One could argue, and many have, that nothing about Las Vegas suggests this is a good place to settle down. Our desert soil isn’t ideal for tree roots — family or otherwise. We consistently appear at the bottom of the good lists and the top of the bad ones. Our health care system, schools, social services and cultural outlets are regarded as dismal or nonexistent. And, although Las Vegas’ one-industry economy attracts more than 30 million tourists each year, its 2 million residents are often forgotten or overlooked. When that many people visit your collective front yard, it can be difficult to see the home behind it.
But it is a home.
Founded in 1905, Las Vegas began as little more than a railroad stop on the route between Southern California and Salt Lake City. When gambling was legalized in 1931, the city began its transition into the Entertainment Capital of the World, attracting new residents with the promise of a decent wage without extensive training or education.
And so this tiny watering hole became one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States, and as the city has struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of growth, a complex relationship has emerged. Las Vegas has a reputation for being a transient town, one whose residents refuse to take ownership of the community, even after residing here for years. Complaints of apathy and lack of civic engagement run rampant.
Yet, for many, home literally means Nevada. Thousands have been born and raised in Las Vegas and still live within its borders. Here, we take a look at the lives of six of these natives, born in different eras of the city’s history. None of them has ever lived inside a casino, some have never gambled and all have watched the look of confusion cross people’s faces when they say, “Yes, I really am from Las Vegas.”
To say that Gretchen Payne spent her entire life in the same city isn’t quite right. Technically, she never moved outside Las Vegas’ city limits, but in Payne’s 75 years her hometown has changed so dramatically you might wonder if it’s the same city at all.
Payne was born in a small home on Fremont Street in 1935. Her father — originally from Brownwood, Texas — moved to the dusty town of Las Vegas from Los Angeles in the early 1930s to teach at Southern Nevada’s first high school, aptly named Las Vegas High. The population was somewhere from 5,165 (the Census recording in 1930) to 8,422 (the Census recording in 1940) — nothing compared with the most recent Census estimates, which place 567,641 people in Las Vegas and an estimated 1.9 million in Clark County.
“It was a small town,” remembers Payne, whose father taught science and wood shop and eventually became Las Vegas High principal. Her family even moved into a house built by the school’s wood shop class, along with Payne’s father and grandfather, on Eighth Street and Clark Avenue. “At that time Clark wasn’t even paved. They had to oil the streets just to keep the dust down.”
Payne’s Las Vegas was a small town where everyone was connected. Her husband’s brother was her family’s milkman, and her father taught her husband, Don, in high school.
To some extent, the small-town feel remains to this day. The third Monday of each month, the Paynes attend what they call the Old Time Media group, an unofficial collective of people with long ties to the city. It includes former newspapermen, current politicians and more stories of Old Vegas than anyone has time to listen to, even though they try. They keep up to date with their lives, give updates on ill acquaintances who need prayers, and reminisce about old friends who now have streets named after them. The man who runs the Clark County Museum attends whenever he can, not because he’s technically that connected to Las Vegas’ past — he’s been here a scant 12 years — but simply to learn from those who are.
The skyrocketing of Las Vegas’ population didn’t erode its towny vibe. Nor did the boom shock. Don worked in public relations for the Greater Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce from 1964 to 1992. His job? To encourage people to visit Las Vegas. Or, as Gretchen jokingly puts it, “He’s the reason for all this traffic.” Don’s job satisfied, and it gave the couple plenty of opportunities to travel around the world. They enjoyed exploring, but one thing was constant — they were always happy to come back to a place they could call their own. Home. That, they believe, is one reason they never seriously considered moving. Las Vegas was where they’d settled and raised eight children — nine, when you count the foreign exchange student who became close to the family and eventually married into it.
“We wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Don says. “This is home.”
