It seemed a reasonable thing to do, get up early and walk to a coffee shop before the sweltering heat of the day set in. Only it was Las Vegas. And I didn’t quite accept—after a quick visual check on Google maps that the closest coffee shop was located directly on a diagonal line across from my hotel—that I actually had to circumvent the entire massive block to get there (nearly a mile one way). But that was just the map calculation. Reality would surely be different than a polygons-and-lines data model.
As far as I could tell, hotels and casinos had elaborate street frontage but their properties reached back to multi-storied parking lots and other structures typically known only to building engineer types. How much of a hurdle could it be to just cut through properties between my hotel and the same block on a parallel road? I would demonstrate, with my finely honed sense of city exploration-smarts.
I decided to get the lay of the land first, by sticking to the map’s plotted route. This involved first crossing about six lanes of traffic–two of them turning lanes, on a slightly different timing to the main lights. The pedestrian green light lasted for about half the road’s crossing distance, after which I almost trotted to finish the crossing in front of purring cars. You’d be out of luck with weak legs or if you needed more time.
I made my way alongside the high, beige, concrete walls of the Hard Rock Cafe. A woman passed by, her apron slung over her shoulder and purse at her hip, no doubt heading into a service job there. I soon came upon an abandoned property encircled by a high chain link fence. Obviously it had been a hotel at some point, then abandoned, and now a bold sign was posted about new development coming. Fissures cleaved the wide concrete driveway and weeds straggled around the edges. Concrete evidence, I mused, of the proverbial Las Vegas bust and boom.
Further on, I found myself on a kind of overpass. A high metal grill prevented any access to what was underneath–a concrete-lined basin flowing with a sad slick of black water. So this is what a desert’s ephemeral stream looked like in the concrete city. As in many cities, natural streams were channeled into pipes and concrete basins to better drain and clear land for development. In the midst of the 3 year long drought in 2014, it was mostly street runoff from gutters.
I was growing hot. Glass-sheathed buildings all around seemed to focus the mornings long rays directly on my skin. The street began to feel like a rectilinear solar cooker threatening to cook me as I walked. The walk itself along long, blank walls was monotonous with few other pedestrians for company. The growling traffic made it even more alienating. I felt I’d been given an ant’s passage on a runway, making slow progress next to whizzing cars.
Around the corner, and more, seemingly endless, chain link fence. This time it enclosed scrubby, flat expanses of land bound in the distance by back walls of parking lots, and gleaming glass buildings that faced the street front. Everything seemed distant.
I finally arrived at a terracotta colored Italian villa-esque casino, my destination. The Google map-promised coffee shop was inside somewhere. I cast half a chagrined glance inside the shockingly cold air-conditioned lobby, and decided to skip the disorienting trails through a casino floor which would lead to some inevitably disappointing coffee.
Now frustrated, hot, yet resolved to find a robust coffee worthy of my all too-developed palate, my feet clearly wanted the quickest way home. No tedious retracing of steps around the half-mile block for me. I headed for the back of the property on a casino driveway. Sadly, I found a bit of a dead end. Walls and closed parking were all I saw. Mexican gardeners were busy gardening, sweeping, and tending to plants that would surely grow better in rain-fed Tuscany than in the Sonoran desert. The walls seemed foreboding and I would attract the wrong attention if I asked for a leg up.
I trudged back out of the Villa’s gracious driveway, out by the adjoining B-rate strip club of sorts which was running its water sprinkler all over the concrete pavement and road to moisten a patch of lawn. Excess water seeped into a storm drain, and would eventually go into the channel I had seen earlier which appeared to drain this entire block.
Backtracking on the road, alongside the chain link fence, I noticed a small gap that wasn’t obvious when I first walked by it. The fence had been pulled back a little, as an entrance into the bare, rubble-strewn property. A little passage similar to what an animal might make through a weak link or loose wire in fencing. I looked back at the street, wondering if someone would call the cops about a trespasser. I stepped in anyway.
