Not Your Pre-Pandemic Las Vegas

A decade in the past, after a rained-out Thanksgiving desert tenting journey with our 5 children, my spouse, Kristin, and I headed to the closest obtainable lodging, the now-shuttered Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Watching our brood eat their Thanksgiving meal as cigarette smoke and slot-machine clamor wafted over their cheeseburgers, Kristin and I locked eyes with an unstated message: We ar­­e the world’s worst dad and mom.

We have averted Las Vegas with the youngsters since then, however an aborted drive to slushy Aspen this April with three of our heirs brought on us to pause in Vegas. At the time, town was simply awakening from its Covid slumber, with obligatory masks and restricted capability in most indoor areas, visitors so mild that vehicles have been drag-racing down the usually packed Strip, and a lingering, troubling query over the entire place: Will this reopening actually be secure?

But extraordinary issues have been occurring throughout this slumber, and whereas we have been solely going to spend one evening there, we had a lot enjoyable that we ended up staying 4. At first we spent most of our time within the relative security of the outside, however then we began to loosen up together with the remainder of town, drowning our arms beneath the ever-present liquid sanitizer dispensers, masking up and heading indoors.

I knew issues had shifted in Sin City when, whereas maneuvering the minivan by means of some seemingly dicey neighborhood between Downtown and the Strip, I famous on the again alley wall of a hair salon a putting mural depicting the cult outsider artist Henry Darger’s seven Vivian Girl warriors of their trademark yellow attire. What have been the Vivian Girls doing right here?

Farther alongside, Vegas’s ghost-town grownup shops, shuttered warehouses and different buildings have been additionally sporting more and more elaborate murals: a blood-squirting horned lizard spanning half a metropolis block; a canine with an impressively slobbering tongue piloting an open cockpit aircraft; a colourful phoenix and dragon rising like fireworks from an empty car parking zone — all producing collective stunned “Wows!” from inside our minivan.

Las Vegas, it appears, is rising from the Covid disaster as a spot of spectacle and creativity, particularly exterior the air-conditioned playing ghettos of the Strip.

Over the subsequent 4 days we did a number of strolling, crawling, flying and even railroading, all of it away from the casinos. We explored the Arts District, an space that has gone into hyper drive — a lot in order that we waited 30 minutes to get into my as soon as “secret” Colombian breakfast joint, Makers & Finders — and wandered along Spring Mountain Road, the hub of the city’s Chinatown, rapidly expanding westward. In the midcentury mecca of East Fremont Street, a $350 million investment by the tech titan Tony Hsieh, who died last year, has produced a boulevard of fantastical art installations, restored buildings and a sculptural playground surrounded by stacked shipping containers converted to boutiques and cafes, all guarded by a giant, fire-spewing, steel praying mantis.

“Vegas is going through a cultural renaissance,” a former member of the city’s Arts Commission, Brian “Paco” Alvarez, told me in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the local culture that comes out of a city with two million unusually creative people didn’t stop during the pandemic.”

Dinner! The choices are dizzying and there are now 10 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. We weren’t going to any of them.

Leaving Area15, even the distant lights of the Strip seemed relatively calming. But we were driving the opposite direction, to Chinatown.

A decade ago, Chinatown was mainly a small enclave of restaurants and shops behind an ornate red gate overlooking a strip mall called Chinatown Plaza, catering to Vegas’s growing wave of Asian immigrants. Chinatown has now expanded to the far reaches of Spring Mountain Road, a desert Hong Kong of neon signs in Mandarin, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean, advertising restaurants, coffee houses, foot-massage salons and lots of stuff I couldn’t read.

Our route was along four miles of desert track gently sloping into a narrowing canyon pass. As we effortlessly pedaled at 10 miles per hour, we noticed that the spikes holding down the railroad ties were often crooked or missing. “I bet these were all driven in by hand,” my teenage son, Cody, a history buff, noted.

In the enveloping dusk, we glimpsed shadows moving along the sagebrush: bighorn sheep, goats and other critters emerging for their nocturnal wanderings. But the most surreal sight was at the end of the ride, where a giant backlit sign for a truck stop casino appeared over a desert butte — Vegas was beckoning us back, but now we welcomed the summons. Here we were, pedaling into the sunset, feeling more athletic, cool and (gasp!) enlightened than when we first rolled into Vegas four days ago. Oh what good parents we were!

“The moniker of ‘Sin City’ is totally wrong,” Mr. Alvarez told me, “if you know where to look.”

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