American Times: Las Vegas, New Mexico - Fighting Spirit of a Town So Bad They Named It Twice

Article excerpt

"PEOPLE DRIVING down the freeway will often stop and ask where all the casinos are," said Joan Snider, a reporter on the venerable daily newspaper the Las Vegas Optic (circulation: 6,500).

No matter that Las Vegas, Nevada, is a long day's drive to the west. "I've kind of quit being surprised how ignorant people can be," she says caustically.

Welcome to the other Las Vegas, a weird time-capsule of old New Mexico where dogs howl at the peeling bells in the Catholic churches, and there's not a casino in sight. Its full name is Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de Las Vegas, Our Lady of Sorrows of the Meadows.

"That is the other Las Vegas," declares Anne Bradford, a native of Sussex and the proprietor of The Carriage House Bed and Breakfast, set in a stately 19th- century home. "This is the original, founded in 1835."

Las Vegas is a loaded phrase in popular culture, says Melanie LaBorwit, the curator of the city museum. But few people stop to think what the Spanish means - the meadows. It has fed local suspicion that the desert gambling mecca, an eminently 20th-century city, pinched its name from here.

Nevada's Las Vegas was founded at a time when its namesake in New Mexico was a famous - or notorious - frontier boom town. When Melanie LaBorwit's uncle writes to her, he puts the words "New Mexico" in big, red capitals. The mail still goes to Nevada. Las Vegas residents actually struggle under what in American parlance is a "double whammy".

Residents here insist that many Americans, particularly in the East, do not even realise that New Mexico is part of the United States. That comes as some surprise to those of us that assumed every American school child could at least recite the names of the 50 states. When Joan Snider was wiring money here from California for the downpayment on a house, for example, senior staff at a local bank told her they couldn't locate the overseas banking code.

An encounter with Las Vegas itself is apt to leave an outsider dazed and confused. Off the beaten tourist track, it has largely escaped the flood of wealthy emigres that has transformed nearby Santa Fe into an artsy and expensive destination for the California crowd, a process the locals call "Californication".

The town sits on the point where the Rockies end and the vast flatness of the great plains begins. The heart sinks as you approach through the usual strip of motels and mini-malls. But a sign to the old town winds through to the plaza where there is a bandstand encircled by trees, and a row of 19th- century brick buildings that look like the false front of a Western movie set. …