Feel-good hits of the summer

This is the time of year when many Las Vegans dream of cooler climes. If things aren't going well for one reason or another, the relentless heat only makes it worse. The daily blast furnace makes people cranky, frustrated. Some start surfing the Internet for "best places to live," focusing on spots where you might wear a sweatshirt in July. "Why exactly do we live here again?" is a frequently heard refrain.

The lousy economy doesn't help. Unemployment, home foreclosures and business closures dominate the news. There's a surprise around most every corner. The Vons supermarket near my house closed the other day. Out of the blue, it seemed. What a bummer.

The political campaigns exacerbate the problem. The television ads tend to transmit the message that Nevada is a sucky place to live because my opponent has done such a terrible job. You just don't see many political ads that make you feel warm and fuzzy about your home state.

For example, consider the news this week that Nevada was not selected as a finalist for federal "Race to the Top" education funds. Qualifying for the grant could have meant $175 million for the state's schools. This was sad news, but instead of feeling disappointed and vowing to do better next time, the state's leading politicians unleashed the invective.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blamed Gov. Jim Gibbons for "his severe lack of leadership in education." Gibbons responded that Reid "never lifted a finger to help us." State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford ventured up the high road, insisting that "our children's education should never be a political football."

None of this rhetoric means anything. It's the daily grind of a political campaign, and I can't imagine that Las Vegans blistering their hands on their steering wheels have much interest in it.

But my task today is not to wallow in the negative. On the contrary, I'd like to offer a few reasons to feel good about Las Vegas, even when it's 100 degrees at 9 p.m. All you have to do is read the local newspapers to find pockets of pride.

On Monday, the Review-Journal's Richard Lake reported on the Black Mountain Institute, the literary organization led by former UNLV President Carol Harter. The institute is a constant source of hope that Las Vegas can be an incubator of cultural promise -- locally, nationally and beyond. Among other endeavors, BMI invites world-class literary figures to give free talks, sponsors fellowships so promising writers can pay the bills while they focus on their craft, publishes literary journals and oversees the City of Asylum program, which provides safe haven for writers whose voices have been censored in their home countries. Twenty years ago, it would have been almost impossible to imagine that literary writing could be a growth industry for Las Vegas.

On Tuesday, the Sun's Amanda Finnegan wrote about Zappos, arguably the hottest and most admired company operating in Las Vegas. Zappos.com is best known as a website where you buy shoes, but it now sells lots of other items as well. Zappos is also regarded as one of America's most desirable places to work. It emphasizes a fun, familial company culture, with themed cubicles, free breakfast and no dress code. People come from all over the globe to tour the company's Henderson offices. Much like the Black Mountain Institute, Zappos is showing the world what Las Vegas is capable of, and maybe its best practices will rub off on other local companies.

Also this week, UNLV's student newspaper, the Rebel Yell, covered the grand opening of the Emergency Arts building in downtown Las Vegas. Reporter Chad Martinez reveled in the excitement generated by the art galleries, boutiques and other hipster enterprises that fill the former medical building at Fremont and Sixth streets. The brainchild of Michael and Jennifer Cornthwhaite, this "creative collective" is an encouraging sign of urbanity in a city that puts most of its money and effort into wowing visitors.

On a different note, there's the recent story of Michael Gaughan, the casino industry veteran who owns the South Point. Amid the downturn, he's expanding: bigger casino floor, new race book, new poker room, new lounge. "Well, cutting back hasn't worked," Gaughan told the Las Vegas Weekly's Steve Friess. "I decided to try something new. I got tired of hearing about everybody cutting back."

Now, that's a proper Las Vegas attitude! And rest assured, Gaughan knows more about the casino business than most of the bean counters working up the street from his locals mecca.

Still, the dark clouds hanging over Las Vegas are real. Silver linings are hard to find, and there's no reliable estimate of when the gloom will lift. For those who can't find a decent job or who've lost their homes, my attempt at an optimistic posture may not fly.

But resilience must be part of our recovery. Sticking it out in Las Vegas will be rewarded by seeking out these and other pockets of progress that stimulate your mind rather than melt it.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.