Former resident takes look, writes book about (Ab)normal Las Vegas

Rex Rowley lives in Normal, but he dreams of Las Vegas.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Metaphorically speaking, lots of guys from Normal do.

The difference with Rowley is that he’s a former Las Vegan who teaches geography at Illinois State University, which is located in the town of Normal. While some transplanted locals deny their gaudy hometown, and others use it as a conversation starter, Rowley decided to study what it’s like to live and work in Las Vegas. The result of his effort is the recently published “Everyday Las Vegas: Local Life in a Tourist Town” available through the University of Nevada Press.

What’s it like to live in Las Vegas?

Rowley’s far from the first academic to ask that question. During the boom years in Southern Nevada, shelves of books on the “real” Las Vegas experience were published. There were times I suspected this phenomenon was an elaborate scam perpetrated by professors upon their university departments. Score a foundation grant, grab a sabbatical and throw the grad students in the car — we’re going to Vegas!

So what makes Rowley’s topic worthy of a second thought in 2013?

He brings a different perspective to his study of local habits and vices. He has one foot in the outside world of Normal and the other foot smack in the middle of the Las Vegas Abnormal.

That perspective helps to counterbalance the never-ending tourist marketing of the Las Vegas experience in which visitors are encouraged to act like extras from “The Hangover Part III.” Like most boomtowns, Las Vegas also has a long and shameless tradition of press boosterism. A sober study of the place provides a tonic to the 100-proof hype.

For my money, longtime journalist and downtown business owner James P. Reza captures the extra-normal duality of our valley. He writes the “Ask a Native” column for the weekly Vegas Seven.

“We sort of have this three-group stratification of people who live in Las Vegas,” Reza said during a recent broadcast of “KNPR’s State of Nevada.” “You have the locals, which is anybody who lives in Las Vegas. It’s this big umbrella. If you’ve got a room at a weekly motel for three weeks, you’re a local all of a sudden. Then there’s the Vegas kids. These are the people that really understand the town. … They get what Las Vegas is about, and understand it from a balanced perspective. And then you have the natives, who were actually born and raised here.”

Being a local can also mean forgetting that in many ways we are very different.

“I think that when you’re actually born in a hospital in Las Vegas and have never really lived anywhere else, some of those things (differences) are much harder for us to see,” Reza said. “I’ve never lived anywhere else. I’ve traveled to a lot of places, and I can tell you I don’t see women in G-strings on cab tops in any other city.”

Our differences continue to fascinate and confound outsiders. They cause some to chase fantasies of normalcy in the Midwest and others to try their luck in the infamous Sin City.

In the end, despite his best efforts, college man Rowley can’t help gushing with affection for his subject.

“Las Vegas has been a city of opportunity, change, growth, and negotiation between the outsider’s image and local life throughout its history,” he writes. “Thus the transformation the city has faced during the recession may be new in substance, but not circumstance. Las Vegas has always been a growing, can-do town, one that is moldable, changeable, and flexible. … Las Vegas locals will find a way to stir the pot to keep their city glimmering in the desolation of the Mojave Desert.”

We are, after all, anything but Normal.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.

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