Distances skew the perception of height so I couldn’t really assess how this property was closed off at the far end away from the street. With the only other choice being the long way around the block, I started off across the shortest, cross-cutting trajectory to the back of the walled property.
Benign though my purpose was for traversing this open area, I felt vulnerable and guilty. I was trudging across land where no city authority, city planner, private holder of the land’s deed, or indeed any law enforcement official wanted me to be.
Yet it did feel natural to explore a short cut.
It took a moment for me to notice the diminutive lean-to of sorts in the corner of the property under a bunch of palm trees. A homestead might have been an apt description. A couch sat alongside the shelter, set up like patio furniture. A couple of straggly palm trees behind offered a little landscaping visual appeal. The tent-house was made of a motley collection of products oddly juxtaposed: backpacks, clothing and bags. The property’s backdrop, in contrast, was the skyline of towering casinos, raking in non-stop profits at that very moment along the famous “Strip.”
Here perhaps, was the human animal who had forced the gap in the fencing that I had slid through myself. I averted my eyes so as not to be obtrusive and made a straight line for the back. After a short, sun-burnt trudge, I came to a wall about my same height, five feet. Contrary to the image in my mind’s eye of vaulting over the wall, I was well aware of that I lacked Hollywood-stunt powers and didn’t trust my arms to hoist me up and over. But, miraculously I saw a solution.
Other human animals who had come before me had clearly found ways to surmount the walls. An overturned paint bucket was strategically placed at a low section of the wall, exploiting the perfect height where enterprising adults could hoist themselves up and over. Stepping up on an overturned plastic paint bucket did the trick. I got over.
In other parts of the country, strip malls and apartment complexes might have a sidewalk curb around their bounds so that cars are forced to drive back out to the road and not jump the curb across into an adjacent property. Here, remarkably, people had gone to amazing expense to construct walls and erect miles of chain link fence to demarcate and secure their properties from adjoining ones.
I was a little discomfited by this urban underbelly. Here in the invisible gaps of this gleaming city, these vacant lots not yet appropriated in the service of capitalism through building or leasing, were places of rest and self-definition for human beings. Here were spots where people could set their belongings down, such as they are, for a period of time. Here, on barren, ‘undeveloped’ quarter acres was all the dignity and pathos of human life.
After the awkward wall-scaling I went on. Another high wall enclosing the Hard Rock Café to one side, looked foreboding. No plastic buckets would help me scale that one. Yet again, an enterprising wall- crossing surprised me. Just a few steps ahead, I saw that the wall itself was built on risers where the paved surface was sloped into drains for rainfall runoff (into the underground water canal). The gap created by the risers was high enough for a person to crawl through for a short stretch. There was indeed a way to cross the big wall…underneath it.
This landscape made me think about people who found ways to cross barriers simply because the human emotions that motivated them more powerful than walls. I had recently watched the documentary Which Way Home. It features intimate interviews with Central American children and follows them as they undertake perilous journeys–as hobos on trains and with traffickers guiding them through border towns and desert–into the United States. The hopelessness the children feel in their current circumstances, the possibility of a new place and desire to be with their parents seem to propel them past all foreboding and warning. These spirited, small people with unbridled hope, all the elasticity of youth, and sometimes heartbreaking sobs, encounter complex difficulties and militarized boundary complexes. Compassion is nowhere. Their emotional drive keeps them going. They are often caught. Many get through.
I felt a moment of solidarity with these vulnerable human beings who were undeterred by dangers or fences.
As real as my feet were propelling me on this strange traverse of Las Vegas’ backsides, I felt equally strongly that the urge for humans to find passage, to explore, and to wander is innate, powerful and natural. All the designed passages and channels in Las Vegas intended for automobiles or for limited pedestrian access to commercial strips could yet not control this basic human instinct to wander, find, and walk…freely.
I thought about this once boundless desert which had been drawn and quartered into mile-long squares by the Homestead Act. How the legacy of this parceling process was now the inherited framing of western cities laid out in rectilinear blocks, like Las Vegas. Human beings have no business really, wandering through the backs of properties looking for short cuts. But we do anyway. In my case, it was a choice. For those without cars, who don’t participate in the commercial enterprise of hotels, restaurants, and casinos, it might not be a choice. We all, still, walk.
