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This year's dining issue of Desert Companion includes not only the 2022 Restaurant Awards, but also a special section called Street Eats, celebrating both fine dining and everyday eating out in Las Vegas.Read the digital edition

In Defense of Las Vegas

A collage of famous images and elements of Las Vegas
Collage
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Ryan Vellinga

Leaving the city I love taught me how to look at it honestly

Why do you like it here?” he asks me.

He is any number of people: a stranger on a barstool, a friend’s boyfriend, an acquaintance I’ve been asked to show around. He is visiting Las Vegas, and he is asking the question visitors ask locals. He is asking for a thesis, and maybe, depending on how the night goes, a fight.

“I could never live in Vegas,” this person always says.

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Ever the tour guide, I tell him about wild burros at Red Rock Canyon, old casino marquees at the Neon Museum, immersive theater in the Arts District, hand-pulled noodles in Chinatown. Warm evenings on the Strip, that collective start-of-the-night energy from so many people determined to have the best night of their lives. Where else can you feel that?  I defend Las Vegas because doing so makes you a local. Other cities have impossible buy-ins for this: You have to live there for a decade. No, it needs to be on your birth certificate.

In Las Vegas, you belong when you stick up for it.

***

In a 2022 interview with ABC 7 News, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf referred to Las Vegas as “the gross desert.” Immediately, the terms “Libby Schaaf” and “gross desert” began trending online. Las Vegas locals shared images of Calico Basin, Valley of Fire, and the Fountains of Bellagio, demanding to know if these photos represented the “gross desert” in question. We were insufferable that day — and I say “we” because I tweeted a photo of my favorite Southern Nevada Joshua tree forest and tagged Schaaf in it — but we were united. Mayor Carolyn Goodman urged Schaaf to “please join the more than 42 million visitors a year and enjoy a trip to Las Vegas.” Schaaf doubled down by clearly stating that no, she did not apologize, and oh, by the way, in addition to the gross desert comment, she found our architecture to be tacky, too.

The argument had gone the way these kinds of arguments always do: Someone says something cruel about Las Vegas, and we respond not with vitriol but with attempt after attempt to get them to like us. We’re defensive, but we’re also desperate for approval. I have been at so many events centered on An Important Person From Out of Town where, during the question-and-answer portion, a local has raised their hand and asked, “What do you think of Las Vegas?” The response is usually some variation of It’s dirty/hot/depressing/I could never raise my kids here/I could never build a life here.

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Defend Las Vegas long enough and you start to feel like you’re defending yourself.

Every time I visit my family in New Hampshire, someone at a barbecue inevitably identifies something about my appearance — my lipstick, my high heels — as a symbol of Las Vegas: “Must be how people out there dress.”

At a conference in Pennsylvania, someone laughed when I ordered a margarita at lunch: “Guess you really are from Las Vegas.”

In my graduate program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I am one of the only locals, and as such, I am forever dragging people to the Strip, showing them the canals at the Venetian, the acrobats at Circus Circus, the mezcal speakeasy at the Cosmopolitan, gesturing to showgirls and sunsets and the thousands of flowers at the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. I point to these things and say, This this this don’t you see it’s this? And every so often I’ll be at a party and someone will ask me that eternal question — Why do you like Vegas so much? — and I’ll feel myself shift into evangelism because isn’t it easy? Defending something you love?

***

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During the summer of 2022 — my seventh in Las Vegas — I decided, for the first time, to leave for an extended period. I rented a trailer in Los Angeles, a little silver Airstream in a filmmaker’s backyard. Weeks before I left, the worried dreams began: dreams about traffic, smog, living in a huge city where I knew no one. Las Vegas is connected to Los Angeles. Physically, economically, psychically. The highway moves Californians east on Fridays, west on Sundays. I, however, had only been to Los Angeles twice in my life. On the drive there, I drank coffee, listened to country music, felt my hands shake in anticipation, sensed the enormous city on the other side of the border.

Let me be clear: This was a research trip. I was working on a novel set in Los Angeles; I was there to understand the nuts and bolts of the city, not to romanticize it.

