Three Days In Las Vegas, NV

I learned from Anthony Bourdain (though not personally) that when you travel, read a book set in or about your destination. I try to follow his advice most of the time, but this kernel of wisdom struck me as particularly valuable — as a literary person myself, why shouldn’t I read something of my short-term home before I move in?

With Vegas, it’s especially easy. Literary types have come here for decades. And while the selected works of Sin City aren’t nearly as exhaustive as those set in New York or Paris, you won’t go hungry looking for a reading list. It just might be a little heavy on the drinking, drugs, desert, or the tables. For most (and for me), the first book you might grab is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I first read the book in advance of a 2016 trip to Vegas for work, which also doubled as a trip to Vegas with my roommates. Fear and Loathing is depraved, man. It really is. Even our handful of days drinking and gambling couldn’t hold a candle to the Vegas stay described in Thompson’s book — not that we were intent on trying. What really struck me, though, was the casino.

Circus Circus plays a key role in Fear and Loathing. You read that book and you think, Oh, yeah. That’s where the action isThat’s where we’ll go. Well, dear reader, that is not where we went.

Most people, when they come for a conference, choose to stay on the strip. And Circus Circus, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, is on the strip, sure. Just way at the north end. It’s a place you’d visit intentionally, not wander into. With all the new build around it, it’s not really a place you’d host a conference. It looks forgotten. It basically is.

What strikes you first about Vegas when you land at McCarran is truly how ridiculous it all is. The only thing that isn’t man-made is the desert. Who would build here? Why would they keep building? Whatever Vegas once existed for Thompson and Sinatra and the mob, the Vegas pop culture has lionized for years, is gone. It’s not the Mecca of depravity. It’s an assault on the central nervous system, where sinners like me can deaden the glare with an overpriced cocktail or three. But we’ll get to that.

Vegas took a punch.

Perhaps no other city fared worse from the 2008 financial crisis than Las Vegas. When money became tight, fewer and fewer were willing spend their money in a one-sin town. In 2007, casinos on the Las Vegas strip brought in $15.8 billion in revenue. In 2010, that had fallen to $13.3 billion. That fall affected everyone. Home prices dropped 62% from their peak in 2006 to their bottom in 2012. The Vegas-area unemployment rate hit 14.2% at its peak, well above the national peak of 10%. Single-family building permits fell by over 90%. People lost their jobs, then their homes. Things were bad.

In my day job, I interview credit union executives. A few months ago I spoke with the CEO of a Las Vegas-area credit union about some financial education work they do. Curious, I asked about the link between the end of the financial crisis and the area residents’ need for better financial education, thinking that, you know, the recession was long over. What he said surprised me: “It’s taken us a long time to recover. If you had talked to me last year I would have told you we were still in a recession, still recovering.”

I live just outside the Washington, DC bubble. U.S. News just published a list of the 10 richest counties in the U.S., and the top five are all DC suburbs. And though there were people in my area who were affected, we hardly felt a shock. And ten years after the start of the financial crisis, I really had assumed everyone was past it. Not Vegas. At least, not quite.

When you think of the financial crisis, you think of the Sand States — Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada — where the downturn was most acute. Cities like Phoenix and Orlando, especially, felt the employment affects. It wasn’t until October 2013 that Orlando reached pre-recession highs in employment. Phoenix didn’t reach that for another year, in November 2014. But Vegas, which employees 200,000 fewer than Orlando and less than half that of Phoenix, didn’t reach it’s pre-recession high until October 2016.

The thing about Vegas is that sometimes you hit. Sometimes you bust.

That’s as true when you’re playing $5 blackjack at Harrah’s as it is city-wide. For a city that’s built on attracting out-of-town money, things can only ever boom or bust. And right now, things are booming.

Housing demand now outpaces supply, a good thing for the city overall. For one, it’s driving home prices up; homeowners are surely happy about this. For another, it’s created a construction market. Remember how single-family building permits cratered during the crisis? In 2017, these permits hit a 10-year high. 

With a demand for new build comes a demand for construction workers, too. That’s driving wage growth, as hourly earnings for Las Vegas construction workers was up 8.2% in 2017. 

2017 was also a record year for convention attendance (*raises hand*), which may or may not spur more casino development on the strip. Between 1996 and 2010, there were 12 new casinos built on the strip. Since then, zilch, though there are two (Resorts World and The Drew) expected to open in 2020.

But while this is all, nominally, good news, it won’t mean a damn when this cycle ends and the next bust comes. Because further relying on the big casinos and home equity does not a good economic strategy entail. In fact, that’s why Vegas got into this mess in the first place. Today, tourism and hospitality accounts for nearly a third of Vegas’ workforce, three times the national average. When a bust comes, it’s not hard to imagine reading the same eulogists coming up with the same diagnosis. 

If that does happen, however, it won’t be for lack of trying on the part of Vegas. Economic diversity, if gradual, is in progress. 

Amazon recently opened a regional office, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas medical school is expected to add 8,000 jobs and contribute $1.2 billion to the city’s economy by 2030. Plus, those students will need to work somewhere. If they city can keep them local — and already Vegas has planned $97 million to build the Las Vegas Medical District — that’s thousands of jobs and billions more dollars into the economy. In addition, Nevada legalized the sale of marijuana in November 2017, which will bring in tax revenue, while Vegas will soon be home to two professional sports franchises: the NHL’s Golden Knights and the NFL’s Raiders. 

While this activity does not make Vegas recession proof — it still takes a special person to put down roots here — it shows the city’s effort to do right by its residents, and give sin seekers even more to do.

