Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shopping Sketches 1: Trails Village Center

The only shopping destination I can walk to from home happens to have just about everything I ever need: post office, dry cleaner, grocery store, pharmacy, coffee place, bagel shop, killer soft serve, homey family-run healthy pet food store, a couple of nail salons, the bank, an all-in-one gas station/car wash/oil change, the gym. If it weren't for my incredible ability to invent errands all over town on quiet weekend afternoons alone, it would probably be just about the only place I spend money in Vegas other than restaurants and bars.

Summerlin, the master planned community where I live, imposes strict design criteria on its retail centers - landscaping requirements, color palettes, sign materials, etc. At the Trails Center it all works decently well to create a walkable, pleasant space despite the acres of asphalt and the sketchy parking lot driving that goes on. My condo is very quiet, lonely sometimes, and I often find myself stretching out trips to the Trails Center just to be somewhere.

I'll start with the coffeeshop. I go there a lot. To be more specific it is a Starbucks and yes, I do think most locally owned cafes serve better coffee and have a cooler vibe than Starbucks, but I actually don't hate their coffee, and I don't think there are any small locally owned cafes within 10 miles of where I live anyway. When Andrea's in town he walks there every single day with his laptop and a stash of reusable grocery bags to bring home fresh ingredients for dinner that night, French market style. He christened it the coffeeshop to make his walk in summer (two miles round trip in often 110 degree weather) just a little more bearable. But other than the customary decor and predictable menu it really does function in the community as just what we would hope for in an honest to god coffeeshop. According to him, if you spend long weekday morning hours there you'll come to recognize the regulars: self-employed or unemployed laptop tappers, senior citizen social clubs, dog owners meeting up, trophy wives on the go, and the liberal kid baristas who sneak punk rock onto the sound system. There are also the stilted encounters of strangers: blind dates, job interviews, weird meetings to discuss business opportunities that appear to have begun with an email about making $60k/week in your spare time or a Nigerian bank account. You'll learn that except for those baristas and some of the dog owners, most of our neighbors think the New York Times is a rag (“they have that Krugman guy … he’s awful. Did you know he used to be a theater critic?”) and many don’t mind pointing it out to a stranger who might be perusing a copy. You'll get to know the schedule of the yoga classes next door based on which times of day the dress code temporarily switches to roll top pants and sparkly flip flops. You'll notice when school is back in session, when the swimming lessons at the public pool next door get going, or when the community dance theater nearby is gearing up for a new show.

If you pay attention, you can pick up on the patterns of everyday life in the community in the rest of the center too, way more than you'd think glancing at the artifice of fast food drive thrus and chain stores. We used to get the weirdest looks at the market when we brought our own bags, but over my four years here I've observed subtle shifts in my neighbors' behavior that makes it if not the norm, a little less hippy crazy. I know which of the night shift checkers will most quickly tackle my grocery pile and remember the SKU for rainbow chard without checking the book. I've observed just enough about the Orthodox family that owns the soft serve place and the Boston Italians who run Upper Crust Pizza to have a concocted some speculative theories about their family dynamics. I early-voted for Obama in a trailer in the parking lot in the middle of the local art fair. When I first got engaged, I got schooled in ring care by the husband and wife team who have long run the local jewelry store. We walked in on a whim, suddenly not intimidated to just browse because of the piece of actual jewelry I was now wearing, and the wife chastised me for touching my diamond too much and gave me some great tips on how to keep it clean. On Friday nights teenagers idle the hours away perched on each others bumpers in the parking lot, blasting music, maybe skateboarding, mostly just hanging out.

I’m not as good as Andrea but I do walk to Trails Center a fair amount instead of driving and I notice that others in the neighborhood do too, though not nearly as many people as you'd like to see, especially given the amount of time and money that's been put into the masterplan’s sidewalks, bike lanes, shade trees, and the eponymous Trails following the flood washes that cut through pleasingly named housing complexes and for the most part all lead here. When I first moved in I chuckled that my closest retail center was on Village Center Circle right off of Town Center Drive. Jane Jacobs it is not, but I now find myself feeling the same affection for the goings on in that strip mall as I do about my (and Jane’s) old stretch of Hudson Street. Well, almost. Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of things about my neighborhood that clearly don't work well and thwart the vague sense of community you do get at the Center and I'll tell you about those too. But I'm writing at Starbucks right now, and perfectly content.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Knocks on Doors

I left this note on my door because after my own recent excursion canvassing in Summerlin's gated condo complexes, I'm pretty sure the people who may still be coming to my door for Obama will need a little uplift.

