Las Vegas could learn a few things from Reno

There's nothing remarkable about the Siena Hotel in Reno. It's a small place two blocks east of the downtown casino district. But the Siena has something that none of the billion-dollar resorts in Las Vegas can boast about: a river.

A real river.

The Truckee, originating in the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, flows along the north side of the Siena, and the hotel's architects wisely created some convenient vantage points from which to enjoy the view.

People are drawn to water. It's not entirely clear why, but few would dispute it. Herman Melville considered the issue in the opening pages of "Moby Dick":

"Say you are in the country ... Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries -- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water. ... Meditation and water are wedded forever."

Traveling to Reno last weekend for a newspaper conference, as well as for the state's annual college rivalry football game, I was struck by how the river made such a strong impression. Living in a place without such an amenity, it's easy to forget how entrancing any natural body of water can be.

Reno vs. Las Vegas. We can't help but to compare and contrast Nevada's two urban centers. Having lived in both places, I've always tried to be a voice of reason on the subject.

Many Las Vegans think of Reno -- if they think of it at all -- as a redneck town. Las Vegans believe they live where the action is, and since Reno is not a stop on the international business and celebrity circuit, it's assumed to lack sophistication and modernity. It's off the grid.

Meanwhile, many Reno residents see Las Vegas as the less civilized place. Las Vegas is all flash and no substance. It's gobbling state resources with reckless abandon. It's growing like a weed without addressing its urban problems. It's a place with no history and an imported culture.

Each of these generalizations includes kernels of truth, but neither tells the whole story.

The main difference between the cities is scale. The Las Vegas metropolitan area has a population exceeding 1.9 million, while the Reno metro area totals about 450,000.

That's a huge disparity, explaining why many people prefer one place over the other. For some, Las Vegas is too big and crowded, while for others Reno is too small to offer the urban scope and diversity they desire.

Las Vegas gets most of the attention these days, but a recent article in Esquire magazine offered a new perspective. The writer, Tom Chiarella, compared Las Vegas and Reno and came down strongly in favor of the latter. Chiarella summarized Reno:

"It's ruddy and rock hard, self-evident and open-hearted. Reno is of a whole. It is a city, not an event. It is clean, safe, small, open, easy to get around in, cheap, seedy in the right ways, elegant in its own small measures."

By contrast, Chiarella found that when he's in Las Vegas, "things seem a bit more scaly and reptilian to me. You cannot escape the smell of corporate BO that pervades the Strip. ... Everything's all shined up, so that the whole world looks like it's been wiped down with a paper towel and a bottle of Armor All."

Chiarella's assessments are well observed, but more relevant to the visitor than the resident. Locals know you can live in Las Vegas and avoid the "shined up ... wiped down" Strip resorts if you want. And if you live in Reno, I'm sure you can cite reasons to throw cold water on the writer's praise.

But the Esquire article and my recent trip suggest that Las Vegas, for all its attributes, could learn a few things from its sister city to the north.

-- Reno has greater respect for its history. As an older community than Las Vegas, this is perhaps only natural. But it seems to me that Las Vegas goes out of its way to emphasize the present and the future while ignoring the past. Besides demolishing old buildings, we neglect historic institutions, and many of our teachers don't know enough about Las Vegas history to give their students ample and accurate lessons in the subject. Las Vegas could build a stronger sense of community through greater efforts to preserve and promote its history.

-- Reno is a politically conservative city, but its conservatism is more pragmatic than the extreme strains prevalent in Las Vegas. As a result, Reno maintains a Republican flavor while strongly supporting public schools, environmental preservation projects and other civic-minded initiatives. The community good is important in Reno no matter what your party registration.

-- In Reno, the university does a better job of reaching out to the community and integrating with its citizens and institutions. It's not just the pervasive community spirit evident across the Truckee Meadows when UNR's sports teams have a big game. The university there is a player in a range of local projects and activities. UNR is engaged with Reno in a way that UNLV has not engaged with Las Vegas. Too few UNLV professors seem to feel that Las Vegas is worthy of their time.

-- Reno benefits from its modest urban scale. It's a more manageable, navigable community than Las Vegas. Driving and walking around Reno, my blood pressure was significantly lower and my mood brighter than it tends to be on the "Road Warrior"-esque streets of Las Vegas.

While Las Vegas can't really do anything about its metropolitan scale, it could develop methods to break up the sprawling city into smaller pieces -- sub-communities, if you will.

You see this in other large cities, such as Portland, Ore., where people live in distinctive neighborhoods that reflect their cultural and economic interests. Typically, this happens organically over time.

In Las Vegas, we'd have to force things a bit, but the process could yield benefits, from a stronger sense of community to greater political involvement.

We actually dipped a toe into these waters a few years ago. Remember when Las Vegas Councilman Michael Mack asked residents to submit proposed names for the northwest part of the city? The winning name, Centennial Hills, has, for better or worse, stuck with the area. Unfortunately, city leaders have not done much since then to expand upon Mack's initial effort.

Learning from Reno? Some Las Vegans will scoff at the notion. But if you haven't done so -- and many Las Vegans haven't -- I urge you to take a trip up north. Check out the city. Stroll through the neighborhoods with stately 100-year-old houses. Walk around the university campus with its ivy-covered buildings. Look at the river.

I believe you'll see what I'm getting at.

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.