Lost Vegas: 3

In Nevada on July 1, 2009 at 12:00 am

West Coast 2 065

But then there’s the other Vegas. Local Nevadans call it “downtown,” although Fremont Street looks nothing like a city’s typical business center. If a 60-year-old theme-park built in the middle of a waterless western desert could even have an Old City, Fremont Street would be it. This is where the magic started. Even the signs are iconic: The waving cowboy (Vegas Vic) and the boot-kicking cowgirl (Sassy Sally), pictured a thousand times in Vegas-set movies.

Here, there are no half-scale replicas of the Eifel Tower or Statue of Liberty. On Fremont Street, the themes are strictly westward, ho: Four Queens, El Cortez, Main Street Station, and Binion’s (formerly Binion’s Horseshoe). Retired names include The Mint, the Eldorado and the Pioneer Club. Nobody on Fremont has to visit faraway places like Egypt or Deep Space Nine. Good ole Nevada will do just fine.

If you have a nose for bargains, you can smell deals everywhere. Kylan and I didn’t make reservations, and we practically stumbled into the Plaza Hotel. For a mere $33, we took a spacious room with a large window facing the Strip – a spellbinding panorama in daytime or night. Like most Vegas hotels, the Plaza has its own cable station, which advertises the restaurants, the upstairs lounge, and the Plaza’s pride and joy, The Rat Pack is Back. This is where Downtown won me over: Although we didn’t actually see the Rat Pack revue, there was something quaint about four not-bad impersonators and the show’s old-school idolatry. The Plaza seemed simple and unpretentious; the owners apparently wanted to preserve the old-days at the Sands, when the city was smaller and still Nevadan in spirit. In a city that ages in dog-years, Downtown is a museum that hasn’t lost its bite.

As we walked down Fremont Street, people-watching and sipping one-dollar margaritas, we started to notice the advantages of Downtown: Foremost, it’s very easy to get around. Parking is plentiful, much of it valet. The Plaza is located at one end of Fremont, but we could reach the other side in five to 10 minutes – depending on how much we window-shopped along the way.

Compared with the Strip, the prices are halved. At one store, we could obtain three goofy souvenir T-shirts for the Wal-Mart price of $10. Most machines were “penny-slot” outfits, where a single dollar went a long way (although not very long, we soon discovered, if you have no idea how to play).

“I come to Downtown all the time,” said a Treasure Island bartender. “It’s cheaper. It’s friendlier. You don’t have to worry about anything here.” Originally from Hawaii, the bartender insisted that Downtown was a favorite place among Vegas employees to simply unwind. “It’s too busy on the Strip. Too crazy. You get tired of it.”

            “I like the people here,” said a middle-aged college-student, a woman studying to become a dental hygienist. “Nobody realizes that people actually live in Las Vegas. We have normal jobs and go to school here. I even went to high school here, if you can imagine. When I go out, Downtown is just more real to me.”

We also felt freer. We could buy a beverage at one bar, then cross the street, margarita glass in hand, and stroll into another casino. Though still in our twenties, we were never asked for I.D., and no hulking bouncers demanded a cover-charge at the front door. We could go anywhere without stopping or checking in with authority. Security guards roamed the gambling floor, but many looked like college drop-outs or retirees; they were just as cordial and relaxed as the front-desk managers. Besides, any real problem would be recorded by any of a thousand surveillance cameras. Not only did we feel liberated, but also safe.


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