There was once a time when dirt roads dominated West Las Vegas, when jazz beats of the 1940s and 1950s echoed from hot spots like the Harlem Club and the Ebony Club — places that served residents and visiting black performers who were not allowed to patronize the white-owned businesses that lined the Las Vegas Strip.
In local filmmaker Stan Armstrong’s Invisible Las Vegas, Part I & II — which will air tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Cox's Community Channel (Ch. 96), ending its monthlong broadcast run — natives of the Westside discuss their cultural, political and religious heartbeat, and its dwindling presence in the community today. Armstrong relied on the community to tell the story of West Las Vegas through a century-long battle with discrimination, police confrontations, and the leaders that supported and empowered their fellow residents during times of depression and resurrection.
The documentaries highlight the experience of the African Americans who worked the Las Vegas casinos, often banned from sleeping in the same buildings where they performed for white audiences. They also tell the story of community juggernauts like Alice Key and Ruby Duncan, heroes who fought against poverty and for women’s rights and child care. And the films suggest a culture of fear permeates the strained relationship between West Las Vegas residents and the police who serve the community.
The success of West Las Vegas means the success of the greater Las Vegas, but city planners cannot forget the history that hides within the cracked sidewalks and the dilapidated and fenced-off buildings that once housed the cultural epicenter of the African American experience in Vegas. Just think of the Moulin Rouge and the histories of its famous guests, of their passions and music — now silenced in the empty, fire-scorched ruins.