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Love your strip mall

Jan_2011_stripmall1.jpg
Photo credit: Christopher Smith
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Don't dismiss Vegas' classic urban form. You'll love strip malls after this tour that traces the DNA of an emerging new city

The pearly glitz of the Las Vegas Strip should not cause us to neglect all of Las Vegas' other strips. Our sprawling shopping centers, parking lots, chain restaurants and gas stations are the basic building blocks of Las Vegas urbanism. People who like pearls should keep an eye on these oyster beds, too. They contain the DNA of a new type of city.

Hal Rothman, the late UNLV professor, documented how Las Vegans fashion urban life out of such oft-criticized faux-environments on the edge of sun-blasted parking lots. As he told in his book Neon Metropolis, he sat one day at an anonymous Starbucks near an anonymous shopping center at Wigwam Avenue and Pecos Road. He discovered that it was actually an oasis of diverse, co-existing humanity going about the business of living: Carpool moms taking the kids to school, retired ladies gathering to chat in the sunshine, businesspeople catching up on their accounts on laptops and so on - just like any traditional city. Go figure.

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When budding restaurateurs looked at the corner of West Sahara Avenue and South Valley View Boulevard, they saw something more than an asphalt parking lot and a nondescript mini-mart encrusted with signs. They saw a place where people would gather in the cool evenings to dine on tacos al fresco. All it required was the simplest of architecture: a metal-sided trailer with a mobile kitchen and flip-up sides, and a few picnic tables. The proverbial bumblebee, according to the laws of physics, cannot fly; this desolate, cacophonous corner, according to the laws of urbanism, cannot sustain human habitation. And yet there it is.

Such creative architectural improvisation should not be surprising to Las Vegans. Long ago, that spirit turned ordinary neon-lit motels into the glamorous Las Vegas Strip itself.

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