Fifth Street

December 31, 2020

In this issue: 2020 Wasn't a Total Hellscape | My Secret Rock Between Two Worlds | Media Sommelier


NOT GONNA LIE, we started counting down to 2021 in April. That’s about the time 2020 began smearing into a languid blur of doomscrolling, binge-watching, Skypezooming, and anxious fretting. But 2020 did have some silver linings. In no particular order — but still numbered to lend a cosmetic sense of comforting structure to what was a shapeless, soul-consuming void of a year — here are year-in-review highlights that (cue pensive but triumphant score!) tie those silver linings into a defiant bow reflecting the resilient spirit of Southern Nevada!

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1. Strip acts adapted. “The show must go on,” they say. Nothing about when, where, or how, though. Social media — and Vegas grit — to the rescue. Carrot Top, Criss Angel, the Jabbawockeez, and Park MGM DJs took pieces of their shtick to Instagram. Las Vegas Magazine created YouTube's “Vegas at Home” series, which brought us Westgate magic madam Jen Kramer and Sexxy's Jennifer Romas; the Aussie lads of Human Nature; acts from Extravaganza: The Vegas Spectacular; Chippendales hip-wrigglers; drag king/queen Frank Marino; and cooking from the kitchen of Chef Rick Moonen. There were Fantasy’s Lorena Peril’s socially distanced dance/block parties; headliner Jeff Civillico’s Zoom juggling lessons; and magicians Mat Franco and Murray Sawchuck’s effervescent trickery transplanted to Facebook.

Via an app, Cirque du Soleil offered digital content and even exercise routines. Both the Neon Museum and Mob Museum brought interactive exhibits and educational material through apps, YouTube and blogs, while Wynn Las Vegas took to Twitter to stream videos on their art program. And we can’t even count the tons of local musicians who stormed social media with performances live from their front porches, backyards and living rooms.

Adaptation. Resilience. Passion. That’s the ticket to pandemic defiance. SB

2. Off-Strip arts and culture adapted, too. The end of live entertainment hit The Entertainment Capital harder than Mike Tyson’s left hook — yet many of our arts institutions have innovated to reach audiences in new ways. Majestic Repertory Theatre experimented with how to be present-yet-distanced with everything from drive-through Halloween horror shows (right) to parking-lot romantic comedies with car-radio audio to holiday mini-plays that come to your front yard. Vegas City Opera leaned into the lack of theater by filming a condensed version of Wagner’s Ring trilogy set in sites around Las Vegas — Norse giants at Red Rock, Valkyries on Fremont Street. Even the Double Down Saloon has found a way to bring back live music by streaming bands from a rehearsal space across the street onto multiple screens around the bar — with the bonus that those who are kept from Vegas’ fave dive by COVID or distance can slide onto their own virtual barstool for a set or two. LTR

3. Nevada environmentalists scored big wins. Let’s be honest: the Donald J. Trump presidency has been a disaster for the environment. Which is why it’s pure irony that 2020 — the worst year in a series of terrible ones, as far as protection rollbacks go — saw a few major wins for Nevada environmentalists. The biggest of these may be the end of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to pump water from springs in Eastern Nevada and pump it to the Las Vegas Valley. The 30-year-old project faced fierce, well-organized opposition, but even many of those opponents thought it would never really die. That seems to have happened when, at an SNWA board meeting May 21, directors approved a series of steps amounting to surrender. You could hear the applause all the way to Baker.

Another decades-long fight environmentalists had been waging came to an apparent end in August, when Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act. The law — which resulted from bipartisan congressional collaboration, not the work of the administration that took credit for it — included full, permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF is replenished with fees on offshore oil and gas drilling and used to pay for parks and recreation areas. Some extremely popular public lands, such as Red Rock and Lake Mead, have used LWCF money, which proponents will no longer have to fight for year to year.