Garre Mathis grew up in a sprawling Las Vegas filled with peach trees, grapes and artesian wells. Cows and horses roamed family lots, each of them at least an acre. When it rained and the main road through the neighborhood flooded, Mathis and his friends would canoe down the rainwater. He doesn’t remember wearing a life jacket, although he hopes he did. It was the ’50s. People did a lot of silly things then.
That main road — Charleston Boulevard — still floods when the rains hit, but now it’s cars getting stuck in the underpass, not canoes weaving through miniature rapids. Mathis’ childhood home was eventually sold. Today it’s the McDonald’s off Interstate 15.
This is a recurring theme in Mathis’ personal history, and in Las Vegas’ history, too. Most landmarks of the 64-year-old’s past are gone, replaced by something newer and shinier, or razed to make room for a city population bursting at the seams. The juvenile detention office where his father used to work is now a Clark County Health Center. The paths leading to the edge of Hoover Dam, where Mathis watched his braver friends stand and fling old 33s into the black abyss, has long been blocked off for security and safety reasons. A former car racetrack is the warehouse section of Industrial Road. Perhaps most heartbreaking, the immediate desert surroundings are gone. Mathis can still remember being at home on the night of June 17, 1960, and noticing flames coming from the Strip. He and a friend hopped on his horse and rode through the desert toward the flickers until they were close enough to see. There, they sat and watched as El Rancho casino burned to the ground.
Some of Las Vegas’ changes might have been inevitable, but Mathis isn’t convinced it had to be this way. “It was greedy, greedy people,” he says. “They destroyed our market. They just bulldozed everything. It’s a shame they haven’t kept old places.”
Luckily, exceptions exist. Mathis is pleased that the city is resurrecting its one-time post office as the Mob Museum, and that the structure that first brought his family to this town — the dam — isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Of course, the name is still up for debate in his mind.
“I still call it Boulder Dam because that’s what my dad called it,” he says. “My dad always used to say, ‘I don’t care what president did what. It’s the Boulder Dam!’ So that’s what I call it.”
Mathis and his wife, Jan, a reading strategist and schoolteacher, have three children, all born in Las Vegas. Those children are grown ups with families of their own, also born in the city. The family is proud of its multiple generations, and Mathis says many of their experiences are the same. They still camp, fish, four-wheel and hunt — just in different places. The outskirts of town are far different from when Mathis was a younger man.
“It’s a good place to live,” he says. He never quite understood why all of his children itched to get out of Las Vegas once they became adults. “They all did manage to leave for a while, but they all came back.”
Now, his children refuse to let him sell his southwest valley home, a 3,200-square-foot tract house purchased for $75,000 in 1976. The home might be too big for Garre and Jan, but the children are always visiting anyway. The family has planned “date nights” together that involve watching shows such as “Big Love” and “The Vampire Diaries,” and the grandchildren enjoy the spacious backyard.
Through it all, Mathis says he’s never considered moving away. He spent a few years in Idaho for college and that was enough for him. “I knew people who sold their property at the height of everything and moved to quieter places, but I never considered moving. It’s quiet enough here.”
Except if the grandchildren are over, of course.
Lunchtime at Harley Elementary School in the late ’70s meant a sea of homemade sandwiches. Each day children filed into the cafeteria with their brown bags or plastic lunchboxes, pulled out their All-American meals and chomped away without a care.
Except for Stavan Corbett. For him, lunch was nerve-racking because his meal wasn’t like the others. Instead of a PB&J, he had a burrito. At the time, that qualified as foreign among his peers. So, simply wanting to fit in with the others, Las Vegas-born Corbett downplayed his Hispanic heritage and his lunch. “I would keep my burrito hidden under the table and just raise it up quickly whenever I had to eat. I didn’t want the children to see it, because I knew they’d make a big deal about it.”
Now the chief operating officer of a community development company, Corbett chuckles at the memory. He remembers running into another Hispanic student for the first time a few years after the hidden burritos, in second or third grade. “Our glances crossed and there was this moment of recognition, like, ‘Whoa. There’s another one of us.’ ”