What the Strip has lost, downtown has gained

I was a small-town Texas boy when I first got to know Las Vegas. It was the summer of 1968; my widowed father had retired from his medical practice to a work at the Nevada Test Site and I stayed in Texas to graduate from high school, but Las Vegas became a second home.

I was 17 and fell in love with the Strip like it was some sophisticated older woman ­— still pert, certainly buxom and unbelievably dazzling. I knew it well, walking its length almost daily in a naïve search for restaurant work.

I loved how the Stardust sparkled and rolled to a neon crescendo, on the street-side sign or across its casino façade.

And I marveled at how the Dunes and Frontier and Aladdin and Sands, with their signs — taller than the grain elevators that broke the High Plains horizon back home — guaranteed that no one left the tables in the dark.

The Dunes, my favorite, staked its position with majesty, midway between the low-slung Sahara at the Strip’s north end and the Hacienda on the south. I marveled at the Landmark, with its futuristic claim to the sky.

Today, most of it is gone.

And gone is the spaciousness on the Strip, where a half-century ago each hotel and casino stood apart and singular, and Denny’s, McDonald’s and other respites from the casinos lived on corners, surrounded by parking lots.

In the battle for attention and separation, LEDs now light often-featureless hotel sheaths that could be confused for oil-company towers in Houston.

Glamour? Yes, but different, more conglomerated. The modern Strip feels like the world’s longest billboard, a mesmerizing malaise without focus. Kind of institutional attention-deficit disorder.

And then there was the downtown of 45 years ago. It was the province of a different kind of gambler — more serious, less touristy. Except for the frenetic canopy overhead, Fremont Street today remains charming, with real people and hawkers in costume working for photos and tips, not unlike yesteryear’s dusty prospectors trying for their version of luck.

They bring a human scale to the arcade space outside the Golden Gate, Binion’s and Golden Nugget.

Forty-five years ago, I took out-of-town visitors to the Strip, the glorious Strip. Never downtown.

But today, downtown is quaint the way Disneyland is quaint. Trade Mickey, Minnie and Pluto for a gladiator in a loin cloth, showgirls in plume and almost-naked kittens beckoning the iPhone snapshot for the folks back home, and you have what I recall Las Vegas was for the occasional visitor.

Glamour? Not downtown. Never was. But raw and authentic and entertaining? I’d put my money on Fremont.

Tags: The Sunday

Osler McCarthy, an attorney and public information officer for the Texas Supreme Court, recently visited Las Vegas for a conference. During his free time, he looked around and reflected on what’s changed since his initial visit in 1968.