The last big win, and it’s a doozy, came in December, when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act. What’s remarkable is what’s not in the bill: a transfer of jurisdiction over millions of acres of public land from the Department of Interior to the Department of Defense, which would have allowed the U.S. Air Force to expand training areas at the Fallon Naval Air Station and the Nevada Test and Training Range into public lands. In the latter case, the public stood to lose access to vast portions of the much-loved Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas. Opposition to the plan coalesced around the “Don’t Bomb the Bighorn” campaign, which garnered broad support — everyone from indigenous people to military veterans. If the act does get signed into law, as expected, champagne corks will pop from the Moapa Paiute reservation to Washington, D.C. HK

4. Black Lives Matter protests sparked difficult but necessary conversations. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the nation erupted in mass protests — and Las Vegas joined the chorus of grief and outrage. But local activists didn’t just channel their righteous anger into the streets. They helped energize an urgent national dialogue from a local context, galvanized other progressive organizations, and, most importantly, contributed to a growing comprehension of systemic racism — that is, the idea that racism has roots that extend historically through our culture, our economy, and our justice and education systems — which is to shamefully say the fabric of America itself. The conversation has just begun. AK

5. All those murals were nice. Finding a silver lining to 2020 has been like looking for a lost earring in a landfill, but one of the first upsides was also the easiest to see. When businesses began boarding up during the statewide shutdown in March, suddenly there were blank expanses where display windows and hostess stands used to be — blank expanses that begged to be muralized. Within a week of the shutdown, the Arts District had turned itself from a depressing ghost town to an outdoor art gallery that was alive with artists and art fans, checking out vivid abstractions, swarms of butterflies, colorful renditions of the Vegas skyline, and homages to plague doctors or The Dude. While we’re all glad to see the doors open once more, I do hope the pictures that made those dark months brighter live on in storerooms somewhere. LTR

6. Speaking of art: Even amid the pandemic, we saw some amazing exhibits. Here are three you can still check out.
1) Victor Ehikhamenor, Artist-in-residence at the Neon Museum’s Ne10 Studio. Ancient West African script from the Kingdom of Benin produces hypnotic patterning in Victor Ehikhamenor's monumental “sculpted” paintings and neon bas relief (right) at the Neon Museum. Currently displayed via virtual tour, the works integrate neon and veer toward graffiti art without losing sight of sacred origins. Of special note are the 12-foot-tall sculpture “Okalente,” which uncannily evokes the presence of a ritual dancer, and “Harvesting,” a dazzling neon palette riffing on Uli graphic forms. Mouse over to the Neon Museum website and see for yourself.

2) Lance L. Smith, In the Interest of Action, Center Gallery, Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, UNLV
Lance Smith drafts and paints portraits so vivid that the likenesses have a pulse and stare back. In their current show, In the Interest of Action, Smith uses Old Master moves to animate cowry shells oozing with sentient life. Also of note are the muscular hand drawings and deft linocuts (right) in which Smith’s natural talent throbs. Open through March 19, or explore the virtual version here.

3) Justin Favela, 20Twenty, Test Site Projects
The artist who transformed the pinata medium into punchy high art avows hidden aesthetic vectors in three suites of intriguing prints: “Archi-props, After Ed Ruscha,” featuring eight stark, but touching, lithographs based on architectural drawings emptied of extraneous detail; “Untitled, After Donald Judd,” (right) six lithographs whose abstract black stripes harbor miniature landscapes sporting fantastic skylines; and the chlorophyll-pumped, monochromatic “Hoja” series of seven tamale-inspired screen prints. See it ASAP by appointment while you have the chance, or take a virtual tour. DMB

7. Psst, Henderson quietly reinvented itself. Henderson’s revitalized Water Street District doesn’t exactly rival Downtown Summerlin. But it does have a few things in common with its big brother to the northwest: a walkable vibe, popular eateries and, now, an ice arena. Opened in early fall and patterned after City National Arena in Summerlin, Lifeguard Arena caters to ice skaters and hockey players of all ages (and skill levels) with two regulation-size rinks. And just as City National Arena is home base for a professional hockey outfit (the Golden Knights), so too is Lifeguard Arena. MJ

