Before the Las Vegas Strip, there was Fremont Street. The east-west artery cutting through downtown Las Vegas was the heart of gambling after the State of Nevada legalized casinos in 1931. The state’s very first gaming license went to the Northern Club at 15 E. Fremont St. Even as the casino action eventually migrated southward to grander facilities along S. Las Vegas Blvd.–the Strip–Fremont Street held its own. It was on Fremont Street that Buddy Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in 1970 started the World Series of Poker, now the world’s largest such tournament.
John C. Frémont
Today, there’s the Fremont Street Experience, a five-block-long pedestrian mall festooned with neon, much of it under a 90-foot-high canopy. After the Strip, Fremont Street is undoubtedly Las Vegas’s best-known street.
And, in my judgment, one with a most distasteful provenance. For Fremont is named for a war criminal, who despite that background became the very first presidential candidate of the Republican Party a long time ago. And you thought Donald J. Trump carried some baggage in the GOP.
The street is named for John C. Frémont (1813-1890), whose accent acute today is frequently omitted. In the middle of the 19th century Frémont carved out quite the national and even international reputation in a variety of realms–military, politics and business.
It’s easily one of the world’s most famous signs. “W E L C O M E TO Fabulous LAS VEGASNEVADA” proclaims the 25-foot-tall, diamond-shaped neon landmark that sits at 5200 S Las Vegas Blvd.in the median at the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip next to McCarran International Airport. (You can see the sign at the top of this blog.) It’s lit up at night.
Every day, thousands of tourists traipse to the site to have their pictures taken in front of the sign while posing, hugging, jumping, pointing or otherwise just being themselves. At 8 a.m. on a recent weekday, I saw mugging for a camera a group of eight young women all wearing tank-tops reading “Vegas Before Vows.”
Nearby is my photo of the already substantial waiting line at that early hour, many folks sipping from beer containers. (To watch a surprisingly interesting around-the-clock live feed of the action around the sign, click here, wait for the ad, and zoom in.)
The garish sign, erected in 1959, is actually on the National Registry of Historic Places. The structure definitely says something about the Las Vegas culture, and not just because it sits four miles outside the city limits and thus really isn’t accurate in its placement. But for me, New To Las Vegas, the greater truth is found in two signs festooning the adjoining parking lot. Here’s one:
One thing that has struck me during my first few weeks as a Las Vegas resident is the great suspicion that a large number of clerks and cashiers have about the bona fides of $20 bills. Perceiving a trend, as an experiment I started paying for every purchase I could using twenties and observing a la Margaret Mead.
Time and time again I watched as someone at a cash register looked at the Andrew Jackson I tendered, held it up to a light, ran a finger over its presidential image, folded the bill once or twice and otherwise scrutinized it.
In the past 45 years I’ve moved 16 times into the four continental time zones, and abroad. I’ve been in all 50 states. Excluding gold bugs like Ron Paul, I’ve never seen such widespread paranoia about paper money as what I’m witnessing in Vegas.
What’s going on, I asked one Wal-Mart clerk after she gave my $20 bill yet another third degree. She actually had an answer.
Who hasn’t heard the saying about Las Vegas, “What Happens Here, Stays Here”? It conjures up all kinds of local illicit and unfaithful pursuits, a bug light for those so inclined. In the process of relocating from Seattle to Las Vegas for family reasons (honest!), I thought the slogan was of historically long standing. You know, along the lines of “The City That Never Sleeps” for New York City or “First in War, First In Peace, Last in the American League” for Washington, D.C.
How wrong I was. It turns out the slogan was flat-out made up 13 years by a Las Vegas ad agency hired to devise a new marketing campaign for the city. I guess the presence of world-class entertainment, 40,000-plus slot machines and nearby legal prostitution wasn’t enough. Continue reading →