Should we celebrate 2 million?


So, Clark County has hit the 2 million population mark. Whew! Don't know about you, but I was losing sleep worrying that we might never reach this monumental threshold.

I'm kidding, of course. We all knew this was going to happen. It's been inevitable at least since Nov. 22, 1989. That's when Steve Wynn opened The Mirage, helping launch a growth explosion of unprecedented proportions.

Still, hitting 2 million seems an appropriate time to take stock, to ponder whether this population threshold is cause for celebration or concern.

It's no secret that a lot of old-timers are sick about it. They prefer the Las Vegas of yore, when the town was small and life was simple. They didn't bargain for the big-city problems we're dealing with today, although, to be fair, most of them didn't try to do anything to prevent it all from happening, either.

Others no doubt are toasting the benchmark, reveling in the economic benefits of rapid growth and development. Growth is good for business. A lot of people here have gotten rich, or at least very comfortable, as a result of the county's boom.

But probably the largest group of residents falls into neither of these categories. Rather, they possess that ubiquitous 21st century sensation called mixed feelings.

A huge percentage of the population has migrated here over the past 17 years or so. They may not care for some aspects of the growth, but they realize they are part of the problem so perhaps it's best not to complain too loudly, lest they be accused of wanting to bar the door behind them.

Others balance the pros and cons of growth. The pros include ample job and educational opportunities, expanding cultural amenities and a general sense of living in an exciting place. Nobody ever describes Las Vegas as "sleepy."

The cons include a familiar litany: traffic congestion, crime, poverty, crowded schools, social ills and insufficient services to deal with them. Clark County is in a constant state of catching up. The roads are never wide enough, there's a chronic teacher shortage, there are never enough homeless shelters, etc.

This is not only what rapid growth looks like, it's what most big cities deal with. It takes some getting used to.

As we ponder 2 million population, perhaps the most important thing we can do is come to terms with the hard, cold fact that this is now a big city. Nostalgia for the days of breezy 15-minute trips across the valley and Frank Sinatra at the Sands is all well and good, but it has nothing to do with the Las Vegas of today.

Coming to terms with our metropolitan reality means understanding that a fully functioning big city is a complex organism with a host of moving parts. And a great city -- what some have called a "world-class city" -- is a place that has achieved civic excellence in certain areas.

There's no question Las Vegas has reached this level in one area: gaming-based tourism. The Strip remains unrivaled as a destination for gamblers and others seeking a surreal vacation experience.

Beyond the Strip, however, Las Vegas is average to dismal in almost every area of civic life. Two media reports last week are representative of this.

The Brookings Institution released a study ranking "walkable cities." The authors looked at 30 metropolitan areas and concluded that the 10 most amenable to pedestrians are Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Pittsburgh and New York City.

Las Vegas ranked a charitable 20th. While this is nothing to brag about, it probably should have been lower. Take out the two main tourist areas -- the Strip and Fremont Street -- and Las Vegas has to be one of the least walkable communities in the country.

Of course, most Las Vegans probably don't care very much about our walkability ranking. But this kind of thing is important to other cities. Boston officials, for example, are livid about the Brookings study because they believe that Boston, long dubbed "America's Walking City," should be ranked first.

Next item: U.S. News & World Report magazine released a study ranking American's best public high schools. Perusing the top 100 institutions, I couldn't help but notice that none of them was located in Nevada. (Particularly galling: Arizona, which Nevada would like to look down on if it could pull it off, landed a laudable three schools in the top 100.)

Among the 18,000 public high schools included in the study, U.S. News did find a few in our state worthy of mention. Eight of them, to be exact. The top 100 schools received gold medals. Nevada had four silver medal winners: A-Tech, Clark and Las Vegas Academy in Las Vegas and Reno High in Northern Nevada. We also had four bronze medal schools: Community College High Schools East, South and West in Las Vegas and tiny Eureka High School in the northeastern part of the state.

These eight schools should be proud of what they've accomplished but overall, Nevada's public education system looks awfully weak in this study.

The question comes up again, however: How many of us really care about earning "gold medals" from a national newsmagazine? Based on the tone of recent public debate about education funding, it seems a significant majority of Nevadans aren't too worried about the excellence of our schools.

And yet, despite our deficiencies, we've just eclipsed 2 million people in Clark County. We must be doing some things right around here to attract so many people, right?

It's true. It may be frustrating to those who care about things like walkability and education (myself among them, obviously), but Las Vegas draws thousands of new residents every month anyway.

For most of us here, I surmise, comparing Las Vegas with Boston is a case of apples and oranges. They're completely different places with entirely different priorities.

Walkability? Isn't that a bit twee for Las Vegas? Let's rank the quality and quantity of parking garages and see how Las Vegas stacks up against the competition.

Excellent schools? We're doing just fine with our barely adequate schools, thank you.

In short, our 2 million is a different sort, largely indifferent to the judgments of East Coast think tanks and magazines.

This being the holiday season, I hold out hope that one day Las Vegas will embrace elements of urban living that have become matter-of-course in other cities, from mass transit to recycling to, yes, walkability.

Meantime, shall we celebrate 2 million people? If we want to put our true skills on display, we'd have a big party.

Then again, maybe we should save the celebration for 3 million. Surely by then we'll be a walkable city with a few great schools, right?

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) 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.

 

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