Friday, April 26, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
THUMPING salsa music blares from a souped-up Toyota Corona cruising Baltimore Avenue as Mary Williams makes her way home.
She looks up as the car passes. Her eyes lift higher, to three men drinking beer and arguing on a dingy apartment's balcony across the street.
Somewhere close by, glass shatters and a car screeches off.
"You don't go out after dark in this neighborhood," Williams said, her half-smile mixed with the resignation that goes with living in Meadows Village, the blighted area she's called home for five years.
Three girls are playing Barbies in some weeds on this 80-degree afternoon around the corner from Williams. A quick glance down other streets shows some men sharing a laugh as they work under a truck's primer-gray hood. Friends mill about on sidewalks, in the streets.
But the other half of reality, residents say, are the drive-by shootings, drugs and bandits who steal hubcaps, strip cars and scribble graffiti wherever they choose.
"The police tell us not to be carrying no purses out here, and no walking after dark," Williams said. She raises one hand, a pack of Marlboros clamped tightly in her palm.
"That's why I'm out here now. I came to get me some cigarettes before dark," she said. "Them dopeheads that roam the streets at night, there's no telling what they gonna do next."
Rooms in this neighborhood can go for as cheap as $90 a month. That's about $10 more than what it would cost to sleep one night in the Stratosphere Tower resort.
That mighty, $70 million tower shines like a beacon of progress to the residents of Meadows Village -- bordered by Sahara Avenue on the south, Oakey Boulevard on the north, Commerce Street on the west and Industrial Road on the east.
Some call it "beautiful," others "OK."
But those who've given it more than a passing thought talk of the rumor that the Stratosphere's builders are going to rejuvenate their neighborhood, too -- raze the plethora of rundown, roach-infested buildings and plant a new village as inviting as the tower.
Sadly that's only a rumor.
A total of 1,500 rooms will be ready on Stratosphere's opening day, and its spokespeople boast of a 90 percent occupancy rate.
But Grand Casinos Inc., the Minneapolis-based company that owns the 1,149-foot tower, has no plans to change Meadows Village.
Grand Casinos bought and leveled a three-block area of the neighborhood -- from Baltimore to Philadelphia avenues between Commerce Street and Fairfield Avenue -- years ago for its 4,500 parking spaces.
It just bought one more block north -- from Philadelphia to Chicago -- which could be used for more parking or expansion.
About 200 families had to relocate when construction began. Stratosphere paid each between $500 and $2,000 to cover moving costs.
But it's up to the individual property owners to rid the decay around the tower.
"We hope Stratosphere will be the catalyst that spurs redevelopment," said Tom Bruny, Stratosphere's spokesman. "We plunked down a half-billion-dollar project in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods. It's not going to change overnight, but things move fast here in Las Vegas. ... The fastest way to fix a blighted area is through capital investment."
Old-timers can share a laugh at the irony: A few decades ago, the Meadows Village area was one of the better places in town to live.
Back then, it wasn't known for drugs or gangs or knifings. It wasn't derided as Naked City.
It was most popular among showgirls, legend has it -- beautiful women who chose the rosy neighborhood because of its proximity to their jobs.
Capt. Charles Davidaitis, who heads Metro Police's narcotics section, remembers those days. And he remembers why they changed:
"The Cuban Marielitos," he said of the criminal element among more than 127,000 refugees who left Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
Many settled into the showgirls' old haunts, he said, because "the rent was low, and the thought was that it might be easier to assimilate into American life by staying together."
Davidaitis is quick to distinguish between the Cubans who wreaked havoc on the city and those immigrants who were then and remain respectable members of the community.
"It's no secret that many of the Marielitos were (Fidel) Castro's worst," Davidaitis said. "And many -- not all -- ran afoul of the law."
So much so that Metro formed a Marelito gang detail in 1983 to specifically work the Tam Drive area -- the heart of Meadows Village -- where the Cuban transplants were taking credit for a radical upswing in violent crime and narcotics trafficking.
Officers assigned to the Marielito detail spent hours combing the troublemakers' known hangouts. They took classes to help them identify "who was who -- things like reading their tattoos. There were different ones for the political prisoners, the psychiatric ones."
Their efforts created a mammoth criminal mug book. There were 150 refugee felons' faces in it in 1983. By 1987, when the Marielito gang detail was disbanded, there more than 700.
Metro linked 29 Las Vegas slayings in 1982-1983 to Marielitos. That number was cut in half by 1984 and dropped to virtually none in later years.
This month, Livan Perez, 18, was stabbed to death three blocks from the Stratosphere -- one of three murders in a week near the casino that police say involved drugs and newly arrived Cuban immigrants.
The village remains one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods where drugs and prostitution are rampant. "It's a ghetto, a pocket of crime," Davidaitis said.
"That's what happens when you have people who can't get their hands on the American dream, who have no money, no job skills and can't speak the language," he said. "For those willing to take the risk, the quickest way to make money in the U.S. is drugs."
Wednesday night, Metro's drug interdiction team seized seven pounds of cocaine and two 35-pound suitcases filled with marijuana at McCarran International Airport -- narcotics that otherwise would have made it onto Las Vegas streets.
Stratosphere's Bruny believes tourists have nothing to be afraid of.
"We will have security guards and cameras, and there will be a wall around the perimeter," Bruny said. "There has been talk of extending the Strip's monorail down here, too."
The remodeling and expansion of the Sahara hotel-casino and other redevelopment nearby, Bruny said, will hopefully encourage Meadows Village landlords to revamp their properties.
Metro vice Lt. Carlos Cordeiro believes the effects could be wide ranging.
"We figure we'll find some of the hookers moving into the casino's bars, and we'll deal with it," he said. "But we're hoping the development will force prostitution out."
Cynthia Neely, a six-year resident, describes her neighborhood as "bad all day and all night. Drugs, prostitutes, gangs -- it's not a good place."
She believes the Stratosphere should clean up the area, if not for the community, then for their employees as a place to live that's clean, safe and close to their jobs.
"But it'll always be Naked City," said Tracy Marshall, looking around at the worn-out buildings.
"This place got that name from the showgirls layin' out naked by the pools. The name's got nothin' to do with showgirls now. ... I got nothing good to say about it here. Even if they take down the buildings, the drugs and the problems won't go away. They'll just go someplace else."