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Las Vegas: 'A Place Out of Place'

The director of UNLV's public history program explains why the myth that Las Vegas has no history persists.
People  |  Jul 17, 2013  |  By Kate Stowell
UNLV Public History Program Director Andy Kirk. (Geri Kodey/UNLV Photo Services)

Born to an archeologist father and docent mother, Andy Kirk has historic preservation in his blood. He is a professor of Western and environmental history who links his academic research with field work in cultural landscape management.

Kirk made his way from Syracuse, N.Y., to UNLV in 1999 and is now director of the public history program. Public historians focus on putting history in context for general audiences. They also work on research toward the management of our cultural resources. He has been instrumental in showing the richness of Nevada history and demonstrating its value for our communities. In addition to his teaching and research, he is a member of the Nevada Sesquicentennial Planning Committee. The state will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2014.

What is the climate for public history in Las Vegas?

Many people think Las Vegas is a place without a history and Nevada just a big blank spot of federal land. "What could you do with public history in a place like this?" I was asked early on.

But Las Vegas is a strategic dot on the map of the West. There is a lot of federal land, along with every federal land management agency working here. The opportunities for public history linked with environmental history and regional studies have been excellent.

Over the past dozen years, UNLV's public history program has collaborated with an alphabet soup of federal agencies and pioneered ways of framing graduate seminars around real-world research projects with the full participation of federal and organization partners. Our students learn public history as a sensibility, seamlessly linked to their academic study. They receive all the content and method training that other students get, but with an eye toward translating their academic knowledge for broader and more diverse audiences.

When you came here in 1999, what did people in Las Vegas think about preserving a city that is so often thought of having no history or culture?

When I got here, many people emphatically told me that there was no history here -- that old things and old places had long since been bulldozed, burned, or destroyed. But I found that very hard to believe.

I applied a very simple insight from historic preservation: When you're looking for history, you have to look in the right time. If you're looking for 1920s Las Vegas, it's going to be concentrated in a very small area because Las Vegas was tiny then. Go to the right place for the time and you will find it.

History is there, still there, even in Las Vegas. There's actually quite a lot of it, considering the size of the city in the first half of the 20th century.

Where does the perception that Las Vegas has little history come from?

The world loves Las Vegas, but there is a persistent desire to see Las Vegas as the "other," a place out of place and without a history. The popular myth of Las Vegas is that it sprung from the mind of a gangster and was built in the middle of nowhere for no good reason. This is the story people want to believe. The history is different.

This area was settled thousands of years ago by Indians because it was one of the biggest oasis in the Mojave Desert. It was "discovered" and named by the Spanish, settled later by the Mormons and then bought and incorporated as a town by the Union Pacific. This is a classic story of the American West with all the familiar characters. This history, so tied to environment and place, is the story that lurks beneath the glitter and grime of the Strip.

How have things changed since then? Are locals and officials starting to see the benefit of preserving some of Nevada's history?

I think so. When my colleague, (history professor) Sue Fawn Chung, and I started the community outreach program Preserve Nevada, one of the challenges was countering widespread assumptions that engaging in historic preservation was a potential threat to development. I found that perception to be pretty widespread, and the efforts of some people from the local community to preserve certain places were, at times, depicted in a negative light. This despite successful and long-standing grass roots efforts.

So, a primary mission of our organization and our partnership with the UNLV public history program was to demonstrate that preservation is just a different type of development, that it can be an economic engine, that it's not always in opposition to growth, and that it can often work in tandem with other forms of economic development and community building. Now with a decade's worth of students who have gone out and demonstrated these basic principles, we've been pretty successful, and there's been a big change in perception. Look at the La Concha Motel, the Mob Museum, the Morelli House. There are now prominent examples of how preservation can bring pride to the community and can be a part of a urban redevelopment.

Why is the public history program important to this state and community?

There are no great cities and there are no successful communities that exist without some sense of history and place. Simply by doing our small part to help in building a greater sense of place, a greater sense of history, we are making a contribution to the growth and evolution of Nevada. Our students work all over the country but while they are here, they link their personal studies with efforts to leave our state better than we found it.

What do you think Nevadans will be most surprised to learn during the sesquicentennial?

How you actually pronounce "sesquicentennial"? Seriously, I think most will be surprised that this state has a remarkably rich history of relevance to all of us who live here today. We're planning community-based events to support grassroots efforts to tell different stories. I think everyone will learn something meaningful about their own history in this place and how it connects to the deeper, better known threads going back 150 years. My hope is that the celebrations will be driven by the desire of ordinary people to learn how they fit in the bigger picture.