Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 4 | Spring 2023

Air of Ambivalence

Winter in Spring Valley

I happened in Vegas, but I didn’t stay there. 

I’m brainstorming resonant turns of phrase in the shade of a Roman pediment. 

Structurally, this concrete gable is useless, not holding up anything—maybe a dream. Under the bridge, I appraise people’s claims to the city. Resident or tourist? A family packed in their SUV drives by. Trailing them, a wiry man on his bike wheels down the boulevard. Total resident. He’s off west, E.T. style. My heart trips. I’m headed west too, waiting for Clark County’s 202 bus to Spring Valley. I planned this day in Las Vegas to write about a city that’s joining my family. Before I welcome it, I have to get to know it. I’ll spend the day chatting up dozens of the almost three million people who call the Las Vegas Valley home. 

In the meantime, I’m back to my notebook: I happened in Vegas, but I didn’t stay there. 

There? Here? Well, about a twenty-minute walk from here: at the Hotel Sahara. 

The Sahara heads the northern end of The Strip, Las Vegas’ serpentine central hospitality corridor. In 1951, on several acres of underutilized Mojave desert, casino architect Martin Stern designed the Hotel Sahara as an ode to the African desert on the other side of the globe. By the turn of the millennium, the Sahara’s business had been buried by more spectacular competitors. Still, its smoke-soaked rooms remained a refuge for Southern Californians who’d come and gamble only small sums of money. Casino managers call these patrons low-rollers. My parents, fresh thirtysomethings, low-rolled their way through the Sahara on their spring break in 2001. They came to Vegas with friends, and they left pregnant with twins. 

Every year, like worshippers of happiness on pilgrimage, my family would go to Vegas. But with children in tow, my parents’ Vegas rituals had to change. They went from low-rollers to no-rollers. My father swore off slot machines. My mother who withers at the sip of strawberry daiquiri steered clear of alcohol. As a family, we reveled in other spectacles of commercial Vegas. It’s a place that took our favorite foods from home and cataloged them, placed them at adjacent food court prosceniums for easy grazing. Under airbrushed skies, we jaunted along indoor avenues beside automated canals and ghost storefronts. Strapped into a hotel rollercoaster, I zipped between the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty several years before I first stepped foot on the East Coast. 

I pull down my notebook and focus on the road. I squint and make out an approaching bus a busy block away.

My ability to fully appreciate Vegas expanded as I grew older. One night, through the Strip-side hotel window, I admired the Bellagio, a resort built in the image of Italian lake country. The colossus sits on a reservoir mined with hundreds of coordinated water jets. And every night, as if given marching orders, a wall of onlookers gathers at the reservoir’s marbled shore. Hands pressed up against the glass, I ogled along with them at bursts of recycled water shot in a million directions. 

With my pupils so full they were grazing the edge of my irises, I turned back to my parents and proclaimed, “I want to stay here forever.” Even early on, I knew the rule. Paradise was finite: this was a place we went to but didn’t stay. I knew that four hours west, elementary school awaited me.  

The westbound 202 bus awaits me now. I hop on. As the bus pulls away, the Strip’s concentrated grandeur fades from view. It happens quickly. To the city’s forty million annual visitors, the Strip is a synonym for Vegas. To a Vegas resident, it’s a district. And to a bird, it’s a blip. The Strip’s dozens of resorts, casinos, and concert halls occupy less than two percent of Vegas’ urban footprint.

In the seat headed down Flamingo Road, I continue ruminating on my relationship with Vegas: 

The day after my fountain-induced proclamation, my parents, sister, and I packed up the family SUV and rolled back home to Los Angeles. This ritual fell into a larger scripture. For living, my family confined itself to California. The joy of indulgence was reserved for Nevada, one state east.

Mommy’s family stays in San Diego. Daddy’s side is close by in LA. What if you want to have a good time with friends, go full-on hedonist away from domestic life? You go to Vegas. 

Then, my family broke their geographic commandments. Marquita left San Diego for Houston. Aunt Bon moved to North Carolina. And as a direct affront to the functional separation of California and Nevada, my mom’s best friend Sylvia Gonzalez is headed to Vegas next year. They’ve been lured away by an affordable cost of living in a place with winters that are imaginary like the ones in Southern California. 

