Positively Fifth Street


The title of this essay is taken from a book by Jim McManus about his adventures as a poker player. The lingo for Texas Hold ‘Em mirrors Vegas geography: three cards are placed face up – together called "the flop" – and betting ensues. Then comes the "turn" card, otherwise known as Fourth Street. Finally one gets to "The River", or Fifth Street, after which it is payday for somebody.

Of course in most towns, the River is adjacent to First Street, not Fifth. And more, Las Vegas doesn't have a river; it has a railroad, which as we've pointed out in Part 1 serves as a good substitute (best you're going to get in a desert). So the analogy isn't perfect, but there is a neat connection.

As this 1952 map of Las Vegas shows, Main St. (then US 91) runs directly along the tracks. The train station was where the Golden Nugget casino is today. Parallel to Main St. are First, Second and Third Streets (should we call them "Flop Streets?"). These are followed by Fourth St. and Fifth St., and so on, as one might expect. But Fifth is significant because it is the next important N-S traffic thoroughfare.

To be a N-S traffic thoroughfare in Las Vegas in 1952 meant that you somehow had to connect up with Main St. And sure enough, in the North the two meet at Harrison (now Owens). The southern intersection occurred at St. Louis Ave., where it still is.

Now pay attention to the inset in the upper left corner of the map. Here we see the incipient "Strip" – "continuation of S. 5th St., US Highway 91, or LA Highway." A pretty pathetic Strip by today's standard, but surely it needed a better name than "continuation of S. 5th St."

Positively Fifth Street my rear end! Positively Las Vegas Blvd. (LVB) is much more like it. Payday, big time. And today, LVB runs the entire city from the Motor Speedway in the northeast, to Jean in the far south – about 40 miles. Main St., a mere shadow of its former self, only extends for about 3 miles. I don't know when Fifth Street was renamed, but it can't be long after this map was made.

There is absolutely, positively no Fifth St. in Las Vegas.

The Strip was built before the city grew up around it, and it made sense to name the major cross streets after the casinos of the day: Sahara, Sands/Spring Mtn., Desert Inn, Flamingo and Tropicana. Then comes the I-215 freeway, followed by Russell and Warm Springs. These are each about a mile apart.

At Flamingo, LVB no longer follows the railroad, but instead heads due south. For the southern half of the Valley, LVB and Main St. constitute the meridian from which house numbers are measured. North of downtown the road angles too far to the northeast to be an effective meridian. As best I can tell, Commerce St. in North Las Vegas serves that purpose.

West of Main St., the baseline is Bonanza Road, or it would be if the street went through. But Bonanza has mostly been replaced by the US 95 freeway, which is convenient. Effectively, US 95/Summerlin Pkwy serves as the baseline. East of Main St., Fremont St. is a lousy baseline downtown, but for most of the east side, Charleston Blvd. does a perfectly good job. In my own mind (since I rarely use freeways) I've always thought of Charleston as dividing north and south.

For all practical purposes, the Las Vegas zero-point is the I-15 exit 42. House numbers count from there. That's just across the tracks (west) from the corner of Main & Bonanza.

There is no rush hour in Las Vegas, there being no 9 to 5 industry of any note. However, LVB along the Strip is very busy at all times except early morning. The key to getting around by car is to avoid crossing or driving along the Strip.

Avoid Spring Mtn., Flamingo and Tropicana at all costs! Sahara, at the northern end of the Strip, works pretty well. But the best is Desert Inn, which no longer intersects the Strip, but instead passes as a viaduct underneath. It also goes under the interstate and the railroad tracks – it will take you from Paradise Road (west of the Strip) to Valley View (a mile to the east) nonstop. It's the best way across town. Otherwise take the freeway if you must.

Industrial Road, directly along the railroad tracks and parallel to the strip to the west, is an excellent thoroughfare from Charleston to Flamingo. (Quiz: why doesn't it work well south of Flamingo?). On the east side, Paradise Rd. starts at McCarran Airport (Tropicana), about a mile from LVB. Paradise goes due north, and thus would intersect LVB at about Charleston; in practice, the street ends at St. Louis. Still, this is the best way north on the east side.

On the west side, the main streets (about a mile apart) are Valley View, Decatur, Jones, Rainbow, Buffalo and Durango. They all go through except where River Railroad interferes. Hence Valley View ends at Flamingo, and Decatur won't get you past Tropicana.

On the east side one has Paradise, Maryland Pkwy, and Eastern. Boulder Highway is the main thoroughfare east of that.

The Strip is great for walking at any time of the day or night. There is a monorail on the east side of the Strip. I've never ridden it – doesn't seem to be very convenient unless you're starting at the Convention Center (Paradise & Sahara).

China Town Plaza is on Spring Mountain, just west of Valley View. We especially enjoyed Sam Woo's Barbeque – cash only. There is a good Filipino restaurant, Pinoy Pinay, on the NE corner of Sahara and Maryland Pkwy. For my money (I'm cheap) the best all-you-can-eat buffet is at Sam's Town, on Boulder Hwy near Tropicana. There are good Japanese restaurants everywhere, but we ate at one on Maryland Parkway – at Flamingo if memory serves. Bottom line: once you know your way around, there's no reason to stay on the Strip for food.

I hear that some casinos loosen their slots to attract and retain customers on certain days of the week. It is probably possible to find out which casino has the loosest slots on any given day. For this, I have a hot tip that will save you a lot of money:

Stay home.