8. Speaking of Henderson: The Silver Knights arrived. Attending professional hockey games? A blast. Digging deep into the college tuition fund to pay for the privilege? Not so much. Which is why we celebrated the late-May announcement that minor-league hockey was returning to the valley in the form of the Henderson Silver Knights. The first pro franchise to ever set up shop in the Silver State’s second largest city, the Silver Knights will compete in the American Hockey League and serve as the Vegas Golden Knights’ top affiliate. While the team’s headquarters and practice facility will be at Lifeguard Arena in downtown Henderson, home games will be played at the Orleans Arena until a 6,000-seat venue is completed on the site of the former Henderson Pavilion in Green Valley. Best of all? Budget-friendly ticket prices! MJ

9. Is it just me, or did you improbably catch the holiday decor bug, too? I never bothered decorating the home for the holidays before this year. Or, I should say, I never bothered decorating my home for the holidays — I’d put up black cats for the kids at work for Halloween or go back East and carefully unwrap antique glass ornaments at Christmas, but my Vegas residence was left unadorned. But 2020 was the year we all stayed home and, by the end of it, that home needed a little … something. For me, it began with an October trip to the dollar store that culled elaborate skull-and-flower cutwork tablecloths, faux-Beistle black-cat dishware, and a monster-head bucket that I filled with Hershey and Stoli minis. (I was the only trick-or-treater, okay!) In December, I was taken by a cute kid’s painting of a reindeer at Savers and soon was digging up my German grandmother’s angel antimacassars and wooden gnomes and a Playmobil Nativity scene I never bothered setting up, adding a pizza man to the Three Wise Men and subbing in Elvis for Joseph. I even bought a silver tinsel tree and a dozen tiny silver robots to hang on it. Holiday decorating 2020 is an odd paradox of display that’s designed only to please oneself. I may go back to the family home and the family traditions in 2021, but my own traditions — and my robots — will be back too. LTR

10. We got outdoors a lot more. We figured out pretty early on that gathering outside was safer than inside — lucky for us here in Las Vegas, we get 294 days of sunshine a year. People flocked to the great outdoors, reconnecting with nature and elevating their heart rate outside of the gym. Lake Mead, for example, had a 17 percent revenue gain from last year. And the interest isn’t just in hiking: Nevada saw a 30 percent increase in hunting licenses. But what’s best of all, these entrance and permit fees go right back into preserving the wild lands we love. SS

11. We made massive cuts in our CO2 emissions. A lot of us haven’t seen a flight safety video or sampled the sweet delights of airline peanuts in a long, long time — McCarran International Airport saw just half of its normal November traffic last month, and international flights were down by over 90 percent. But all of those grounded planes, plus the decline in car commuting, meant that we saw a record-breaking 7 percent plunge in our global CO2 emissions. Skies cleared. Scientists cheered. And we all got to feel a tiny sliver of optimism. SS

12. Is it just me, or did group texts save your sanity, too? The group text has always been an assortment of vague acquaintances getting endless alerts about things that aren’t urgent. But months of isolation turned them into something between a Slack channel, a news desk, an improv group, and a recurring therapy session. One of my threads began as a group of former co-workers texting to set up Netflix viewing parties; another originated as an early-spring check-in with old friends scattered on the two coasts — but both became a big part of what passed for my social life in 2020. We’ve commiserated with each other through family deaths and personal health scares; we’ve kept each other apprised of the progress of knitting projects and nearby wildfires; we’ve discussed The Queen’s Gambit and Female Trouble. And while I would rather have been discussing Kamala’s blowout, Pence’s upper arms, and the constitutional guardrails against a coup over beers at Atomic Liquors, if we do it via text now, hopefully we can all be back doing it in person come summer. LTR

13. Home values didn’t implode, so there’s that. According to the most recent stats released by Las Vegas Realtors, Southern Nevada’s home prices increased for six consecutive months through November, a new record. More numbers: The median sales price for an existing single-family home rose to $345,000 in November, a 12.4 percent increase from November 2019. Condos and townhomes are experiencing a similar boom. The reason the housing market is exploding when the pandemic has otherwise crippled the economy: low supply, high demand, and historically low mortgage interest rates. MJ

