Las Vegas Sun

July 1, 2015

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We’re stuck, so will we bond?

As a transient bunch, Las Vegans have historically shunned social connections. But a sense of community could grow from housing bog.

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During the boom years, Las Vegas watchers loved to bandy about an eye-catching statistic: We were adding 6,000 people a month. The reality, however, was slightly different, but also more interesting: 9,000 people were moving here, and 3,000 were leaving.

There was a constant threshing and winnowing, a city churning through people. Seekers from the declining Rust Belt states, overpriced California and impoverished parts of Latin America came here for good jobs, affordable homes and the sense that anything was possible.

Despite the promised — and in many cases very real — good life to be had, many couldn’t hack it. They were too susceptible to what we politely call “the Vegas lifestyle,” or they had medical needs or children with special needs that our libertarian culture and at-times dysfunctional government refused to countenance.

For those who made it here, Las Vegas was often a place to find their fortune before going someplace else. The yearning instinct that brought them to Las Vegas also kept them from calling it home. Even within the city itself, its denizens were constantly on the move, looking for a new house to flip or a better, cheaper apartment with a better pool scene.

And so, Las Vegas has been a city of transients, a place where the “vagabond wind,” as the essayist Scott Russell Sanders calls it, blows strong. As transients, we barely knew our neighbors, let alone cared what might happen to our community in two years or 10. By many empirical indicators, we had some of the weakest civic and social bonds of any city in the country.

Now, though, 80 percent of Las Vegas homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth. They are anchored here, whether they like it or not.

Buried in this mountain of woe may be a nugget of something salutary: Now forced to call Las Vegas home, perhaps mere residents will decide to become something more, to become active citizens, to get on their homeowner association boards and legalize basketball hoops in driveways, or fight for education reform, or sponsor a block party.

“If they can’t go anywhere, and people are settling in for the long haul, then yes, that should do something to stabilize volatility,” says Robert Lang, UNLV sociologist and director of Brookings Mountain West. “Across a lot of areas this could be good for building community.”

Sociologists call it “social capital” — the interlocking bonds among individuals and groups that can drive cooperation, innovation and progress. (On the downside, too much social capital can close off a community to outsiders, an unlikely danger for Las Vegas, sociologists say.)

Traditionally, we’ve had little social capital, except perhaps among casino executives, whose commonality extends from navigating a heavily regulated industry to operating within a few square miles of each other. But there’s even been less of that in recent decades, as many executives spend more time jet-setting, if they even live here.

Bo Bernhard, a UNLV sociologist and director of gambling research at the International Gaming Institute, is a fifth generation Las Vegan with a large and tight family and community network here. But he says they were somewhat shiftless, coming and going to greener pastures, until his grandmother became a kindergarten teacher — only then did they become rooted.

“The lesson here is that there’s a tendency to think of community as a magical thing in the ether. But it’s rooted in hard, concrete things like jobs and housing stability,” Bernhard says.

So perhaps, with the new housing stability — attained, sadly, because of the crash — we will achieve new community.

Jim Russell, a geographer, consultant and proprietor of the blog Burgh Diaspora, notes that a goal of federal policies designed to increase homeownership was to get people rooted in their communities, to have a stake in the future of their neighborhoods.

And although federal housing policies centered on homeownership may have contributed to the current mess by encouraging the bubble, the end result may indeed be a new rooted-Ness, at least in Las Vegas.

“People may ask, ‘What am I going to do to make this my kind of place?’ ” says Michael Green, a Nevada historian.

Green says it was the 1990s growth that began the dissolution of community. Nevada’s population doubled. “The size of the increase was such that there was no way to build community,” he says.

People didn’t live in neighborhoods. They lived in developments.

Old-timers say it wasn’t always thus. As Green notes, from 1946 to the 1970s, Las Vegas was a haven for casino operators who had been run out of every other city in America because of a nationwide war on gambling. Here, though, they could operate legally.

It drew them together.

“This was the place where they became legitimate and wealthy, and that gave them a commitment to the community,” he says.

Once the gaming laws were changed to allow corporations to become licensed, the city attracted a different breed. They were cleaner and less unsavory, but they also saw the city as a little more than a way to please the masters on Wall Street.

Gerald McDermott, a professor of international business at the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, says this is a “common problem in emerging markets. To modernize, you bring in outside players. But the risk is that they don’t develop socioeconomic linkages to the local economy. That is a big problem.”

Now, however, unless Las Vegans walk away from their mortgages, they’re here to stay. For those with a wandering instinct, it may feel asphyxiating, and they would be justified if angered at the man-made forces that have shoved them underwater and are keeping them there. But in “Staying Put,” Sanders, the essayist, writes that a new door has been opened to us.

“When we cease to be migrants and become inhabitants, we might begin to pay enough heed and respect to where we are. By settling in, we have a chance of making a durable home for ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our descendants.”

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