Get to know Las Vegas from natives

Hang around Las Vegas natives long enough and you get an earful of stories about streets that used to end in desert now stretching through miles of malls and homes, and about old-time casino owners and mobsters they never knew.

And don’t forget how great Fremont Street was before the Fremont Street Experience.

Those natives are few and far between these days — only 24 percent of Nevadans were born in the state, according to the last U.S. Census. We have the lowest ratio of natives to non-natives in the country.

Stories of the kids of mobsters who went to public school and drove expensive cars blend one into the other. But it pays to listen, if only because it tells you something about Las Vegas — specifically, about natives who still live here.

Natives hold onto local histories like birthrights.

The late UNLV history professor Hal Rothman often talked about the difficulty of understanding Las Vegas. He told me once that he naively thought he “got” Las Vegas after living here a few weeks. After years passed, he admitted, he’d only scratched the surface in his understanding of the city and its people.

Natives get angry at what’s going on downtown: It’s changing fast, and at the hands of newbies who haven’t gone out of their way to seek approval from natives.

Some of those misgivings came out during an open forum Tuesday night sponsored by some well-intentioned Harvard MBA students in the Learning Village — which is, of course, a Downtown Project development.

The students are using this semester and downtown Las Vegas to test ideas on how to create a better system of apprenticeships. Based on stories I’ve heard from some of the Venture for America fellows apprenticing downtown, it’s an area worthy of study.

I talked to several people after the forum. Some were rankled because of that Rothman thing: They wanted to get the sense that these “carpetbaggers” had taken the time to understand the city beyond the downtown bubble.

To be fair, the Harvard students did seek public input — I wrote about them months ago; they set up a Facebook page for anyone to join; they talked to police, educators, neighborhood presidents, business owners; they put out surveys.

And what they are doing is only a step in what could be a bigger Downtown Project/academia connection.

How could it be done differently?

A good start might be to sit and listen to those personal histories. From those, the Harvard students might just get a sense, and the respect, of the people who live here.

Tags: The Sunday