14. A sliver of Americana made a brief comeback, so there’s that. When indoor movie theaters were closed, North Las Vegas’ West Wind Drive-in was the only local place to see movies on the big screen, and even now that some indoor theaters have reopened, the drive-in is still the safest place to catch a new release or an old favorite. Drive-ins had been slowly dying out, but pandemic restrictions made them popular again, and we’re lucky to have a gloriously preserved piece of Americana here in town, enjoying its deserved moment in the spotlight. JB

15. Speaking of film: With everyone staying at home, the Vegas film scene (and films tied to Vegas) had a moment. The mass shift from movie theaters to at-home viewing provided an advantage for small independent releases, including a surprisingly long list of movies with ties to Las Vegas. In 2020, there were plenty of movies by Las Vegas filmmakers, movies shot and/or set in Las Vegas, and movies about Las Vegas.

The uncertainty of real life gave a boost to the horror genre, and one of the biggest Vegas movie success stories of 2020 was Brandon Christensen’s Z, which became a major hit on horror-focused streaming service Shudder. The second feature from Vegas-based Christensen, Z stars Keegan Connor Tracy as a mother dealing with her young son’s sinister imaginary friend. Also on Shudder, the anthology Scare Package features contributions from former Las Vegans Chris McInroy (a UNLV film school graduate and local festival regular) and Baron Vaughn (a Las Vegas Academy graduate and successful comedian and actor), both creating clever segments that mix horror and humor. On video-on-demand, veteran local filmmaker Kelly Schwarze reached new audiences with his haunted house movie Abigail Haunting (shot in Sloan, Nevada), and successful local B-movie producers Sonny and Michael Mahal created another hit with their alien invasion movie Attack of the Unknown.

There were a lot of strong actual documentaries about Vegas this year as well, including Jeffrey McHale’s essay film You Don’t Nomi, analyzing the complex reactions to Paul Verhoeven’s Vegas trash classic Showgirls; Hannah Olson’s somber Baby God, about the legacy of Vegas fertility doctor Quincy Fortier, who impregnated perhaps hundreds of women with his own sperm; and meta-documentary The Ringmaster, about Las Vegan Zachary Capp’s Quixotic quest to honor a humble onion ring chef from his Minnesota hometown.

Straddling the line between drama and documentary, brothers Bill and Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is presented as a document of the final night of a Vegas bar called The Roaring 20s, as regulars gather for one last toast before the bar closes for good. And for anyone longing for that pre-pandemic Vegas — when people would hang out in local bars listening to live music — the documentary An Irish Story: This Is My Home is a shot of nostalgia for a shockingly recent time. Director Karl Nickoley follows Vegas-based Celtic rock band The Black Donnellys as they embark on a mind-boggling effort to set a Guinness World Record by playing 60 gigs in 50 states in 35 days. Taken together, these films offer an inspiring snapshot of creativity and powerful storytelling in Vegas, with more to come in 2021. JB

16. A new casino opened, so there’s that. With aesthetics nodding to Downtown’s colorful past, Circa Hotel & Casino changed the skyline and exhibited a hard-won bravado. An exterior at turns commanding and lithe invites the curious; inside, meticulously restored Vegas Vickie adorns a casino built around a sports book for the ages. Derek Stevens has built an instant classic. PS

17. Speaking of Downtown: The new Gateway Arches were a nice touch. Like most everything else in this town, its existence makes no sense. But it brings a smile to our masked faces nonetheless. The 80-foot-tall, 13,000-light Gateway Arches in front of The STRAT hotel-casino reminds visitors of the distinction between Clark County’s Strip and Las Vegas’ downtown. We don’t need walls to separate us, just an inviting, illuminating, delicate span fabricated and installed by iconic sign company YESCO. PS

