Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 18, 2006. Las Vegas

While in Lake Havasu City I dug out a map, and realized that I was pretty close to Las Vegas. So I decided Iíd better see the place. I was sure Iíd hate it. Iím not interested in gambling, and I certainly found the casinos in Las Vegas pretty distasteful when I drove through in December. But I wanted to see the show.

Iíd planned to stay in the casino parking lots, where someone at Lake Havasu had assured me it was easy to spend the night. So when I got into the city, I headed into one of the big ones towards the north end of the strip, parked Matilda, and went out to explore.

Iím glad I went. Casinos donít do a thing for me Ė dark, smoky places with flashing lights and blinking machines, people aimlessly wasting their money, the whole place set up so you canít see the daylight or have any idea how long youíve been there. But the scene was fascinating. The strip Ė Las Vegas Boulevard Ė is one huge hotel after another, each one grander and more outrageous than the next. The boulevard is so wide and so crowded that they have built pedestrian overpasses to get across, and youíd take your life in your hands if you didnít use them. The streets were packed with people. Tourists and conference-goers, most of them, plus a few

locals on their way to work in the casinos and Hispanics handing out leaflets for women ďone-hour delivery, to your door.Ē I guess thatís a practical job for someone who canít speak much English Ė some language is universal.

The hotels are a hoot, with their themes of Paris or New York or ancient Egypt. I checked out the canals of Venice, but didnít take a gondola ride. I considered going up the Eiffel Tower, but decided to pass Ė though I did sneak up to the first level platform, inside the lobby, to peer out the huge windows above the doors, which looked like a 19th century French train station. I wandered all through New York, took pictures of facades that except for the bright blue paint could have been on

9th in Hellís Kitchen, ate a pretzel, and watched the Coney Island roller coaster cruise around the hotel towers. I even felt a tiny bit sad at their memorial to the firefighters who lost their lives on 9-11, contrived as it was, with their artificial fireboat in an artificial pond under the artificial Brooklyn Bridge. My favorite, though, was the Bellagio, simply because of the outrageous scale of its halls, indoor gardens, outdoor pools and water shows.

Las Vegas itself was interesting too. I drove around a lot, in search of the Y where I swam laps, the Whole Foods where I had dinner, and then the parks where I camped for the night when I found I preferred to get away from the strip. As a result, I got an unexpected sense of the city as people live in it.

Itís a strange place, mostly because all the homes are in walled communities and few roads actually cross the city. I donít understand the walled community phenomenon. To me itís a powerful statement of a desire to exclude, to keep from living within the vibrancy and variety that is the point of the city. Do people really think that their fellow citizens are such a threat that they have to keep them from even driving past their homes? Are they really so afraid of letting someone who earns less money or takes a bus or has brown skin near their children? When I think to how I grew up, playing on the sidewalks with kids from other buildings on the block, listening to the bongo drums played by folks who spilled out of the overcrowded apartments next door, walking to the store and

hearing English, Spanish, Haitian creole, and Yiddish spoken within a block of my home, I really wonder about those people who have to hide behind a high fence and keep from being touched by anything that might be different.

It disturbed me enough that I got on the web to see what I could find on gated communities. What I found was a listserv, dominated by European academics in

schools of planning or geo- graphy. They were analyzing the links between crime rates and gated communities, looking for cultural differences among European countries that might explain the phenomenon, comparing old developments with newer ones and tracing the spread of the walls through their countries. Only from a few South

Africans did I hear any apparent support for the communities; most people at a loss to understand them. Of course, people who like gated communities probably understand the appeal, and donít feel a need for sociological research on why they exist, or how they affect social integration across the city. In South Africa, though, the crime is apparently so bad that municipal governments are allowing communities to block off their own streets, simply in an effort to keep down the rate of break-ins. Thatís certainly not whatís driving gated communities in the US; our crime rates have gone down over the years when the walls came up.

I donít get it.

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