Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada -- I couldn't imagine a more illusive place to start a national roadtrip in which my aim is to focus placemakers on the $350 billion jackpot local governments have struck with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
As I ponied up to Las Vegas Boulevard, a designated All-American Road renowned for its world-famous glitz-and-glamour, I found the place not shuttered, but propped backed up and completely booming: American's liveliest Main Street was back, packed with crowds consuming foot-long frozen drinks under kleig lights infinitely up-lighting the dark desert sky. The hustle-and-bustle was a jarring awakening from my self-isolated slumber. Was COVID over? Was it all a dream? Was I just hallucinating off the vape smoke lingering in the air? In the distance, I could see the skylines of New York, the Eiffel Tower and a Great Pyramid -- all on the same street. And there were people there from everywhere too, except maybe Las Vegas itself. I was drowning in a shopping-frenzied fantasy land, detached from reality, and I remember saying something like, "what a beautifully tragic analogy for the American mindset of the recovery: checked-out with their checkbooks out!"
Considering the assembled, I bet that the best use of my time while visiting this national spectacle of sin, was to spread our message wide and far by talking with visitors who'd been drawn to the the Boulevard's bright lights from cities and towns across the US. Starting outside the Mirage Hotel's famous Volcano fountain show, right where Vegas' red-hot growth of the last 30 years ignited, I collided with a couple from a small, suburban town near Kansas City. They were on their honeymoon: an "around the world" trip where they'd be visiting Paris, Venice and Bellagio, Italy without leaving "the Strip."
As I shared the American Rescue Plan Act with them, the facts were quick to sink in, and they didn't have to take a leap into the deep end to tell me that they'd like to see funds used to fix their local community pool, a beloved gem that's been shut down since 2018 due to COVID and a pesky leak (read, potential capital improvement project mayhaps?).
Outside Sigrfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, I met two women from the Pacific Northwest and I schooled them on ARPA funds that will be coming down the pike. One of them was a teacher from Bellingham, Seattle who wanted to see funds go towards creating learning opportunities for children. Her friend from Bend, Oregon was concerend with housing for the homeless. I asked them both to pledge that they would write a letter to their electeds and they pinky sweared.
Later at the hotel, a Latino family was swimming in the kidney-shaped pool. I dove right in and started chatting with them about their experience with the pandemic and thoughts on recovery. They were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The patriarch, Ivan, owned an auto repair shop there, but he was curious about moving to California after I told him it's where I'm from. He cited liking his rapid commute in Albuquerque, but he was curious to live somewhere with a higher quality of life and more things to do. I asked him what he thought his city needed with ARPA funds in mind, and he painted the picture of an Albuquerque where anyone could get job training leading to gainful appointment.
I went to bed that night excited that I'd had great dicussions with people from so many corners of America in one nigh, but I realized I hadn't met anyone on the Strip from Vegas proper.
I spent some additional time the next day connecting with the locals, some contacts I had in the community -- an immigration lawyer, an architect and an artist/professor.
The immigration lawyer and I met in a wealthy suburb of Vegas at a lifestyle center that was a manufactured replication of Tivoli, a town in Italy. He explained that the American immigration courts had recently re-opened and were already jam-packed and crazy just like before. It was discouraging to hear a system that wasn't working great before went right back to business as usual. I wondered, "Is there still an opportunity to pivot systems like immigration and placemaking or was COVID just a long burp in the middle of bad meal?"
My architect friend couldn't meet-up. His tias were in town for his cousin's quincinera and they were at the park enjoying time together after the long year apart. Pity, I would have loved to debate the merits and foibles of fabrications like Tivoli Village and heard about his latest project, the world's largest guitar-shaped building.
I met instead with an artist who works with the university arts department and has had work publically displayed in funkily-rehabilitated arts district. She did not know about the ARPA funds and said the local arts community was small and well-connected to each other, but was lacking some key institutional players like an art museum or contemporary collector base. She said the Desert Art Collective, a grassroots group doing things outside the city might have some interesting ideas. Something we'd hear a lot of down the road: that the creatives are fleeing traditional venues in favor of the fringes where the costs and permission thresholds were much lower than in capital-driven cities.
The next morning I went to see the work of Meow Wolf, the urber-hip artist-lead, fantasy environment-builders of immersive Instagram-worthy experiences. Their Vegas location is called Omega Mart which utilizes the common metaphor of the supermarket to illustrate society's individualistic love of consumerism and the tendency of corporations, like Omega Mart's fictitious Dramcrop parent company, to overreach into our lives such that we're helpless but to find salvation in a box, a bottle or a purchase.
The Zap! Pow! shopping-as-savior, morality tale splattered on the walls in five dimensions at Meow Wolf was apparent enough to hit anyone over the head, except maybe some of the visitors in attendance, many of whom seemed more wide-eyed and lost in its "trippy" spectacle than absorbing its warning.
On this roadtrip, I'm expecting to see more from the recovery than what I saw in Vegas: everyone eager to return to business as usual, appetites bigger than ever for escape and hedonism, even if it is knowingly served up fresh by an evil corporation like Dramcorp, who steals your sould and sells it back to you in cheesy puff form according to Meow Wolf lore.
But at these prices, who can resist?
Current Riders: Ryan Smolar, Steven Homestead
Listening to: Viva Las Vegas, Elvis
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Articles contributed by placemaking experts across the US