Monday, January 29, 2018

Las Vegas

I went on a trip once as a kid to Austin, Texas. Until last week, that was the farthest West I had ever been. That reality set in when we flew over the Rocky Mountains near Colorado Springs. Not too longer after, we touched down in Las Vegas. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s hard to try and photograph a place that so many others (professional and tourists alike) have been swarming over for decades. Nevertheless, this was a place new to me and I tried to capture it as uniquely as possible from my own perspective, as naive as that may sound.

- View from a Delta Airbus A320 over the Rocky Mountains near Colorado Springs.

I own a passport, but have yet to visit anywhere outside of the continental 48, so Las Vegas is perhaps the most exotic place I’ve been yet. There's a diversity to the people, a mix of languages heard in the casinos, convention centers, and along The Strip. It’s a place that sounds similar to the cacophony of New York City, but most of the people appear to be visitors rather than residents. At the same time, the constant flashing of lights and advertisements is like a never ending Times Square. There are resorts of the highest luxury alongside accommodations of more modest pricing. It can be "The Ritz" and mirror the trappings of Gatlinburg, TN all in one block. It’s a place where all the restaurant chains that never quite made it back home in Cincinnati still exist. You can still toast to Toby Keith, enjoy a Fat Burger, indulge in Johnny Rockets manufactured nostalgia, and pretend that Dick’s Last Resort is a clever concept. Not that I’d want to.

Many of the resorts are themed after other places. “New York, New York” isn’t anything like “Gotham” and I hear that Paris Las Vegas, while nice, is closer to Walt Disney World’s rendition rather than the actual center of European culture. The people around you give clues as to where they hail form. In January, they sport a mix of gloves, shorts, coats, and t-shirts, while weary Midwesterners such as myself enjoy the weather, a welcomed relief from Winter. There’s a constant, never-ending soundtrack of top 40 hits and 80’s classics blaring throughout. You never seem to have a moment to yourself or a place to sit that isn’t in front of a slot machine or at a restaurant. Every casino, regardless of quality and the minimum black jack bet, smells vaguely of a bowling alley, something that’s incredibly frustrating (and at the same time comforting) to former smokers like me. Despite the luxurious hotel towers of some establishments, there’s aspects that remind you of a carnival, roller coasters whooshing by and flashing lights echoing simple church festivals. Helicopters constantly whir in the distance as tourist ferries rather than LAPD “ghetto birds.” The transit systems reflect American attitudes, bucking conventional European technology for a loose connection of both local and rapid buses, a monorail, and above ground trams that make Detroit’s People Mover seem like technology from a hopeful utopia.

Vegas is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been while also being a place I couldn't wait to escape from. When I recently took the time to explore Boston, I came back to Cincinnati wondering why my city constantly fails to emulate the positive examples of its peers. Boston seemed liked a great place to relocate to under the right circumstances. In Vegas, I kept my wristwatch set to Eastern Standard Time, a reminder of where I’d rather live long term as opposed to being among Bally’s, Caesars, and The Sands.

I can appreciate the love and enthusiasm held by those who call the gambling mecca home, though. I hoped that the Golden Knights arena was filled with prideful locals enjoying that they finally had a major league team and I have nothing but respect for those who maintain the Neon Museum and the history it shares. I wish we would’ve explored a local coffee shop or bookstore, talking to someone who appreciates the region as a place rather than a destination to loose money against overwhelming odds. I made it all four days without gambling once. I’m not against the practice, and the Vegas casinos all seem to be far superior to their watered-down Midwestern counterparts, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. Seeing Cirque Du Soleil’s “O” was a much better Vegas-esque experience to be found.

In the end, I was grateful to get on the road to places other than The Strip and its confusing routes of shopping malls and street peddlers who never leave you alone. Stepping outside of here and to Death Valley, there was a new area of the country to explore for me personally. Vegas is a place that I was incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to see, but also one I was ready to leave. Even if it meant returning to gray skies and cold weather.

At the same time, I’m still intrigued. I want to know more about the place, to watch minor league baseball there, to see Vegas’ identity grow and attempt to transcend stereotypes of Elvis impersonators and wedding chapels. I want to read about the story behind every casino, to know who owns what and which businesses grew from where. I want to scour the seedy area between The Strip and Downtown, to see more areas outside of the LED lights that now trump neon. Next time, I’ll do more to seek out the place that exists beyond tourist trappings and lazily costumed characters hustling for tips.

- The High Roller ferris wheel.

- Manufactured greenery being installed at a golf course.

- Newspaper boxes filled with escort ads and Koval Ln.

- The Las Vegas monorail.

- Inside Paris Las Vegas' replica Eiffel Tower.

- Planet Hollywood.

- Roller coaster remains.

