With May being Preservation Month, we wanted to spotlight some of the people working hard to preserve Las Vegas, Southern Nevada and Nevada History. Some are in the news and many work behind the scenes but they all share a common goal- preserving our history for future generations.
That history takes many forms these days from historic objects and images to costumes to architecture to neon to neighborhoods and historic places. Preserving history in Las Vegas is not an easy task. The town is constantly reinventing not only itself but its skyline and neighborhoods as well. It's easy to forget that it's only been 109 years since the land auction that made the Las Vegas of today even possible. That's hardly a drop in the bucket time-wise compared to other city's around the country and around the world who measure their history in hundreds of years.
So, it's easy to forget that our history is valuable because it doesn't feel old and it's not necessarily historic in the way we tend to think of historical documents, images or places. But, it is our history and though it may not have a pedigree of being the Old North Church or a glass slide of a Civil War Vet, our history tell us about the men and women who pioneered this city when it was a dusty railroad town and helped it grow into the Entertainment Capital of the World. Without them, there would be no Las Vegas and their history is every bit as valuable.
Many of Las Vegas' newer residents have come from someplace else and they tend to call that other place "home". The wonderful thing about history and preservation is that it can be a tool to help new residents understand that Las Vegas has always been much more than just the Strip. Some amazing history happened here and not just on the Strip. It was in Las Vegas that men first came in the depths of the Depression to work on the building of Hoover Dam, it was here that families grew victory gardens, endured years of rationing and sent their young men to fight in World War II and it was here that America tested its nuclear bombs, and it was much like the nation itself, brash rebellious and spirited.
From the beginning, people came here to reinvent their lives and you were only limited by the size of your dreams. They expressed that optimism in the architecture of soaring buildings and flashing neon lights that promoted everything from the Old Frontier to the Space Age.
Our history helps us understand that Las Vegas did not just spring from some fever dream of Bugsy Siegel but owes its past and its future to a community of men and women who refused to give up, who looked out over the arid landscape and saw a future, not just of casinos and hotels but of a community with schools, churches and people.
Because of them, Las Vegas grew up and took its place alongside other cities of international repute. And we owe it to them to save and preserve as much of their history as we can. Because without them, Las Vegas would just be footnote in the history of the West and none of this would be here.
Today, we introduce you to one of the newest members- David Van Zanten of the Las Vegas Historical Society. The Historical Society is engaging with the community in an effort to save the every day photographs of long-time residents. "The Las Vegas Historical Society aims to make you the historian", says Mr. Van Zanten, the founder of the organization."
CLV Blog: How did you become interested in preserving Southern Nevada history?
Van Zanten: "The interest in the content came first. I'm not from here, so as I first saw the photos of Fremont St. from the early 20th century when it looked like--well, when it was--a wild west town, I found that fascinating. Everyone who came here took risks. The interest in the preservation came really in the last year. I have a building in the Arts District, and I thought, "You know, more of this stuff needs to be on display." From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I guess you could say I feel that there is a market for our history. Yes, the first step is preserving and protecting the history, but without it being easily accessible both online and, in my opinion, at a physical location, this content is not being used for its greatest good, which is as a teaching vehicle. "
CLV Blog: What is the most interesting historical fact/image/object you have found and why?
Van Zanten: "I think whenever you run across something unexpected or surprising, it's fun. Again, this is probably more thrilling for me since I didn't grow up here, so it's all new and captivating. ICMBs at the Las Vegas Convention Center for the World Congress of Flight in 1959. Photos of Nevada Southern (later UNLV) when it was 3 buildings surrounded by desert. Maybe my favorite photo so far is of 15-year-old Charo and her 66-year-old husband Xavier Cugat by the Flamingo pool. It's just a great shot by Bo Boisvert. Only on Vegas!"
CLV Blog: Can you talk a bit about your dedication to preserving Las Vegas history and your Society's goals.
Van Zanten: "The Society's goal is to get photos out of personal photo albums--or worse yet, shoe boxes--and into history. It's a shame, but too often, someone dies, and their photos are maybe (hopefully) handed over to Nevada State Museum, UNLV, or Clark County, or worse yet, they're thrown out. It happens. But we want to stop that. We want to get the narrative--the caption for the photo, in effect--by the photographer while he or she can still tell the photo's story. They're the historian for that photo. They're the expert. There's a sense of urgency, since most people who've ever lived in Las Vegas are still alive, but not forever. And, long term, we hope to work to open up a photo history museum, based in a large part on these never-before-seen photos."
CLV Blog: What's the future of preservation of this history in Las Vegas?
Van Zanten: "The future for a good chunk of photo history, not only here, but everywhere, is making use of the Internet. Crowdsourcing our history. People help us build this thing by uploading their photos and talking about them. Of course, lots of older folks may not be that computer savvy, so we are working to meet with them. But we're encouraging baby boomers or younger generations to input their stuff. Even somewhat recent stuff. Today's news is tomorrow's history. If it's documented now, I have faith that it will be well preserved later."
CLV Blog: What's the biggest obstacle you have to overcome in preserving Las Vegas history and why.
Van Zanten: "We're learning what works and what doesn't. I think we need to instill this sense of urgency. Everyone is so busy. But hopefully we can all take out an hour or two a year to help document or great town's story."
CLV Blog: Why is history and preservation work important to Las Vegas residents.
Van Zanten: "Things change quickly here. I think evolution is good. We have to keep refreshing our town to justify its existence in this arid locale. But, we need to remember, and document, what was here before, too. And, frankly, this pace of change makes it all the more interesting."
Check back as we will h throughout the month have other profiles throughout the month!