I step off the 202 a few miles west of the Strip. Late November in Las Vegas is imaginary on my skin. Climatologists like to call the winters of desert cities warm, but “warm” falls short of describing this winter climate. “Warm” implies some sort of valence toward heat. You can’t feel this Monday afternoon weather at all. The air has met your blood at equilibrium. It’s ambivalent. 

I look out onto Flamingo Road. It spreads 10 miles west and 7 miles east from its origin: a namesake casino on the Strip. This nomenclature—casino to the street—is common in Vegas: south of Flamingo Road is Tropicana Ave and north is Sahara Ave. East of my vantage, dusty towers shoot up from the Strip’s periphery, pulled in by the area’s economic magnetism. Oriented straight west, a terracotta monolith juts out of the mountains that encircle the Las Vegas Valley.


I step back. God, if this red rock formation sprouted in the field of an Indianapolis suburb, it would become an eighth wonder of the world, an attraction. 

Instead, hemming in Vegas’ booming population, the mountains here push people away. The effect is a heightened efficiency of space. Contrary to popular belief, Vegas is a relatively compact place. Nevada has the smallest average lot sizes in the country. The typical Vegas resident lives in a denser neighborhood than their counterparts in more canonically-urban Seattle or Baltimore. 

Vegas’ traffic engineers must not have gotten the land scarcity memo though. Flamingo Road is eight lanes wide with disappearing dedicated bus lanes. The white paint has cracked off. The sun hits the street perpendicularly, turning the desert asphalt shiny. It’s a mirage of wetness. Cars wade down Flamingo Road in schools that are caught in horizontal currents. The sunbaked sidewalks act as the riverbank. As far as I can see, the sidewalk is bounded by sand-lime brick walls. The walls act as levees tall enough to block nearby apartments and homes from a flood of traffic noise. Flamingo Road is an ecosystem unto itself, but it’s far from ancient.

This clip of Flamingo Road runs through the jurisdiction of Spring Valley, a Vegas suburb home to over 200,000 people. It’s one of the most populous places in America. Have you heard of it? The average building here is two decades old, the same age as me. Spring Valley exemplifies Vegas’ unparalleled newness. 

In American cities which fancy themselves worldly, say, New York and Los Angeles, over half of the residents are born-and-raised. Vegas is alone in its tiny proportion of residents that are actually “from” Vegas. Only 1 in 4 of Vegas’ 2.7 million residents was born in Nevada. Back on the 202 bus, a man named AJ provides a primary-source model of this phenomenon to me. 

To claim “native” status, normally one must be born in a place. In Vegas, familiarity proves sufficient. If residents cared to compare their respective claims to the city, they might do it along a spectrum of how long someone has “been local.” Here, the ambiguous word “local” reveals the accommodating transience of Vegas. AJ’s been local since 2000. The time he tried to “forget Vegas” in 2015 by moving to Tennessee didn’t reset his tenure. After all, he willfully returned. 

AJ pushes his slick black bang back so I can see his eyes. Though he was raised in Vegas, he tells me, “Everybody has their family in their hometowns they could go back to.” 

I stray off Flamingo Road to see where many Vegas families live: in multifamily subdivisions. They’re walled or gated swathes of dingbat and garden-style apartments: the kind that occupies the flatlands of other Western cities like Los Ángeles and Honolulu. Dingbats look like shoeboxes on stilts. Residents live in the raised boxes and park their cars in the shadows that the boxes cast. Garden apartments are multistory complexes frequently separated from the sidewalk by a thin strip of ornamental flowers and grass. In this part of Spring Valley, the garden apartments have no “gardens.” The mini-lawns are replaced by parking spots. Clothes hang off the apartment railings drying in the ambivalent Vegas air, void of moisture. It’s now approaching noon, and people take turns popping in and out of their abodes, cat-and-mouse. 

On the ground, I spot a disintegrating blue rectangle. Upon closer inspection, it’s a Nevada Democrats flyer, headed by Senator-elect Catherine Cortez-Masto’s holey face. I continue down the street and find another flyer. Oh, and ahead, there’s another. They litter the back road of this Spring Valley subdivision. Like Hansel and Gretel, I follow the blue cards to Melkam Market, a Habesha grocery in a strip mall off Decatur Boulevard. 