Las Vegas’ urban planning and architecture views street space as a way of corralling traffic and pedestrian movement down specific arteries fronted with commerce. The public sidewalk on the Strip actually flows seamlessly inside and through casinos as if the purpose of any walking should be to visit the next business.
It might be a gross generalization but I wondered how effective walls were, anywhere in the world, against the spirit of human beings to go beyond, to cross barriers, and to explore. As much as walls are part of the human enterprise of erecting boundaries, it seems inevitable that they are scaled. People never fail to rise to the challenge. (Prison breaks, the Berlin Wall, the U.S. –Mexico wall being examples that come to mind)
Up ahead, as I emerged from the shadowy hinterlands of a non-descript apartment property, towards the street I saw a swath of green lawn. A man was setting up sprinklers to water it, which although it did seem a frivolity in the desert was pleasant to the eye after the drab back lots. It was the green of the reassuring side of Vegas, a sign of human economy and water, of business, wealth, and resources for a fancy façade. This was the familiar viewframe from a car’s windshield. This was the acceptable image of Las Vegas for visitors.
The water ran off the lawn, and down the sloped opening of a concrete channel leading to the underground drainage network. At its edge, I noticed something else. It was more of the human animal imprint on this concrete landscape: a couple of piles of unmistakably human feces. So perhaps the people who lived their transient, invisible existences in the hinterlands were not so invisible after all. Did they wind up here because there was water? Because it was suitably removed from their own ‘front step’?
At the front desk of my hotel to which I had returned, hot and bothered, I paid for an overpriced and very bad latte. The coffee shop had opened in the time I had taken for my morning caffeine-seeking exertions.
On my flight out of Vegas, I got to talking with a fellow passenger. He loved the absolute freedom that Las Vegas represented, he said. He meant, he explained, the freedom to run any kind of sexual, liquor, or entertainment business and charge for it without government restriction. It’s not an uncommon libertarian-slanted notion. And it smacks of a kind of college fraternity male bravado. He followed up saying that the pinnacle of economic success is the ‘freedom’ to practice any kind of business and not be regulated.
His unironic delivery style (and inability to use the conditional tense in considering alternate viewpoints) steered me away from a deeper engagement with him and his viewpoint conflating ‘freedom’ with ‘economic success’.
Applying abstract concepts like freedom as if its meaning is fixed has to false. Can a notion like freedom ever be a universally-applicable truth? Freedom seems consistently contingent on restrictions. What of the freedom of the white, landed gentry enjoying economic success in pre-civil war American South, built on the backs of enslaved Africans? Such irony is usually lost on someone who obviously uses the concept of ‘freedom’ as a crutch to prop up a self-serving ideology. Economic success is defined narrowly, for his own group. No consideration of the welfare of a larger complex group, or for the earth itself, that supports all economic activity.
I thought about my walk over walls then. The notion of freedom this fellow passenger brandished couldn’t be defined by the physical boundaries of the city where disenfranchised, impoverished people exist in the scrubby hinterlands. They don’t play much poker or roulette. They are not rolling the dice or going to lavish shows. They are in a slog for survival not much different from the poor anywhere else in the world.
I set off innocently enough on a search for coffee, but I found instead that a relatively short urban walk in Las Vegas was a radical idea, the idea that people should be able to get to places on foot, explore, and find short cuts and passages that make sense for human passage, rather than vehicular passage.
Instead of coffee, I found the economic hinterlands of Las Vegas’ gleaming and manicured-lawn facades. Instead of ‘freedom’ I found walls of exclusion and boundaries that prevented free access. Instead of people making their way to work and to get coffee along streets, I found hard motorways with roaring vehicles, mostly unpleasant for human passage.
I had veered off course. I cut through the rectilinear grid which corralled people along fixed square routes, from shopping plaza, to hotel, to casino.
I crossed the back walls less traveled, and there I found another city.