Saturday, April 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Urban geography professor Rex Rowley knows what it’s like to live in Las Vegas.
He was a local. He grew up in the city, moving to the tourists' paradise when he was 10 years old. He grew up near Rainbow Boulevard and Flamingo Road and graduated from Bonanza High School.
Like most people who live in Las Vegas, he knows there are two kinds of people who occupy the valley: locals and tourists. There is also the tourist side to Las Vegas and the local side, kept separate from each other like opposite ends of a magnet.
It wasn’t until he attended the University of Kansas that Rowley realized just how unusual it was that residents in a city identify themselves as a "local." Nowhere else was that done, he said.
This thought persisted as he became an urban geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and it became the driving thesis to his book, “Everyday Las Vegas: Local Life in a Tourist Town.”
Rowley returned to Las Vegas for various stints in 2005, 2007 and 2008 to interview more than 100 locals and examine how they related to living in a tourist destination. What he found surprised him. The differences between local life and tourist life weren’t as separate as they seemed.
We sat down with Rowley to discuss the book and his discoveries about the city.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
How did you decide whom to interview?
I was very purposeful in trying to meet people in different parts of the valley and (with) different backgrounds. It was more about me being part of the community, and then my interactions were based on that community interaction. So I met a lot of people in the neighborhood I lived in. Then a lot of it came from referrals of people I’d meet at the Henderson Art Walk or First Fridays or the Philharmonic. I also got involved in the Citizens Police Academy through Metro, and I met people through there. It was kind of random in a way but really trying to get a broad spectrum of views from different people.
What was the most surprising finding in the interviews?
There were a lot of fun things that I would laugh at, or my jaw would drop when they tell a story about the mob. But I really went at this to profile this different side to the city. There’s the tourist, but OK, there’s this other side. What really surprised me was how much they were interconnected. ... It was interesting to see the back and forth, the interplay between the tourist and local.
I was at a church once and I saw there was some kind of fundraising going on with Boy Scouts, and I see this Scout leader come in. I look at his shoulder patch and see the council patch for the Las Vegas Area Council, and I see the symbol on it is the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. You look at this Vegas sign and you’re like, “That’s crazy; that’s the Vegas symbol every Scout is taught not to partake in.” That became this realization that this is not about two separate places but a Vegas that has two sides that are not as far separated as we think they are.
Do residents tend to associate or distance themselves from the Strip and the “Sin City” rap?
The truth from my experience is they do try to distance themselves from it. ... For the most part it is, “Oh, that’s not the Vegas I live in. I live a normal life in a Henderson suburb.” Usually the question that comes up in my mind after that is, “Where did you see your last movie?” Their response is usually a casino, and I would say, “You don’t live in a normal city.”
What was the biggest complaint from people who live in Las Vegas?
Most everybody would complain about the traffic, that the traffic is horrible and is worse in Las Vegas than anywhere else. They get this sort of hatred for the way people drive. Usually people say it’s one thing or the other — it’s the drivers or the traffic. The impression I got from the conversation is that it was both road behavior and congestion. Road behavior in how many accidents they’ve seen and the insurance premiums they have to pay, and congestion in how many roads are so often under construction. When I finished the interviews, I realized I had to write an entire chapter about traffic.
What was their favorite part about living here?
That it was kind of a “You can do anything you want, anytime you want” kind of place. The 24-hour town kind of thing was a really big love for people who live in Las Vegas.
What’s the biggest misconception from outsiders about what it is like to live in Las Vegas, according to people who live here?
I didn’t really ask that, but I did ask what they’d want outsiders to know about Las Vegas. They would say it’s a pretty normal town, except for the 24-hour nature. Or it’s a pretty normal town, except there’s gambling. Whether it was the normality they wanted people to know or the exception to the normality, I’m not sure, but that came up a lot.