If you are not a person attuned to solo travel, going to Vegas alone can be a trying experience. You don’t want to waste your trip, but there are just so many people around you (the strip is basically a stretched-out Times Square) that it’s easy to get lost without the safety net of another person. 

I’ve done Vegas alone twice and I prefer it that way. With another person, or a group of people, I feel the need to be on all the time. It’s Vegas. Are we having The Most Fun? Alone, I’m relaxed. I can explore, eat, and drink (I try and avoid the tables) without going overboard.

I went alone this trip, too, though a young co-worker of mine, it so happened, was attending another conference overlapping with my same three days, at Caesar’s. I had to slum it at The Palazzo (I kid, I kid). We met up most nights, which made me a little more budget conscious that I may have been otherwise. 

My view from The Palazzo. Not bad.

My sin, if I may pick just the one, is food. I spent a few days before the trip researching establishments of eating, wanting to escape the strip if I could. I’ve spent more than enough time eating and drinking under the oh-so-bright neon lights. I wanted to see a little more the non-illuminated city.

A quick snap of the strip at night.

My first stop was sparrow + wolf, a hip spot just off the strip. Silly me, I didn’t do enough research. The restaurant was closed for a staff holiday party. I grabbed a beer at a sports bar across the parking lot. While I nearly choked from secondhand smoke inhalation, I remembered the recommendation my cab driver gave me that morning: The Bootlegger Bistro.  

Bootlegger is not on the strip. In fact, it’s a good cab ride away (smart cabbie for suggesting I go somewhere that required a cab), as many miles from the strip as its homey vibe is from the neon-lit boulevard.

Above: You can almost smell the cigar soaked leather in The Bootlegger’s entry way. Below: Luscious lasagna under wrinkle-dimming lighting.

My lasagna was awesome, as was the atmosphere. If it feels apart from the Vegas you’re taking a cab from, that’s because it is. First opened in the 1940s, The Bootlegger has seen and entertained the ghosts of Vegas-trips past — if you’re chasing old-Vegas, this is your spot. 

Read this piece in the Las Vegas Journal-Review to learn more about The Bootlegger.

From there, I wanted to raise the price point a little bit. I’d heard good things about Harvest in the Bellagio, so the next night I walked the nearly two miles from The Palazzo (it seemed so much closer) to meet my co-worker. It’s a little pricey and the menu might seem weird at first, but we each had a damn good meal.

Above: Naan bread at Harvest in the Bellagio. Below: A big ol’ pork chop.

I have a big list of restaurants in Vegas to try, but it is with no shame that I report my last meal in the city was In-N-Out Burger. In the past when I’ve visited, eating a meal at In-N-Out enters my mind like a dream. Though that’s all it’s ever been. Too far, I told myself. Don’t want to cab if I can help it. Well, things change.

And by that I mean that an In-N-Out opened in the new (or new to me) LINQ Promenade, on the strip! It was a total shock to me, so we had to nab a double-double with some animal-sauced fries like the East Coast millennials we are before venturing even further off the strip for cheap drinks.

Looks so wrong. Tastes so right.

If there’s anything that defines me as a traveler, it’s that I’m a sucker for cabbie recommendations. That’s how I first heard about Fremont Street, and though I hadn’t been, the name eats at my brain each time I come to town. This time, I made my way north to Fremont twice, once for The Golden Spike and the second for the Neon Museum.

The bar/lounge at The Golden Spike is massive and filled with the sorts of jumbo games millennial bar patrons know well: beer pong, Jenga, etc. We went on a dead Tuesday night and almost had the run of the place, which is why we made a game out of it. We’d try every available game and the loser bought the winner a $2 beer. It was a long night, made even longer by my desire to switch to liquor. 

A view of the backyard at The Golden Spike.

Nacho Daddy is a local chain of Mexican restaurants known for one thing: Scorpion Shots. Luckily for my drunken self, there was a Nacho Daddy steps from The Golden Spike; even more lucky, my co-worker was willing to come along in this quest. Now, I’m not fully sure what I expected. Tequila, I guess? In my mind the scorpion, which floats menacingly in the liquor, was spicy, like a hot pepper.

Afraid the bug would stick in my throat, I drank around it, waiting for the end to tip it into my mouth. Was that a bad strategy? I don’t know. What I do know is that the scorpion was gristly and hard to chew. I wish I had a shot to knock it down.

Scorpion Shot.

Old Vegas, whether Thompson’s or Sinatra’s, will always have a place in my brain. The 60s and 70s there were the last stand for Sin of a Certain Kind, the “perfect” combination of time, place, and behavior we’ll never see again, and probably shouldn’t. That said, there’s no harm in peering into the past, which is why the Neon Museum should become a must-visit for Vegas visitors. 

I booked tickets ahead of my trip (a must, I read) and arrived the morning of my flight, more than a little tired from the night before but ready to learn. The museum’s tours are self-paced, though there were guides who stood at intervals and armed with the answers to your questions. For $20, it’s absolutely worth it, especially for those with more than a passing fascination with Vegas and it’s various evolutionary states.

As I walked the grounds and snapped pictures I thought about the Vegas I knew and the Vegas that thrived when these old lights were bright and beckoned Thompson to run amok. It’s different now, of course, and better. Our society needs a better way to corral the frenzied minds than by letting them loose in a small, depraved town built in the desert, on the outskirts of nothing but dirt. The Old Vegas wasn’t healthy and it encouraged the worst of its guests, but Oh, how those lights would shine. God damn were they pretty.  

Some candids from a hot morning at the Neon Museum.

It made for a fitting end to my trip; hungover and sweating in the desert sun, wandering through a maze of rusted, neon-rimmed aluminum signage that once welcomed visitors to do the same.

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