The Impermanence of Las Vegas

The Neon Museum sits on the far north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, past the turn off to Fremont Street, past the cheesy faux-elegance of the chapels that litter the blocks beyond the Stratosphere. Also known as the Neon Boneyard, or the Neon Graveyard, the museum houses nearly 150 signs from dates ranging from the 1930s to present day. The Silver Slipper and mid-century modern themed sign direct visitors to the museum, though the visitor’s center is hard to miss.

The museum’s visitor’s center has a history of its own. The wavy concrete façade resembles a shell, as it should; Paul Revere Williams designed it as such. It was originally the lobby of the La Concha Motel, built in 1961, and is an example of what the museum tour guide will tell you is “Googie” architecture. This Googie architecture and mid-century modern design pervades the boneyard, which makes sense as the construction of most of the iconic Las Vegas hotels occurred in the height of modernism, amongst the Atomic Age and the southern California style of the 1950s and 60s. The concrete wave over the main doors is a vision itself: the entire building, while rather small, is incredibly striking. Even more striking is that this is not the original location of the La Concha. Rather, instead of demolishing the lobby with the rest of the building, the concrete was cut into eight slabs and moved to its new location.

Visitors may only tour the boneyard via guided tour. There are rules: stay on the path, don’t touch, etc., but their main concern seems to be about photography. Photos may be taken for personal use only. Only one lens can be used per photographer. No tripods. Don’t use photos professionally. These rusty old signs, though some have been restored or remarkably preserved, are well-guarded. They are not secret, but they may not be exploited. The museum does everything possible to prevent these signs from being injured or being appropriated by unruly photographers.

 

The docent is well versed in Las Vegas history, and she is young, as all of the staff appears to be. Many of the words she uses are found, verbatim, on the museum website. So, rather than being well versed, perhaps she is just really good a memorizing the specifics of each sign she points out along the many stops on the tour.

The walking tour isn’t extensive – the loop around the carefully placed remnants would probably take you two minutes without the stops – but it is tiring. But in Vegas, you walk. You stop when you want to stop, move on when you are ready, when whatever glittery thing that caught your eye finishes charming you, so the Neon Museum guided tour feels stifling. The docent has much to say, and it’s easy to lose interest quickly – particularly if you have a camera strap around your neck. She wants your attention on the sign she is discussing. She glares at you if you walk backwards or snap photos of signs she hasn’t discussed yet.

 

Vegas is created by walking. You drive places to walk more. You sit at slot machines or tables, bar stools or benches, before walking to your next destination. Walking in Vegas is its own rhetoric. The rich tapestry of people cluttering sidewalks and casino chairs often seem serene, if not entranced. Somehow most avoid bumping into one another or into things – autopilot navigates the body as camera phones are lifted or faces are turned towards the sky with mouths agape.

The desperation can be sensed later at night at the tables, where a variety of folks have knowing smirks or deer in headlights eyes. Who knows if it’s part of the game or real desperation?

People watching in Vegas is amazing. There is no “type” of person that is a Vegas visitor. There are desperate young men, middle aged women, birthday girls and brides-to-be, bums and buskers. Those who give out the playing card sized advertisements for girls are the most common individual, though they come in all shapes, colors, and genders. They smack their cards, creating their own rhythm, before shoving a card in the face of passerby.

Each person who walks among the glittery Vegas giants has their own story. The panhandler who sits on the skywalk between the MGM Grand and New York New York holding his bent cardboard sign reading “save the camel toes and moose knuckle bitches,” the young men who circle groups of women like vultures, the families of four, the older woman standing alone near a crosswalk handing out the playing cards of women – all have stories, have their own graveyards, their own desperation.

While the Strip is artificial in every way – fake Paris and New York, chain stores and restaurants, costumed panhandlers – there is a similar desperation in those people and the spaces, not so different from the desire to restore old signs to former glory, preserve the past, the bygone era.

To walk is to lack a place, that’s what de Certeau says. He says the city cannot exist without people, and, in the case of Las Vegas, this seems especially poignant. The people who create the space do not belong there. It’s a city of tourism, of impermanence. Yet hoteliers and corporations spend billions of dollars creating enormous permanent spaces to house these intruders, these temporary residents who haul their desperation and their dreams and then leave them behind when they exit.

Rebecca Solnit says,

Las Vegas suggests that the thirst for places, for cities and gardens and wilderness, is unslaked, that people will still seek out the experience of wandering about in the open air to examine the architecture, the spectacles, and the stuff for sale, will still hanker after surprises and strangers. That the city as a whole is one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly places in the world suggests something of the problems to be faced, but that its attraction is a pedestrian oasis suggests the possibility of recovering the spaces in which walking is viable.

 

But I think it’s the desperation that drives people to the city, that makes them walk for hours on aching feet, in impractical shoes. It’s the desire to find an authentic experience, the Vegas experience, to have something that stays in Vegas, just like the tagline tells us. Women become sexier, men become more courageous (and probably hornier), couples come together in darkened nightclubs. The walking is a part of that experience. The whole strip was created, and is fortified, by the notion that people will walk to observe the spectacle, to buy big obnoxious drinks or large cans of beer to enhance their experience, and that these strangers will pump too much money into the cog, contribute to the insatiable capitalistic monster, in search of an experience. The gambling was initially, of course, a huge part of the machine. But with so many going to Vegas for something other than gambling – setting aside maybe $20 or $100 to throw away (though there’s always the fantasy of winning big) – the slot machines and craps tables are less integral.

The visitors follow pre-set paths – there isn’t any room to make your own way, not really – yet visitors still make it their own. Where they go becomes their experience. The city then, for a time, becomes part theirs. When they leave, it’s the memories that stay with them, but even those eventually fade, lose some of their luster.

 

Visitors are fine with the newer and better. The replacements that come in the form of modern facades and sleek lines and join the competition to go bigger, hold more, reach higher – thousands of rooms stacked on top of each other in thinner, sexier glass skyscraper. The city is systematically replacing the garish with the new aesthetic. This year another long-standing fixture, The Riviera, is slated for demolition. I wonder what happens to the experiences others have had in the places that no longer exist. I wonder if they go into our own boneyards, where we set our own rules for guided tours.

The demolition of the foundational structures of Vegas seems particularly bittersweet. The Riviera, for example, opened in the mid ‘50s and was the first high-rise on the Strip. It once called Dean Martin owner. It, along with the Tropicana, Sahara, and others, held many of the Mafia secrets during the postwar boom.

After a while, however, you forget what a marvel Las Vegas is. The Neon Museum serves as a reminder. Several of the signs have been restored: the iconic ones like Stardust, Sahara, and Tropicana. One large rusted sign that is only visible in the back will cost $50,000 to restore, the tour guide explains. She pleads, half in jest, half in desperation, with visitors to consider a donation so that it might be restored to “its former glory.”

These are the memories that the Neon Museum attempts to preserve, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoration. The famous signs become a Lazarus of the modern era, brought back from the dead by skilled hands and nostalgic investors. They are restored – they live again, just in a new context.