I spent the first few days in a state of heightened anxiety. The city was overstuffed: Narrow streets with too many cars, laundromats and donut shops and psychics competing for space in overcrowded strip malls. Driving through the center of it felt like being swallowed, as if I would be there forever, endlessly circling the downtown high rises in search of a parking spot that would never materialize. Every basic maneuver came with a hidden fee, an extra step, a previously unmentioned quest. The first week was a perpetual loop of leaving at the wrong time and spending an hour in traffic, stepping into buildings I wasn’t allowed inside, overdressing, overpaying, getting sunburnt, getting lost. In Las Vegas, it is easy to get around. The city is on a grid. The major cross streets are named after the casinos they lead to or used to lead to. The lanes are wide. The parking lots are continents. Everywhere you go there is a doorman, a bartender, a taxi line, a concierge — someone to help you. In Los Angeles, I walked an average of nine miles a day, using my phone to get around, and when it inevitably died I felt like I’d lost touch with gravity and left Earth. But I kept engaging with it, and soon enough the hard things became manageable. By week two I was sitting confidently at Tower Bar. Gin martini. Rare steak. View of the pool. By the end of the month, I knew my way around.

Falling in love with Los Angeles’ particular brand of unexpected magic is not new; people do it every day. But I did think that as a Las Vegas local, I was above its charms. I was not. I loved it all: fruit vendors on the beach, feral parrots in the sky, the skinny trunks of Mexican fan palms reflected in sunglasses, on the hoods of cars. Everyone around me, aiming for the impossible.

I kept thinking about a UC Berkeley study I’d seen that said most people who leave Los Angeles move to Las Vegas. If Los Angeles is where you go to try and make it, then what is Las Vegas?

When I returned home, I was horrified by my own inner monologue. Suddenly, Las Vegas seemed small, ugly. Stucco and red clay apartments, billboards for personal injury attorneys, Astroturf flecked with cigarette ash, bar-top video poker.

Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone any of this. If I disparaged the city in any way, I’d be proving every smug I don’t know how you live here asshole right.

I sat on my couch, looking at the power lines, the gas station outside. Someone texted me and asked for restaurant recommendations, and I responded with a list like I always did. But my heart wasn’t in it. Seven years into my relationship with Las Vegas, my commitment was being tested. Was my love of Las Vegas the result of how few other cities I’d spent time in? Could there be a better one?

In the midst of my private crisis, I went to a reading. The author had just published a novel set in another city. A city she loved. A city where most of her stories took place. In the novel, the city’s inhabitants were cruel to each other. The city was sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes benevolent, sometimes violent. In the end, it burned down. After the author read, I asked her what it was like writing about a place she loved so much.  

“You have to criticize it, even if you love it,” she said. “You can’t love it so much that you fail to tell the truth.” 

I told her I was from Las Vegas, and mercifully, she didn’t ask me how I lived there, why I lived there, or when I was planning on leaving for somewhere better. She just nodded and told me to write about it. And to be honest.

“You know, I’m realizing it now,” she said. “There’s no place else like Vegas, is there?”I smiled. “That’s what I’ve been saying.”

When she signed my copy of her book, she wrote: Burn this place down.  

For years, I thought I had to choose between loving Las Vegas or criticizing it. Both impulses require a sweeping declaration and leave no room for nuance: the Las Vegas radio station that used to describe itself as broadcasting live from the greatest city in the world, the drunk tourist calling an entire community overrated. But there is love in criticism, in looking at the imperfect elements — the unserious ones like ugly billboards and ubiquitous stucco and the serious ones like lack of affordable housing and lack of water — and wanting things to be better.

In Las Vegas, we often think in extremes. Everything is either amazing or terrible. You hit the jackpot; you lost everything. The weather is perfect; the sun is trying to kill you. You went to a decadent steakhouse; you ate at the cheapest buffet in town. You had the best night ever; you made the worst mistake of your life. I love it here; I hate it and never want to come back.

Our impulse in defending Las Vegas is rooted in this. We fear that if we don’t stick up for it, we must hate it.

This isn’t true. We can defend Las Vegas, and we can criticize it. We can love it, and we can ask it for more.  

***

“Why do you like it here?” he asks me.

He in this case is a different stranger. A guy at a nightclub, an Uber driver who just moved to town, a distant relative on the Strip for a trade show.

You know.

Las Vegas, I love you honestly now. I do not try to convince others to love you too. I do not tell them you’re perfect. You’re not. Neither am I.

“I could never live in Vegas,” the stranger says like he always says. Like he always will say.

“Then you don’t have to,” I say.

It is better, I think, to tell the truth. Φ

Krista Diamond explores the intersection where Las Vegas, pop culture, media myths, and urban legend meet. Krista is an MFA candidate in UNLV's Creative Writing program. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, HuffPost, Electric Literature, Narratively, and elsewhere.