This is both a standalone piece and a bit of a bridge between the first installment in my Las Vegas Downtown Project overview and the second one.
One thing I consistently heard from the people in Vegas was their pride about the sense of community they had downtown. Tony Hsieh says it is the most community oriented place he’s lived. One of the Downtown Project official goals is to make Las Vegas the most community-oriented downtown in the world.
There’s certainly a big sense of community in downtown Las Vegas. I don’t want to diminish that in any way. And there’s a ton of enthusiasm about the city. But there are four things I think are nearly inevitable in any small city like Vegas. They are ubiquitous in the places I’ve seen. Those are boosterism, community, cross-pollination, and a sense of creating the future of the city.
This is the easy one since it exists everywhere. I just want to add that people who choose to live in a place like Las Vegas have an extra incentive to be evangelists for their city. That is, they have to defend the decision to live there, maybe even to themselves.
When I tell people I live in Providence, nearly 100% of the time they ask, “Why did you move to Providence?” Some of it is understandable curiosity. But part of it is a sort of challenge to defend a decision to move to a place that isn’t in the cool kids club. If I’d moved to one of the usual suspects places, say Boston or New York, I bet I’d get that question a lot less.
Some of the biggest skeptics about a move to a smaller region are often the natives. Natives tend to kvetch about where they are from, which irritates those who are there by choice to no end. It’s like a friend of mine in Indy said one time when she got fed up: some of us chose to be here.
It’s generally newcomers who are the most passionate cheerleaders for any smaller city. Beyond general boosterism, there’s an added chip on the shoulder and something to prove.
Community is another hallmark. As I noted previously re:Providence, different scales have different virtues. One of the things about a small scale city is that because the various communities that make up the urban scene are so small, they have no choice but to hang out together.
Firstly, the small urban crowd and the cut against the grain choice I mentioned above generally create a bit of “us vs. them” solidarity by themselves. Then there’s the small number of venues, so you’re always running into people you know. Of course everybody in downtown Vegas runs into someone they know at the Beat – it’s the only independent coffeehouse downtown. And there’s nowhere to hide if you are a jerk or burn bridges. You’ve got to show your face among your peers. Clearly a “strong sense of community” is always the sell on bona fide small towns, and the generally sparse populations of most downtowns creates what is functionally a small town within the city. For all these reasons, strong community is nearly inevitable.
Cross-pollination is also a huge benefit of small cities in general. The indie rock scene in Chicago is so big, for example, you could easily spend your time hanging out inside that community. Dittos for the architecture community and so on. In smaller cities, that’s not feasible. Because each group is too small to be self-contained, cross-functional collaboration and interaction is standard operating procedure.
Along with community, this makes small cities ideal for the type of serendipitous encounters we always hear are so valuable. I never once had a serendipitous encounter of value in all the years I lived in Chicago. But I had multiple of them in Indy.
Being a Producer Not a Consumer
Lastly, another common feature of small cities is what I term being a producer, not a consumer. People aren’t just there to soak in what the city has to offer, but they are part of building the product in a very real and tangible way that can’t be replicated in larger places unless you’re a billionaire. Again, no need to belabor this as I’ve covered it many times before, such as this piece discussing a New York Magazine article on Buffalo.
Some of the things I heard people say in Vegas are things I hear people in all similar sized cities say. Like running into people you know. For example, a couple months ago a guy in Providence told me that if he had a list of people he needed to meet, he could just spend a day in various coffee shops downtown and would probably run into most of them without even bothering to set up an appointment. Even today every time I’m in Indy I run into someone I know walking down the street. You can’t escape the collisions!
All this to say, while I love what they’ve got going in Vegas, it might not be quite as unique as they think it is. Certainly there’s competition out there for the title of top community oriented city.
Where I do think they’ve got a window of having a genuine leg up is the idea of creating the future of a city. Downtown Vegas is almost literally starting from nothing. The “Providence Renaissance” already had a book written about it. If you’re looking to get in on the ground floor, Vegas is probably one of your better options.