The heart of Vegas continues to change

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If they did a cardiogram on the city of Las Vegas, an analysis of the findings might resemble a scene out of M*A*S*H. The dialogue would go something like this:

“Doctor, where’s the heart?”

“I’m not sure…Oh, there it is! No wait a minute. It moved.”

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“Is that it?” But it’s on the wrong side!”

Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. It’s a good thing he didn’t leave it in Las Vegas. He’d never find it.

There’s no question where the heart, or should we say the pulsing center of Las Vegas was located when the city was first incorporated, back in 1905. It was at Clark’s Las Vegas Townsite, on the corner of Main and Fremont between where the Plaza Hotel and the Golden Gate now stand. Parcels of land a century ago were auctioned off for just dollars on the acre.

I wish my great grandfather had been here then so he could have locked up several prime lots and passed them on to his heirs. That would have kept me from having to write my buns off every month to meet the mortgage. Instead, Cyrus Sheehan was in County Cork, Ireland, swilling rye whiskey and trying to book passage to America before the local constable locked him up for vagrancy.

A few years after that fire-sale auction took place at a downtown railroad depot, the heart (and groin) of Las Vegas shifted to a saloon-sprinkled plot of land on First Street between Ogden and Stewart, in an area known as Block 16. Had I written my book Skin City a century ago, I surely would have hung out on Block 16, interviewing painted ladies and swilling that same brand of whiskey that Papa Cyrus so cherished.

Many would argue that the heart of Las Vegas moved some five miles south to the Flamingo Resort after Bugsy and the thugs that followed him got the joint up and running and hosting celebrities and mobsters in the late 1940s. But just a few short years later the blood and money shifted back north after Moe Dalitz and Wilbur Clark opened the Desert Inn and showcased it worldwide with the Tournament of Champions golf event.

The T of C marked the first-ever extravagant public relations happening in a city that would learn how to master the craft. It drew all the big stars like Bing and Bob and Frank and Dean, plus a coterie of curvy starlets and the paparazzi that trailed in their wake.

Three decades later I won some golf tournaments at the DI, but I was cautious about taking deep divots in the fairway for fear I would implant my five-iron in a long-buried human skull. We’ve all heard stories about bodies buried in the desert on the outskirts of town. Back then, they didn’t want to waste the gas.

By the time I limped into town in the mid-70s, about as unprepared for Sin City as a convention of Amish, most loyal Las Vegans were exclaiming that UNLV was  the true heart of the city. I bought into that because I was at the time  a vastly underpaid instructor at this bastion of higher learning, and you could pour the sum total of my local history knowledge into a thimble.

The consensus was that if there were one place that provided a unifying force and a cultural beacon to the rest of the city, it was the growing campus near Harmon and Maryland Parkway. But that was never really the case. The only thing that united Las Vegans during that era was a winning basketball team comprised of less than adept scholars.

Once the coach and the university president got into a mud-wrestling match in the early 90s, any notion that our college was a place we could all embrace was blown to smithereens. One sure way to pick a fight in any part of town during that time was to take the side of either university president Bob Maxson or coach Jerry Tarkanian, and then wait for a dude at the end of the bar to throw the first punch.

In the mid-90s my life and circumstances had changed almost as dramatically as the city I had grown to love. I was by then married with little kids, who on occasion were thought to be my grandchildren by unthinking cheek-pinchers in grocery store lines. The townhouse I had occupied had grown woefully inadequate, and the east side neighborhood I once thought so tranquil was now blanketed in graffiti and populated by over-inked, doo-rag-sporting rappers with Biggy Smalls blasting his vitriolic poetry from the boom-boxes they had handcuffed to their wrists.

I wanted better for my kids, and now that I no longer had to support myself on university wages, I moved our family to the Lakes area.

But within a short time our recently elected mayor, a guy named Goodman, who in a past life represented Good Fellas, informed us that the heart of Las Vegas was not in the upscale neighborhoods that were blossoming around the perimeter of the valley. Nor was it on the Strip, where billion-dollar megaresorts replicating other parts of the world were opening so often I could no longer just rent a tuxedo for ribbon-cuttings; I had to buy one of the damn things.

No, the heart of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman told us, was returning to the downtown area where it had all started a century ago. And if we didn’t believe him initially, we started to come around as he tirelessly promoted the opening of artsy cafes and huge furniture marts and medical research facilities and concert halls.

So finally the issue was settled. We could blare Petula Clark’s old pop hit “Downtown” from the walls of Hoover Dam. We had once again discovered the true heart of our city, back in its rightful place, and the debate could once and for all be declared over.

At least that’s what I thought until 2009, when gaming giant MGM Resorts opened the incredible complex of luxury hotels and art features on the south end of the Strip. And what would it be called? Project CityCenter.

They say that two hearts are better than one. So be it.

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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