17. Is it just me, or did cooking at home make you appreciate restaurants that much more too? Maybe you’ve been cooking more at home this year: We’re dealing with tighter budgets, trying to follow safety guidelines, and spending a lot more time at home. But by December, the thrill of newfound culinary skills has dwindled: Turns out, you have to consume what you cook, all 6 quarts of that red sauce. And chicken stock. And bean soup. The monotony of eating our own cooking has kindled a renewed appreciation for the talent and creativity in restaurants—not to mention all the work that goes into it. We won’t take dining out for granted ever again. SS

18. Amid it all, the strange comfort of UNLV football abides. New coach! New uniforms! New stadium! Same old wretched UNLV Rebel football. However, its 0-6 record is oddly comforting, a soothing emblem of enduring futility, a realization that not everything changed in 2020. The last time the Rebels were winless (0-11) was in Vegas’ halcyon days of 1998 when the Bellagio opened, followed by Mandalay Bay, the Venetian and Paris Las Vegas. Tom Hawley is still flying above. A Goodman is still mayor. Pandemics come and go, but some things remain the same. PS

By Dawn-Michelle Baude, Josh Bell, Steve Bornfeld, Matt Jacob, Andrew Kiraly, Heidi Kyser, Lissa Townsend Rodgers, Sonja Swanson, and Paul Szydelko

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THERE ARE NO great city parks. There are no urban rambles. There are no grand public squares or plazas. So here, in this inhospitable place, we make our own. The filigree of trails traced across the city’s literal edges, where master-planned homes meet the desert, where talus slopes rise just past the last road or power line. These trails meander through the landscape, bending through the foothills, or cresting over them, weaving through small canyons and ravines and hidden spaces, offering room for long walks and longer flights of fancy.

Las Vegas doesn't really envelope you the way other cities do with their horizons hemmed in by trees and buildings. Las Vegas only ever unfurls itself before you, from any angle in town, from any place, at any time of day. Take me all. Or don't.

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My desert — my city, really — are the hills on the southwest end of town; the Desert Hills (or Gypsum Ridge). Up by the caves. Striding across the top of Las Vegas. Always looking down or looking out or looking across, taking it all in. At dawn, before the sun pole-vaults into the sky, when the city looks calm. Or at sunset, bathed in shadow while the eastern side of the city lounges in pink-tipped light. At night the planes stair-step their way down into McCarran, the city stirs like a bed of jewels. All times of days there’s the wild variety of purples and browns and tans are on display mountains carved with a sculptor’s chisel or applied on the horizon with a painter’s brush. (Well, except during the harsh, unforgiving light of noon),

Always there’s the blunt, miraculous strength of the skyline — from the Strat to the Mandalay Bay, that long and improbable fortress of towers. This spectacular valley; good sight lines all around the arena.

Never quite alone. That’s okay. Fellow travelers of the urban periphery. Hikers. ATVs and motorbikes, 4x4s, mountain bikes. Occasional police helicopters zooming overhead in search of … some buried body? Once rode to the top of a steep hill with an Iraq War vet in his pickup truck. He was a Marine who’d done two tours and was trying to readjust to civilian life. He had a girlfriend who loved him. I wanted a simple girl, he said, and thats what I got. Whatd he want to do, I asked. Mechanic. That was his true love. Working with his hands, with wrenches, tools, lathes. He knew how to work with iron. I gathered he didnt get a chance to talk very much to anybody.

There’s a large rock just 10 minutes from the house, just 30 steps or so up the base of the Desert Hills. I sit on this rock. In one direction, the sweep of nearly the whole city, blooming beyond the roofs of my neighborhood. In the other, Potosi Mountain and the massive concrete detention basins, which look like Roman ruins and guard against rain that never comes. Behind me the hills climb steeply. Before me, new homes, tightly packed, the elementary school. I'm out of the city, in the city, above the city, at the edge of the city, beyond the city, still held in its thrall.

You'll find me at my rock a few times a week. Recharging. Suspended here, my preferred state of mind, I guess, between sky and earth, between sacred and profane, between people and solitude, between the restlessness of my imagination and the fleeting pleasure of not thinking about anything, between all these cliches and a vision of world where I am some kind of fleeting free.