Add to all the other reasons that developments like mine are kind of a drag is that it's really, really hard to find an address. God help the UPS guy, because the building numbers are sometimes missing, the apartment numbering system makes absolutely no sense, and the streets with names like "Britney's Garden Place" and "Crimson Canyon Vista" all blur together and thwart any attempt to get oriented. And also, pretty much no one is home. And also, a bunch of the people who are home are jerks. Even the prescreened "strong Obama" and "leaning Obama" ones the campaign told us to focus on that day (it was supposed to be just about getting out the vote rather than changing hearts and minds at this point) seemed not to really appreciate our efforts. Everyone we talked to was just kind of weirded out to have someone at their door. With the people who were basically civil, it was just an awkward exercise in seeing who would put an end to this unplanned-for encounter the soonest.

I complain but I also know how people feel, because a couple weekends ago I shot up like a light when I had a knock on my door at 3:00 on a Saturday. Definitely the only time since I've lived here I've had a knock without already expecting someone. So I did what any woman alone probably should do, and made sure the door was locked before warily asking "who is it?" (after, I might add, considering not answering at all and hoping the strange knocking person would go away). Of course, it was a couple of volunteers for the Obama campaign, and I was instantly embarrassed about my paranoia, even as the young woman at the door congratulated me on my precaution and said she was surprised more people didn't do the same. I immediately launched into my preemptive don't worry, of course I'm voting for him, and volunteering, and sending money and etc etc etc speech. Then the guy she was canvassing with made it up the stairs and he was super familiar, and then we both realized at the same time from where. The Kucinich guy! We laughed over what are the chances, and I gloated a little over how successful my initial pitch must have been if he's spending his weekends canvassing for Obama now. I hope it made their day a little easier to find a friendly, enthusiastic person at home, and most shockingly, someone with whom one of them already had an actual neighborly connection.

I can only assume a handful of other volunteers have been by since then, and so for them, a neighborly sign.

One other thing about my own door-knocking experience - you know full well it's out there but that doesn't make it any less lousy to see all those "foreclosed" signs on the doors.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Las Veganism

Probably not actually on his way out for a veggie burger.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Temporary Urbanism?

"Temporary Urbanisms" was the name of a cool course in grad school taught by one of my favorite professors, Margaret Crawford. I actually didn’t take it so can’t claim to be any sort of expert, but the jist was to give serious analysis to the time-based urban phenomena that transform everyday places into completely different spaces of encounter (say parades, Burning Man, flea markets, protests), and how what we learn about how people behave in and use space during those events might inform how we plan, design and program the more permanent elements of our cities.

So yesterday I ran the half portion of the New Las Vegas Marathon and Half Marathon, which begins and ends on the infamous Strip. It fit the definition of a temporary urbanism well, with its major influx of a population that is usually "other" to the place they're in, a mix of planned and ad-hoc layers of spatial organization for crowd management and information delivery, and lots of extra trash, port-a-potties, cops, and volunteers. While we were waiting at the start, I relished taking in the main public space of my new home city from this perspective, part of a crowd that had temporarily colonized a street typically suited for debauchery with our obsessive pre-race stretching, banana eating, and general rule-following behavior.

Even the casinos were slightly altered. At a hotel bar the night before the race I stopped at one glass of wine and could tell by the vague flash of resigned disappointment on my waitress’s face that it wasn’t the first time she’d had that happen that night. The next morning, just like the evening before, the hotel port cochere queues were dominated by freezing, fit, scantily clad girls giggling while climbing together in packs into taxis, but this time off to the starting line rather than the clubs.

Just as the event had temporarily transformed the city, the city had also transformed the event. I've run in a lot of organized races before and know what to expect - the annoying runners' personalities, the questionable fashion choices, the rituals, the overall air of healthfulness with a splash of dorkiness. But Vegas left its imprint for sure. Early on in the run an older couple blitzed by me, she in a pinned-on veil and he shirtless with a bow tie. A few miles later I passed them making a quick stop to renew their vows in the “run-thru wedding chapel” that had been set up on the course. Later a pack of running Elvises, followed shortly thereafter by a crew decked out as showgirls.

For me, the race was a bit of a bust. Having been thankfully injury free my entire running career (which admittedly only started about two years ago), the particularly hard pavement and not insignificant hills around my condo complex where I run have taken their toll, and several times in the past year I’ve been running happily down a hill then took one step that led to sudden and excruciating pain in my left knee, the kind that’s made me need to stop running and take a few weeks off. Said knee issue surfaced on a short run about a week before the big day and though I rested all week I went into the race fully aware I’d likely have problems. And at mile 5 of 13 there it was, the sudden pulse of pain that screams at me to stop running immediately. I was just far enough out that the idea of dropping out and walking back 5 miles against the crowd seemed just too pathetic and not all that much easier than staying on the course and walking towards the finish in hopes that the soreness might go away and I’d end up able to run a tiny bit more.