The above roller coaster track was formerly known as "Speed - The Ride." It was once an attraction at the former Sahara (now SLS) Resort and Casino's defunct NASCAR Cafe. It operated from 2000 until 2011 before siting idle for about a year. It was then dismantled and relocated to the location seen here in 2012 to be constructed at a new resort. That new resort was never built and the ride sits in the desert off of The Strip. If you've ever ridden Flight of Fear or the Italian Job: Stunt Track/Backlot Stunt Coaster at Kings Island, Speed was from the same manufacturer.

- Monorail interior.

- South Las Vegas Blvd looking North.

- Black Jack Motel sign at the Neon Museum.

- Mural of Hunter S. Thompson by Ruben Sanchez.

- Neon sign on Fremont St.

Some other random observations featuring photographs of note, rather than composition:

Vegas' local bus system operates two routes specifically catering to tourism. "The Duece" (above) is a double-decker bus that runs between The Strip and Downtown with frequent stops at popular destinations. The "Las Vegas Strip and Downtown Express" (below) is a Bus Rapid Transit line that also connects the two popular areas. It has less stops to provider quicker service and features vehicles modeled after light rail trains. Both bus lines use exclusive right-of-way near Downtown/Fremont Street, but could benefit from more of it or by being converted into actual rail transit. If done properly, BRT could be an asset in Cincinnati.

The Las Vegas Monorail has an enthusiastic marketing plan pushing it, and operates similar to those found in Disney parks, sharing a common ancestry. The original Vegas monorail featured a short track between the MGM Grand and Bally's, utilizing two former Disney trains. The above garage is the original maintenance facility, complete with disconnected track. From 2002-2004, the monorail was reconfigured and extended to other casino resorts and the Las Vegas Convention Center. It runs mostly parallel to The Strip, but not directly near it. Reaching a station often requires wandering from the street and through a casino and its shops. Nevertheless, it's still a convenient way to get up and down The Strip quickly. An extension to the airport would be an incredibly useful connection, but plans for such an endeavor have been halted, allegedly due to vocal cab/limo operators.

On the other side of Las Vegas Boulevard, a network of trams loosely connects various casinos/hotels. One runs between Mandalay Bay, Luxor, and the Excalibur. A second connects the Bellagio with CityCenter and the Monte Carlo. A third links the Mirage with Treasure Island. Here's a map of the rather interesting network.

The above photograph shows the intersection of Koval Ln. and Flamingo Rd. where Tupac Shakur was shot in a 1996 drive-by shooting that would take his life.

New York, New York features a taxi-cab themed roller coaster built by the Togo Corporation of Japan. If you ever rode King Cobra at Kings Island (or any of these rides), you’ve ridden a Togo creation. Unlike the defunct, stand-up King Cobra, this multi-looping, sit-down ride isn’t particularly renown. Despite a plethora of manufactures to choose from, the resort went with Togo in 1997. The coaster was known to be terrible, although, with newer trains from 2006, it’s apparently nowhere near as rough as it used to be. It’s actually pretty fun to ride.

Frankly, the only reason I posted this iPhone photograph is because shortly after I took it, a nearby employee scolded me for taking an image in the ride station. He pointed to a small, hardly noticeable sign that explained there are no photographs allowed in the station. He was an asshole about it and I was apparently supposed to delete this image, but here it is ruining the magic and mystique of a roller coaster that costs $15 to ride.

I haven't been able to find a record of it, but I'm pretty sure Togo's US Headquarters were once in Cincinnati near Forest Park/Springdale. The company is now defunct.

- A Shepard Fairey "Obey Giant" near Fremont St.

Unlike a lot of overpriced attractions in Vegas, The Neon Museum is worth every dollar. Our tour guide, Matt, was fantastic and the hourlong tour through the “sign boneyard” was a highlight encapsulating a unique aspect of the area's culture. It's a place I’d readily visit again.

Also, if you haven't been to the American Sign Museum here in Cincinnati, you're missing out on an awesome place.

Lastly, not far from where the aforementioned abandoned roller coaster sits, there's a partially completed giant ferris wheel. Skyvue was to feature large gondolas that could accommodate 20-25 riders and provide a unique experience and view of the Las Vegas Strip. It was to be the centerpiece attraction of a new casino and hotel called "London," following New York, New York and Paris as resorts themed to other destinations.  Originally planned to be 476 ft. tall, Skyvue would've been larger than The London Eye ferris wheel. In the time that construction started, paused, and was abandoned, Caesars Entertainment announced, built, and opened the taller High Roller ferris wheel further up The Strip and reaching 500 ft. above ground. The support columns of Skyvue are allegedly 200 ft. tall and have been abandoned since 2014. Another proposed Vegas ferris wheel known as "Voyager" was to be 600 ft. tall and be far more elaborate, but never seemed to have a shot at getting built.

If that's not enough random Ferris Wheel information for you (or if you want to ride one of these things without going to Vegas), there have been plans since 2015 to bring a "giant wheel" to Newport on the Levee, overlooking Cincinnati. As of November 2017, officials still claimed that the project was happening, but we'll see if it ends up with Voyager, Skyvue, or High Roller status.

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