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Centennial Hills Park

A photo of Centennial Hills Park
Christopher Smith
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Christopher Smith

The beloved hangout of my childhood is showing its age. What else will?

Two months ago, I plopped my son into his stroller and headed to a nearby public park, determined to find a nice place for us to relax outside while he learned to walk.

As we rolled up to the entrance, I paused. It didn’t look like anything I remembered seeing before. Inside the park, the paint on structures was chipped and worn down, showing patches of dull concrete. The lines on the ground and some of the play tunnels looked like they had been painted over, but even the last layer was faded. The replaced slides were aging. Swings were missing or hanging by a single chain. The enormous ceramic frogs that guard the four corners of the splash pad were starting to resemble gargoyles. I was shocked. I almost didn’t recognize this staple of my childhood.

When I was a kid, we called it the Fancy Park. (It’s also colloquially known as the Butterfly Park, but my family didn’t call it that when I was growing up because it was so, well, fancy.) Built in the mid-2000s, while I was still in elementary school, the brand-new
Centennial Hills Park was the go-to hangout for my neighborhood friends and me. It was glorious: towering canopies shaped like flowers; tables and chairs resembling giant red mushrooms; climbable butterfly figures that were four times our size — all designed to make us kids feel like we were living our own version of A Bug’s Life. Only the bravest of the brave dared to climb the seven flights of rainbow stairs to the top of the slides, then zoom down the nearly 90-degree nosedive of blue, green, and pink tubes. The cool kids would jump over the fencing around the slide entrances carrying old cardboard and race down the poured rubber incline as if they were sledding. It was so popular, the squishy floor where kids landed wore away.

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Now, as I looked at the place with my son, it wasn’t so fancy anymore. I wanted him to know how magnificent my favorite park had been, but I didn’t want to ruin it for him either. It’s only 15 years old — relatively new in the larger timeline of Las Vegas — so it may not be renovated for a while. There was some evidence of an attempt a handful of years ago, but it didn’t appear to be anyone’s priority.

Neglected public spaces such as Centennial Hills Park make Las Vegas look its age: 116. It’s not a long time compared to Paris or Cairo, with their rich histories spanning centuries. But to a city as young as Vegas, and to someone still in her 20s, the 15 years that have passed since the park opened feel like an eternity.

I, like Vegas, am still relatively young, but in my early venture into motherhood, I’m starting to feel my age, too. Seeing my favorite childhood park lose its luster made me wonder what’s in store for our town down the line. Will these places be revived? Torn down and replaced with more housing? Or left alone to rot in our desert heat?

Sadness swelled in my eyes and the back of my throat, escaping as a heavy sigh. Resolved to make the best of it, I rolled the stroller toward a tree, parking us in the shade. As my son played in the grass, I imagined him several years from now, racing to the top of fixed-up slides, running through well-groomed grass, playing tag with his friends. I could see him climbing freshly painted butterfly statues and swinging, higher than I ever could, on a shiny new swing set.

I hope that happens, that this park gets the care it deserves. The weekend before this story went to press, the district’s councilwoman, Michele Fiore, held a Centennial Hills Park cleanup, an optimistic sign for the future. In our city’s rush to build new communities, I hope it doesn’t forget to take care of those it already has, so all our kids will have someplace fancy to feel small, free, and alive. 

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