las Vegas wants some respect

Sunday , April 29, 2012 - 6:00 PM

John Glionna

LAS VEGAS -- The boys sat there swilling coffee and bemoaning a depressing reality: What happens in this town doesn't necessarily stay here -- thanks, they say, to the national media spreading scuttlebutt.

The gossip doesn't involve a tawdry tryst in a hotel room off the Strip. These days, the diciest Sin City escapade is just trying to scratch out a living here, claim the news reports.

"Everybody," insurance salesman Rodney Leavitt told his coffee klatch buddies, "likes to beat up on the big guy when he's down."

Years after the dramatic 2008 nose dive in the local housing market, journalists, researchers and various armchair quarterbacks -- including Forbes Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, the Brookings Institution, the London School of Economics and a phalanx of online observers -- remain fixated, some residents say, on how awful the living here is, some making Las Vegas the butt of a cruel national joke.

Few locals are laughing.

In a Starbucks where Leavitt and his three pals bemoaned the new hometown reputation, just a few blocks from the Bellagio hotel, one said he had raised four children here and wouldn't move even if he had the chance. Vegas, he insisted, was really just a big family town.

Yet for years, the headlines have pounded a steady drumbeat: Las Vegas reigns as the nation's home foreclosure capital. Jobs are scarce, money tight. The dream of home ownership has evaporated faster than a puddle on a 120-degree desert day.

Unable to resist gambling metaphors, commentators insist that America's once-swaggering devil-may-care mecca has rolled an ugly pair of economic snake eyes.

This year, the reports predict, the city will remain the nation's worst housing market and is still among the worst places to find work, with an unemployment rate that still hovers above 13 percent. It ranks among the worst for quality health care. The city of North Las Vegas recently earned the dubious distinction of being among the country's worst-run cities, according to financial news and opinion website 247Wallst.com.

The reporting has included a few low blows.

Last year in an article that ranked Las Vegas the No. 1 city for men in financial distress, Men's Health magazine asked: "Have you heard about the new high-stakes game in Vegas? It's a gamble called 'living there.' The economic downturn has been more like a flaming nose dive for the citizens of Sin City. Things are so bad, in fact, that we half expect to hear that Lady Luck has started turning tricks."

Some here insist that America just doesn't get Vegas. "The national press doesn't always understand us as a city," said Cara Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce. "Of course, there are some lists we need to get off the bottom of, like foreclosure and unemployment rates. But this city has tremendous capacity. We've continued to defy the odds throughout our 100-year history."

The stories started soon after the subprime mortgage crisis hit Las Vegas hard. By 2010, the Las Vegas economy was ranked among the five worst in the world by the Brookings Institution and the London School of Economics because of the city's high-rolling bets on real estate. Forbes magazine also named Vegas the nation's worst city for working mothers, citing its then-14.1 percent unemployment rate, low number of practicing pediatricians and 680-plus violent crimes per 100,000 residents each year.

There was little relief in 2011. That's when Las Vegas ranked first on a list of "most miserable cities" in which to live and work, according to data released from the Brookings Institute, including the fact that home prices remained nearly 65 percent below their peak in late 2007. It was even tagged as one of the most dangerous cities nationwide for pedestrians.

Then the criticism got personal. GQ magazine ranked Vegas among the nation's worst-dressed cities -- even though the bedraggled, white-sock-wearing tourists are from somewhere else -- leading one local blogger to sigh that, according to the poll, "We're even sloppier than Jersey Shore."

Some of the worst critics, however, are people who have lived here, including the former resident who blogged about his four years in a city he says broke his heart and finally drove him away.

"Between the phony go-getter PR types, the aging degenerates, the third-world transplants, the scammers, the painfully illiterate, and the just plain creepy-weird ... I was never completely comfortable in Las Vegas," wrote the blogger, who calls himself Vegas Rex. "If you fall into one of the above groups, then, boy, do I have a city for you."

Vegas civic leaders have fought back. Last August, a business blog called Vegas Inc. posted the headline: "Las Vegas economy: Always darkest before the dawn." The piece went on to acknowledge that the city's runaway growth has evaporated "like a desert mirage":

"The cocksure swagger that fueled the region's speculative development frenzy no longer exists. ... But winning when the odds are stacked against us is what lies at the core of Las Vegas' DNA. We know how to win. And we'll win this time, too."

Limousine driver Don Giardina believes every word of that. At 58, he has lived in Las Vegas for a decade, after stints in Beverly Hills and Scottsdale, Ariz. Vegas, he says, is his favorite.

Times have changed, he insists, since the days when health care was so bad in Las Vegas that the best place to go with a serious disease was the airport -- so you could fly to a doctor elsewhere. Gone are the days when the Vegas experience meant a "buffet ticket and a comped hotel room. Nowadays, there are great restaurants that rival any city in the world."

Then there's the hot weather and round-the-clock culture, that Vegas schizophrenia -- driving around in his limo, telling friends that he is "cruising Sin City, looking for the root of all evil."

Tell that, he says, to the national press.

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(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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