Over twenty-three percent of Las Vegas residents were born outside of the United States. That’s a higher percentage than cosmopolitan juggernauts like Washington D.C. and Chicago. Understandably so, the civic identity of Vegas is shaped by immigrants. Melkam Market, for example, falls into a square of central Las Vegas that has been lobbying the Clark County Commission for designation as an East African cultural enclave.

Meti (Meh-tee) has been local for a few months. A recent immigrant from Ethiopia, she’s found work at Melkam. Meti rings me up a tub of red lentils at the register. As I’m zipping the Tupperware into my backpack, I ask her what pleasantly surprised her most about Vegas. She pulls her head back and raises her brow. “I was surprised by how many Ethiopians live here.” Meti’s boss yells something in Amharic from the back room. She turns around to her boss and responds assuredly, laughing. 

Decades of restrictive covenants, economic inequality, redlining, and plain-old interpersonal racism have sorted many residents of America’s legacy cities into near-homogenous districts. Today, historic metropolises like Chicago and New York are diverse in the aggregate, but they remain some of the most racially-segregated places in the nation. 

Vegas was the fastest-growing large metropolitan area in the United States from 1990 to 2010. By the 1990s, many de jure tactics of segregation such as redlining and discriminatory covenants had been withdrawn. On an interpersonal level, Americans’ racial attitudes were opening up too. Thus, when given the chance to occupy a square of the Mojave, they didn’t necessarily prefer to live in a homogenous neighborhood. Among all the US urban areas of its size, Las Vegas is the most racially integrated. It’s also the most balanced metropolitan area between its proportion of White, Latino, Asian, and Black residents. It’s a place that can accommodate countless communities. For example, ethnically-Hawaiian locals call the city the Ninth Island in reference to its large and growing Hawaiian community. 

Toward the end of my conversation back on the 202 bus with AJ, he let me know that he’s Filipino and Hawaiian. Sharing his ethnic background with me, he expects a trade. I don’t immediately reciprocate, so AJ inquires directly.

“Black mom and White dad.” 

AJ asks, “How was that?” 

“Like, did I have problems?” AJ nods.

“Not as many as people would think.” 

AJ nods again, agreeing empathetically. Most people couldn’t care less.

I leave Melkam Market with my bag made heavier by the legumes inside, and slip behind the beige one-story building. After descending the strip mall’s slanted parking lot, I cross a side street and reach the front of a building with windows and doors tinted opaque and interlined with metallic molding. I’m at the front door of a local bartender’s union.

Like the city’s street nomenclature, Vegas’ economy, and thus its residents’ livelihoods, rely on the casinos and resorts that make up the Strip. In boom years, the city’s hospitality-dependent job market is accessible to many immigrants and non-college-educated Americans. In bust years, thousands of workers are laid off. Large numbers of people lose their primary sources of income and access to healthcare. And if these workers were eventually hired back, they often lose the benefits previously afforded to them by their now-dissolved seniority. 

Later in the day, I meet María. She’s been local for 20 years. She settled in Vegas by way of Guatemala. I approach her at the intersection of Flamingo and Lindell Roads where she’s standing in the shade of the bus stop. The ends of her hair shine a mousy brown color that’s only sold in boxes. The dyed strands are under conquest by silver tresses from the north. It’s 1 PM now. About a minute into our conversation, I ask María what she does for work. 

“No tengo empleo (I’m unemployed),” she responds.

During periods of economic downturn, when people can’t scrounge together the money for weekend getaways, Las Vegas suffers disproportionately. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it still has the highest unemployment rate of any large metropolitan area in the country. Even when hotels are occupied and staffed, hospitality and tourism are industries racked by exploitation. The predominant working class, untethered from familial support systems, proves especially vulnerable. Undocumented immigrants make up a higher share of Nevada’s population than any other state. 

I pull open the door of the bartender’s union and make eye contact with a woman behind plexiglass. 

Kiki’s been local since birth. She works the front desk at the bartender’s union. We make small talk for a minute before I press for more information about the impact of unions on Las Vegas. She crosses her arms and looks at me like a dunce. 