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1. I'D WAGER that the last thing you’re in the mood for on New Year’s Eve is a bout of wearied reminiscing about 2020 via a blast of links to assorted brainiacs’ year-in-review roundups. Amen to that. That’s why I promise to keep this mercifully brief meta-roundup of 2020 at a level of tidy abstraction that will preserve your fragile headspace for more important things, like weepily drinking champagne later. At Marker, Rob Walker discusses the 15 objects that defined a tumultuous 2020, from sweatpants to rubber bullets to those weird monoliths popping up around the world. Walker’s musing on one of the objects, Carnival’s Mardi Gras cruise ship: “This grandiose testament to the engineering of leisure now seems like a perfect artifact of the ‘before times,’ as people like to say: that carefree world where packing together with more than 6,000 strangers in the bars, restaurants, performance spaces of a cruise ship was a thing people did to relax.” Given that the Strip is just one big terrestrial cruise ship, I confess that I found myself in the curious position of rooting for the Mardi Gras.

Meanwhile, Rani Molla at Vox has compiled “2020 in 20 Charts,” and it’s not only tidily abstract, but it’s also not all tidily abstract doom and gloom! “It’s been a very good year for bread, hand sanitizer, and pets,” she writes. Some other upsides: People became more self-sufficient, greenhouse gas emissions dropped, and a coronavirus vaccine was developed in record time. So, maybe you don’t have to drink that champagne too weepily.

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2. The internet has changed everything, but I’ve always had a hobbyist preoccupation with how it’s changed writing in particular. In our quest for clicks, likes, and retweets, writing has become more tart, more aphoristic, more hyperbolic, and more performative than reflective. Basically, the internet has turned us all into nasty British dining critics. Funny I should say that! Vicious restaurant takedowns are the focal point of Theodore Gioia’s excellent piece in The New Republic, “Death to the Negative Restaurant Review,” a lively discussion of the phenomenon of the overheated, bare-knuckle school of dining criticism (e.g., “the steak slumped to the side over the potatoes like a dead body inside a T-boned minivan”) and what the implications of its “promiscuous hyperbole” are for broader public discourse. Gioia argues that critics’ obsession with gleefully deploying lurid metaphors of crime and violence in such a low-stakes arena diverts linguistic horsepower that might be better deployed to address issues with real stakes: “(P)ugilist prose offers an idiom of flamboyant irrelevance. This is a voice with strong words for small matters but polite silence for serious concerns — a voice that will not speak truth to power but only to cauliflower.”

2a. However, I did delight in reading “The Most Scathing Book Reviews of 2020.” Hope you enjoy Hostess snack cakes, ’cause there’s hella zingers!

3. So, random story: I grew up in Las Vegas, and I was recently musing on all the parts of town where I’ve lived: East side, UNLV district, Centennial Hills, Downtown. Just thinking about them generated a map in my mind, over which a polygon formed, connecting the nodes of my lived locales. You ever do that? It becomes a curious geometric nostalgia trip that engages notions of limits and enclosure, but also of exclusion and intimacy, all related to how personal biography interacts with geography. I know, deep! (I was high.) Turns out that conceptual artist Sol LeWitt performed this very exercise in his 1980 work, “The Area of Manhattan Between the Places I Have Lived is Removed.” Inspired by LeWitt’s work and a recent move, librarian/researcher/developer Matt Miller created Between the Places, a cool web app for making your own personal geometric maps in the same vein.

It’s a nice way to start thinking about the promise of 2021: Where you have been? What does it mean? Where will you go next? Andrew Kiraly

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Photos and art: Murals, "My Rock" landscape by Christopher Smith; Majestic by Associated Press/John Locher; Victor Ehikhamenor art courtesy The Vox Agency; Lance Smith art by Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services; Justin Favela art courtesy Justin Favela; You Don't Nomi poster courtesy RLJE Films; Sloan Canyon by Christopher Smith; Circa by Tom Donoghue

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