 years in Southern Nevada.

Almost right away, there were snakes.

I felt like I had stumbled into some hackneyed movie about my hometown, written by someone from the Midwest who only knew the clichés.

I’d spent my entire life defending the desert’s honor, faithfully correcting outsiders’ wrongheaded assumptions about this place I come from: No, I never rode to school on horseback. Yes, it gets hot, but not so much that you’ll die. Sure, there are snakes, though you hardly ever see them.

Now, suddenly, I was seeing them. And other critters, too.

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Since we moved down here, it looks like I’ve handed over my social media accounts to the slightly desperate promotions manager for a plucky desert zoo. The two most popular online videos I’ve ever posted have come in the past six months. One features 37 oddly calming seconds of a Cooper’s hawk spinning lazily on top of the floating chlorine dispenser in my swimming pool. The other is worthy of narration by David Attenborough or Marlin Perkins. It shows a turkey vulture tearing long, gory strips from a rattlesnake carcass just beyond our fence, then getting chased off by a coyote that stops just long enough to urinate on the dead snake before trotting away.

My Facebook friends like to tease me about all the wildlife posts. A few of them seem genuinely concerned for the safety of my children. But we wanted it this way. My wife and I searched for a house with some desert around it precisely so we could commune with nature. 

We loved our old house near Trop and Pecos, but in 13 years there we only ever saw a handful of bedraggled geckos and city lizards and what little our bird feeders would attract. I once spotted a tarantula-hunting wasp scuttling along a sidewalk near our house in Las Vegas, and I was so excited that I considered skipping work so I could follow it in search of big, hairy spiders.

Now we have our own rocky hill speckled with ironwood and palo verde trees and a few prepubescent saguaros. We climb to the top of it almost daily for sunset panoramas of Tucson over a nearby riparian corridor. Since spring, this has become our place to let the day go — the headlines and the home confinement and everything else about this unparalleled mess we’re all in. Sometimes we carry drinks. Sometimes we watch the sunset through wildfire smoke. 

Most evenings, we are greeted at the top of the hill by a swirling trio of nighthawks or a single orange-winged tarantula wasp, which buzzes by with such purpose and direction that we’ve taken to imagining it commuting home from work with a tiny briefcase in its mandibles. We’ve gotten to know our local coyotes pretty well, too. The same group — a family, we think — wanders by so frequently that we recognize each individual at a glance. Our neighborhood rings with their yips and howls several times a night. They will all have names before long. 

Other animals we’ve seen so far (and occasionally hosted in our small, fenced backyard) include: a bobcat, several Cooper’s hawks, a family of screech owls, dozens of snorting, stinky javelinas (above), and countless lizards, quails, rabbits, songbirds, packrats and round-tailed ground squirrels.

Why wouldn’t there be snakes?

We’ve found several black-and-yellow-banded kingsnakes — handsome and harmless — in our garden and our garage and (just the one time!) in the hallway outside the kids’ bedrooms.

We’ve also seen some rattlesnakes — more of them in the past year, in fact, than I remember encountering the whole time I was growing up here. Most have been polite enough to stick to their side of the fence. At least two so far have slithered in for a closer look.

Just before bed about a month ago, I discovered a large Western diamondback relaxing on our fake lawn, about 15 feet from the open dog door. A few weeks later, I interrupted a tiny diamondback washing down a recent meal with a sip from our swimming pool, while my 13-year-old daughter dove and splashed nearby. Even this was OK with me. I expected more wildlife encounters here. I hoped for them. Still, I was not prepared for how many more there would be.

It’s been a soothing, sometimes exhilarating distraction, especially now that we’re all trapped at home with nothing left to binge except the show outside our windows. My wife keeps a pair of binoculars on her home-office desk and several birding apps on her phone. My kids are more inclined to coo than scream at the sight of a tarantula. They want to keep it as a pet, not kill it with fire, and I’m as proud of this as any of the parenting I’ve done so far.

But a shocking amount of our backyard wildlife content is rated M for mature. Even here in the suburbs, nature can be a horror show. We saw a baby rabbit, small enough to cup in your hand, foraging adorably beneath our bird feeder, only to turn up stone dead a minute later, then disappear without a trace 10 minutes after that. We learned the hard way that woodpeckers don’t just use their beaks on trees, after we witnessed one massacre of a clutch of baby songbirds we’d been following since they hatched. We watched a pair of ravens harass a mother hawk to exhaustion so they could raid her nest, flying off with a still-living hatchling as it struggled and cried out in distress. That’s the thing about embracing the natural world around you: You rarely get to choose who or what you see.

Luckily, all of it is worth a look.

As we slog deeper into this giant asterisk of a year, with nothing to sustain us but bad habits and terrible news, I think more nature is exactly what we need. It reminds us of the variety, fragility and inevitability of life. It connects us with something larger, older, and more enduring than ourselves. And if we are willing to let it in — spiritually at least, if not literally into our homes — it can serve to warn us against breaking things we can never hope to fix. Even the awful stuff teaches us something of value: that everything needs to eat, that everything has a part to play, that there are plenty of things out there we simply cannot control.

A surprising number of those things turn out to be snakes.

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Photos and art: Housing: Desert Companion/Christopher Smith; On the Line: Courtesy of Dave Hickey; Creature Comforts: Desert Companion/Scott Lien, with additional photos by Henry Brean

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