“Vegas is a union town.” No more, no less. As unionization has dwindled across America, organized labor has flourished in Vegas. 95 percent of Vegas hotels are unionized. The city’s Culinary Union, 60,000 members strong, is three times larger than it was thirty years ago. In that time, the union has secured big wins for its members: $26 per hour wages— more than double the state minimum wage, and health insurance with no deductibles or minimum payments. The union even offers assistance in putting a down payment on a house for its members. The result: a service worker can live a middle-class life in Vegas. It’s a phenomenon that prompted longtime AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to posit that “just as surely as New York set the [labor] standards for the past 100 years, Las Vegas will be setting them for the next 100 years.”

In the early aughts, late Democratic Senator Harry Reid turned to Vegas’ hospitality unions to resuscitate Nevada’s languishing Democratic party, a key mechanism in the Dem-coalescing “Reid Machine.” Even after Reid’s death, the alliance lives on. In Nevada’s top race, The Culinary Union’s campaigning behemoth managed to squeeze out a narrow Senate victory for Cortez-Masto. She beat Republican Adam Laxalt by less than 10,000 votes. Beyond its recent light-blue victories, Nevada stands out as being receptive to the cresting wave of democratic socialism. In 2021, the Democratic Socialists of America took over the state’s Democratic party apparatus. The shift makes sense. Vegas’ populace embodies the multiracial working class these populist movements seek to mobilize.

It’s a town where the majority of people made the same choice: to leave their hometowns and move to the booming desert city over the past four decades. However, what attracted them to Las Vegas in particular differs vastly. 


“It’s the land of opportunity.” 

“The buffets. But the Mexican food doesn’t compare to the places back in LÁ. Nothing like El Cholo.” 

“Los casinos.” 

“The tree.” [Cannabis.]

“The people. The people here are so engaging.” 

“The glitz… the glamor.”

Here, we have a unique dynamic: the conference of mutual respect through a shared choice to “become a local” but the understanding that everyone is compelled to this choice for different reasons. It’s fodder for a Las Vegas ethos. If a society can maximize the number of choices available to its citizens without stigma, people can live in accordance with their personal values to the fullest extent. Live and let live.

Often, Nevada demonstrates this freedom of choice socially. It was the first state to protect same-sex marriage in its constitution. Public polling shows that a higher share of Nevadans support access to abortion than the famously-liberal citizens of California. Vegas is a haven for those who’ve made the ethical choice not to eat animals for food. The city offers meatless versions of global delicacies, not only in sparkly Strip dining rooms but also in peripheral strip malls. At Kenny’s Vegan Dim Sum in Spring Valley, I hear a man in an adjacent booth ask, “are the sushi rolls made with real tuna?” Mark, the server, explains that the restaurant’s raw “fish” is actually made from carrots.

“Well, I’ll try it. Thanks.”

This live-and-let-live ethos functions in multiple directions. Nevada has the loosest gambling laws in the nation. As a united state, it maintains a laissez-faire approach to regulating alcohol and drugs. The Strip serves as a magnet for people addicted to these vices. 

During our bus chat, bang once again obscuring his eyes, AJ emphasizes the “biggest risk” of Vegas: “You can lose everything that you’ve ever worked for.”

Mayor Lightfoot has been largely successful by her plan’s standards, adding 75 miles of new bike lanes and upgrading 25 miles of protected bike lanes in the first two years of her administration. However, it’s worth examining the specific types of lanes included in the existing 400-mile network, as not all lanes are equal. First, the network includes just over 30 miles of neighborhood greenways, which refer to smaller residential streets with bike demarcation where cars naturally move slower—quite safe for bikers. Second, it also includes 36 miles of protected bike lanes, which describe physical barriers of either concrete or flexible delineators (reflective posts, though, per the new Chicago Works plan, these will soon entirely be replaced by concrete) that protect the lane from divers on any type of road. Third, there are over 55 miles of off-street trails, which include the lakefront path and some trails along the woods in Forest Glen. These are of course the safest, as they are completely removed from traffic, though they are difficult to expand on given the need to use roads to travel across Chicago. Fourth, there are nearly 117 miles of standard bike lanes, which have no barrier protections and are instead marked with “bike-only” paint. Fifth, there are about 114 miles of buffered bike lanes, which add a foot of hashed paint lines that act as a buffer to separate bikers from traffic. Even though it is illegal for cars to drive in buffered and standard bike lanes, there is no physical barrier preventing them from doing so, leaving bikers at risk. Lastly, there are 52 miles of shared lanes, which are nearly completely useless, with just a painted arrow on a normal street to indicate to drivers that there might be bikers on the road—these performative “lanes” account for more than 12% of the 400 miles of bike lanes throughout the city.