After about a mile of increasingly irritated walking, watching so many back of the pack runners blow by me, I got to the Fremont Street Experience, the turnaround point for the half-marathon. I love it there and love that the Las Vegas Marathon course goes through it. It’s the heart of old Las Vegas, where none of the casinos got the memo that neon signs are no longer considered classy and you can still play $2 hands of blackjack and wonder if the dealer and her pit boss might be up to no good. At the first corner I decided to jump the fence separating runners from spectators (except there was no one there – another way this race was very different than New York) and hop into the sundry shop off the lobby of the Four Queens casino to buy the largest dose of Advil I’ve ever swallowed. Another half mile of goofy-looking attempts at speedwalking later and I was dosed enough to suck it up and start running again, and finished slowly but uneventfully save for the stiff and sore knee that I really hope I didn’t do anything to permanently harm.

The only-in-Las-Vegas moment was when the lady who sold me the Advil said, “honey, I can’t believe you’re running a goddamn marathon with a hangover!” I also liked that I wasn’t the only runner hopping the fence at the Fremont St. Experience, though all the others were jumping off the course to play slots.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Just another night on the town...

I don't go out very much in Vegas (sorry to those who had higher expectations for my exploits!), but when I do it's in absurd high/low style. The first image above is a painting by Tim Bavington, a Las Vegas local artist made good. I went to the opening tonight of his one man show at (from what I can tell from my limited knowledge of the city thus far) the only interesting art gallery in town. It was a pleasant evening of good art, a glass of wine, and what I hope was the first of many Dave Hickey stalking opportunities.

The image at the bottom is the set from the Celine Dion meets ex-Cirque Du Soleil director spectacular. A friend of a friend is the sound guy and invited us sit in the booth for free, so after the night's first healthy dose of culture we went in for more. I loved the electricity in Bavington's work but the sets for Celine's show at Ceasar's Palace were way more stimulating, and the mix of her down-home ad libbed chatter and the crew of dancers dressed as doves was divinely surreal.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A few things that have happened to me since I moved to Las Vegas, things that decidedly would not have happened to me in New York:

1. A wild burro stuck his entire head inside my car.

2. My catsitter sent an email to tell me one of her other clients, an exotic dancer, was to be featured on Dr. 90210: "She is having her GIGANTIC implants removed. I am so happy for her. She was always so uncomfortable."

3. Someone asked me if I was an exotic dancer. I was buying lingerie at the time, and I think if I'd said yes I would have gotten a professional discount.

4. I parked between two Hummers in the parking lot at Whole Foods.

Granted, 1 and 4 are noteworthy if only because now I have a car.

I met the outgoing burro in the confines of Red Rock National Conservation Area, where I've taken to visiting most weekends that I'm home. There's a sign heading in that you are entering a "wild horse and burro herd management area," but yesterday was the first time I actually spotted the burro herd. They don't seem so wild, really, when sniffing for snacks around the glove compartment of a Honda Civic.

I've never lived down the street from a magnificent, protected, ecological wonderland before. If you cock your head just right on the balcony of my second story apartment you can see the Strip skyline about 10 miles to the right and the jagged peaks of Red Rock about 4 miles to the left. That's the part I don't think many people really think about when they think about Las Vegas. Sure, it's got the Strip and all the charming ridiculousness and inane excessiveness that that's known for. And sure, it's the fastest growing city in the country, and has been for decades. People know these things. I'm not as sure they know that if you turn your back to the Strip and set your eye level just above the stream of identical two story condo buildings and tightly packed McMansions you can see that you're in this sort of otherworldly, exquisite landscape. No matter how fast and how densely this city is growing it's still hard to stand somewhere and not be able to take in how expansive and wild it is just past the edge of urbanization, and realize that all that urbanization is just a tiny blip in all the vastness.

On points 2 and 3, well, I might have chosen some of the more sensational examples but to me both stories just go to show how service oriented the whole economy is out here, and how apparent that is in nearly every day-to-day interaction. People are remarkably friendly, open, and matter-of-fact about the business they want to do for you. Almost everyone is new and trying to get in on the giant service economy, which means in almost all cases trying to find a way to help -- whether that's promoting your business by sending out friendly anecdotes about your other clients, or having the professionalism and savvy to treat a would-be stripper as a valued, and hopefully repeat, customer.

Point 4 I think I'll go into more another time, because the incongruity in the sentiments gets right at the crux of what I find most fascinating about living here. I still seethe every time I see a Hummer on the street, even though that's dozens of times a day. But at Whole Foods I find it, I don't know, almost touching. Las Vegas, in my brief stint thus far, seems like a Choose Your Own Lifestyle Adventure, a grand experiment in rapid social mobility both up the ladder and down. I can roll my eyes and laugh about it, but then I try to get over my city cynicism and appreciate the spirit of reinvention that led my new neighbors to this spot on this day, even if that means looking on while they load recycled napkins into gas-guzzlers, peace pops into mini tanks.