It’s a question I hear all the time when traveling, conducting business on the phone or interacting on social media. I tell someone my home is in Las Vegas. The response often is an astonished pause, followed by a breathless, “What’s it like living in Las Vegas?” Or something to that effect. It happened to me during a family trip to Georgia in February, when I was in Los Angeles last month judging a journalism competition, while chatting up someone on the phone in New York last week, and in a Facebook exchange with a long-time friend this week.
It’s almost as though I said I lived in Baghdad, or Pyongyang, or maybe the Moon.
The astonishment, I suspect, has a number of sources, all grounded in the notion that Las Vegas has a reputation as a despicable place not fit for habitation by normal folks (which, of course, helps make it a great place to visit). This reputation perhaps includes perceptions of excessive summer heat, poor air quality, bad local morals, accident-prone drivers, crime, the October 1 massacre, inadequate medical care and under-performing schools.
The “Sin City” nickname probably doesn’t help. Nor does the famous marketing slogan, “What Happens Here, Stays Here.” Nor the 1995 movie “Leaving Las Vegas,” featuring Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance as a down-and-out Hollywood scriptwriter who moves to Vegas to successfully drink himself to death. (When remembered, the upbeat 1964 song fest film, “Viva Las Vegas,” starring Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret, cuts a bit the other way.)
Some of these factors are undoubtedly valid. But there are 2 million people living in the Las Vegas metro area (a statistic that often surprises people from elsewhere when I cite it), compared with all of 18 at the start of the 20th century just 119 years ago. (Don’t take my word; click here to see the single handwritten U.S. Census enumeration page listing everyone in 1900 in Las Vegas.) The Clark County School District, which includes all of metro Las Vegas, is now the nation’s fifth largest by number of students (another eye-popping number for some). There must be a reason why so many people are here and indeed growing rapidly in number.
Curiosity about other places is, I think, a trait of human nature, but also influenced by what filters through the news media and popular culture. Las Vegas is something like the 16th place I lived here and abroad since 1975. I have been questioned about all of them, but often only about a single factor at a time touching on livability. For instance, while living five years in Seattle, a couple I encountered one day in Los Angeles said they had heard Seattle had the country’s highest suicide rate (which, while not true, is also not that far off). No mention of the beautiful scenery, or even the persistent rain.
During my seven years in Houston, I was frequently asked elsewhere about the combined heat and humidity rather than, say, the local sports teams. My stock response was that Houston has three seasons, summer, followed by July, followed by August. My time in New York and the Los Angeles area often elicited questions when I was away about coping with the crushing traffic, or the cost of living, rather than the cultural amenities. A dozen years in Albuquerque tended to generate interest about how hot the local cuisine was instead of, say, the interesting mix of peoples. Growing up around Philadelphia, I heard far more questions elsewhere about cheese steaks than Ben Franklin or Betsy Ross (whose famous first U.S. flag, by the way, was designed by a fellow named William Barrett, no kin.)
But the queries to me about Las Vegas seem more open-ended and broad, and tinged with a sense of pity for me.
So here’s my overall answer. Living in Las Vegas is basically fine, even if the local news media, which happens to be my profession, is a little thin.There is a lot to do here and in the nearby open spaces. The folks are reasonably friendly, although a lot of people do sort of keep to themselves and can be suspicious of others. Las Vegas has a bit of a reputation as a place for second chances, and I rarely run into an adult who grew up here. But like other places, families here lead normal lives, with kids who play soccer matches, and parents who watch them.
True, the summers are too hot, with daily highs well above 100 and overnight lows only infrequently below the 80s. But that’s only for three months of the year, the middle of June to the middle of September. The other nine months are quite agreeable, with rare freezes and even rarer snow. Overall, there is extremely low humidity and a lack of rain (only four inches a year). Except maybe for San Diego, I can’t think of any place in the country where the weather is good all the time. As is often a problem with valleys ringed by mountains, the air quality certainly could be better, but having lived in Los Angeles and Houston, I don’t know I have much to complain about.
If you have a problem with alcohol or gambling, Las Vegas is probably not the best place to live. Especially gambling. There are hundreds of places to wager in Las Vegas, including just about every major supermarket. The Strip may cater to the tourists, but there are plenty of full-service casinos in the neighborhoods dependent upon the locals. However, if you don’t have a problem with alcohol or gambling, then there is no problem. The only times I have visited the local casino closest to me, the hulking Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall on Boulder Highway, was to see films at the multiple-screen movie theater there.
At least since casino gambling, quickie marriages and quickie divorces were legalized in the early 1930s to gin up tourism, the aura of sex–personal, performance-related or just plain illicit–clearly has been intertwined with the image of Las Vegas. But in my experience this sort of just blows over the heads of people who live here, not unlike the way employees at McDonalds take hamburgers for granted and don’t eat them.
The same goes for aspects of life like the sketchiness of local drivers, worse than the national average but not by much, according to Allstate. The serious crime rate is about double the national average, the FBI says, but not out of line for large urban areas, equal to that of Seattle and lower than the rate for, say Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore and Minneapolis/St. Paul. And that’s even after factoring in the carnage from the October 1, 2017 lone-gunman massacre on the Strip–58 killed, 500 wounded–a one-off event that we sadly have seen happen around the country.
One can get decent health care in Las Vegas, of course, but the problems remain profound: a low ratio of doctors per capita, compounded with a dearth of specialist physicians and hospitals with top reputations. Many folks hightail it to Los Angeles or San Francisco if they need serious surgery. The University of Las Vegas, Nevada just opened a medical school that likely will make a dent in this, but it will take awhile.
Public schools in Las Vegas have improved significantly to the point where they rank in the middle nationally of big school districts, according to a recent study. What makes this interesting is that Nevada government spends spends scandalously little on K-12 education: roughly $8,000 a year in Las Vegas compared with, say, $21,000 in my native New Jersey, considered among the very best states for public schools.
But this highlights the reason why so many people move to and stay in Las Vegas (aside from getting away from cold climates). A gambling industry that throws off big tax bucks plus a minimal government philosophy helps make this a cheap place to live, for workers or retirees. There is no state income tax, and property taxes are reasonable. (Offsetting this is a stiff sales tax, 8.25% in Las Vegas.)
The overall cost of living in Las Vegas remains a lot lower than many places on the East Coast or the West Coast, although thanks to Las Vegas real estate prices that has risen smartly since the 2008 recession, the cost of living is now about 20% above the national average. (In 2016, the year I became New To Las Vegas for family reasons, it was still 3% below). Even though income inequality is definitely an issue, there are a lot of jobs in Las Vegas paying decent money, not all of them along the Strip. Unlike some other places where I have lived, the average cost of living seems quite in sync with average income.
My guess is that more than a quarter of the people moving to Las Vegas come from California alone. I hear the same reasons for leaving the Golden State from almost all I encounter: high taxes and cost of living. They know what it’s like living in Las Vegas.