When I ask the same Vegas residents what they like least about their city, they sing in a chorus. “La delincuencia (the delinquency),” as Maria puts it. 

Dee’s been local for a few years. When I find her, she’s leaning up against the back of a white sprinter van sucking every nicotine molecule she can out of a cigarette. Dee made the same journey as me, but hers was permanent. She’s a born-and-raised Angeleno and proud of it. When she meets someone from back home, she says the connection is instant for her. She takes kindly to me. With her cigarette tucked between her middle and index fingers, she continues. “[Las Vegas] is an affordable city, but it’s still Goblin City to me.”

Dee gestures toward Flamingo Road surging to the west. Its width and nakedness make Los Ángeles’ streets look like Jane Jacobs’ wildest dream. 

“The drivers here. They’re crazy.” She pulls a recent drunk driving statistic from memory. Last year, the Las Vegas area averaged 15 DUI arrests each day. For a visitor to Vegas, it’s a fantasy. It’s a place where I wanted to stay forever as a kid. Once one chooses to stay—become a local—the fountain show ends. Life looks a lot like it does in other American cities, perhaps a dozen-and-a-half degree warmer and more colorful. Yet, a rude reminder occasionally interrupts the ordinary. In Vegas, you are disproportionately likely to get caught in a spiraling tourist’s figurative video game. To them, you’re just a nonplayer character.  In these moments, an air of ambivalence proves too hard to hold, and the residents suffocate. Vegas tries hard to decouple its big-bad Strip from the millions of residents that populate its gridded subdivisions. But no matter how hard it tries, the two always manage to collide.

On the side street flanking the bartender’s union, a black van is parked. Tubs, rags, and bottles of neon fluid balance at the base of the van like a Proctor & Gamble-sponsored Stonehenge. They remain still since there is no breeze. A short man in a cap oversees the accidental sculptures. Ricardo’s been local for 15 years. He now runs a car-washing business in Spring Valley. Some would call this scene ironic. Buckets sit topped with water as year after year, more of Lake Mead’s floor peeks out. A wetted squeegee can only keep the desert winds from dusting up a window for so long. And once Ricardo finishes polishing up a customer’s car, they’ll inevitably drive it to their dingbat or house, where water must be piped from thousands of miles away. Ninety percent of Vegas’ water supply comes from the Colorado River.

It’s this mentality that prompts urbanists to declare Vegas a city that “should not exist.” But this is an affront to the ethos, the air of ambivalence. To say that some cities “should not” and others “should” exist implies a valence: a right way and a wrong way to exist. Las Vegas, three million people deep, exists, and will continue to exist. That’s an inert statement, a fact. The Mojave bears humans. Humans refit the Mojave. I owe my existence to this existing city. I thank it for my bloated pupils and belly as well as the childhood memories. For showing me that if something seems too good to be true, it is. That the impossible is impossible, but that most times there’s joy in the illusion. That life is better spent conjuring something out of nothing than “making something” out of other people’s conjurings. That you can come as you are, not as you were. And that after coming as you are, you can leave as you are, too. That’s not abandonment. It’s contemporary life. I hold those lessons in my right palm as my left palm gives Sylvia Gonzalez off to her new home.

Ricardo’s brown eyes glint as a ray of light bends underneath the brim of his cap. The soon-to-be Las Vegan Sylvia occupies the front of my mind, so I ask Ricardo what he’d tell someone interested in moving to Vegas. Ricardo pauses, then clicks his tongue.

“Es tranquila (It’s peaceful).”

Sylvia will settle in a Vegas subdivision where she can stretch her pocketbook— and her legs. In Las Vegas fashion, she’ll take care not to bump into her laid-back neighbors or the red rock precipices circling the city. 

Life will be peaceful. 

Sylvia takes a deep breath, a gulp of ambivalent air.