Checkout time at the John E. Carson Hotel?
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Jesus Christ is spoken in Room 47. A hand-written sign advertises that to residents, who periodically shuffle past on the way to the bathroom or the first-floor lobby.
Jim Neagle lives there, in a small room without religious icons. The small space contains a neatly made bed, a mirror, hot plate, a television and poker schedules stuck to the mini-fridge. A porcelain sink sticks out of the wall below the mirror. Columns of canned goods appear to hold it up.
Neagle lives at the John E. Carson Hotel, a two-story cinderblock square on the corner of Sixth Street and Carson Avenue. The location puts him close to bus lines and casinos, but far from any church that preaches his brand of fundamental Christian theology.
“It’s a good location for my lifestyle,” he says.
Neagle, who said he studied in a bible college, usually observes his religion in the privacy of his room. It’s quiet enough in there to hold conversations with the elusive deity.
“I’ve been asking God to use me as a servant for years,” Neagle says. “I asked him whether I should move to Wyoming, but he thinks I should be here for awhile.”
Neagle has lived in Las Vegas for 15 years, and spent many of them on the street. He bounced around the homeless corridor and spent nights at the Salvation Army and St. Vincent’s homeless shelter. Three years ago, he moved into the John E. Carson.
“I got tired of being homeless,” Neagle says. “This is one level above homeless.”
The accommodations at the John E. Carson are not luxurious. The small rooms provide the basics: a bed, dresser, fridge, sink, cable television and, in most cases, wi-fi. The furnishings are mismatched and visibly used, with scratches and fades. The rooms don’t have phones, because the lines weren’t run to the rooms when the hotel was built more than 50 years ago. But the rooms are clean. Most important, the hotel provides a cheap roof — less than $500 a month.
The boarding house began its existence in the 1950s as the Sixth and Carson Hotel. A new owner in the 1990s wanted to rename it after the late-night talk show host, but settled on John E. Carson to avoid trademark infringement. You can find the name on a weather-beaten sign on the corner of the building, and painted in blue and white near the entrance.
Neagle may gripe a little about the cramped quarters, but most of the residents are pretty happy in their one-room homes. In the morning, the lobby transforms into a makeshift living room. Residents flop onto the yellow Victorian sofa, beneath a spray of matching plastic flowers. Others settle into a pair of plastic chairs. Hotel manager Jared Dean slides a bowl of miniature candy bars onto an old-fashioned registration counter.
The maintenance and security guy, Rodney, perches on the stairs. He bestows nicknames on all the residents. Bud is Budinski. Norm is Stormin’ Norman. Even Hamlet Pizza, a former resident with one of the most distinctive legal names in all of Las Vegas, is called Hamletino.
Bud has been living at the John E. Carson for a few years, since he started receiving his Social Security check. Before that, he lived on the street and in shelters.
“The bed itself is better than the concrete, even though you have to pay for the bed and the concrete is free,” he says. “And I would give it an A- for friendliness.”
More than 60 men live at the John E. Carson at any given time. They have sinks in their rooms but share a bathroom with toilets and showers. Despite the close quarters, almost everyone gets along, Bud said. The management doesn’t tolerate drunks or lawbreakers. Even playing your television too loud can earn a reprimand.
This little community could be facing some changes. Zappos’ relocation to downtown next year has prompted the development of mid-range housing for young professionals. Corporations affiliated with the Downtown Project have already purchased the Eighth Street Apartments, Town Terrace and Motel 6 on Fremont Street. Soon after it was purchased, the Motel 6 was torn down. On July 3, the last residents of the Eighth Street Apartments moved out to make way for renovation.
In other pockets of downtown, residential hotels have gone out of business, like the ReyRex, which is visible from the lobby. The changes have generated their fair share of anxiety. Dean said residents of the John E. Carson wonder whether they would be next.
Single men on fixed incomes have other options — for now. That may change when Zappos moves in and developers begin creating housing for middle-class workers. Right now, the neighborhood is pretty stratified, with wealth concentrated in the condos and poverty concentrated in the smaller hotels, old homes and apartment complexes below. Some of those low-slung, low-rent buildings will have to go to make way for the knowledge workers of the future.
Resort Gaming Group, which partnered with Zappos on the City Hall project and is revamping the Lady Luck, bought the John E. Carson Hotel in April. A company spokesman said no definite plans have been made for the property. “We are looking at a lot of options.” In the meantime, they are making improvements to the Carson.
Some of those who stay at the hotel have suffered through hard times. Others just want a cheap place to stay. Several have been homeless, and some pinball between the hotel and the streets.
Bud refused to give his full name because he was afraid some of his creditors might find him. But he makes no excuses for himself. “I had a bit of an aversion to working,” he says.
Not everyone is such an admitted slacker. Norm, who also declined to give his last name, said he was an executive of a roofing company in Florida before falling victim to what he calls “the Obama economy.” Norm has lived at the John E. Carson for a month.
“This is a place for people who have been knocked around in life,” Norm says.
“It’s where all the lonely souls get together,” Bud adds.
Here’s a stop you won’t find on a First Friday map: Room 1 at the John E. Carson. J.C. Price takes pictures at the Fremont Street Experience, on the bus and in other downtown locales, and turns them into feathery pastels. His room, where he’s lived for eight years, is full of them.
There are girls drinking from yard-long novelty glasses. A silhouette of the recently bulldozed Motel 6. More good-looking ladies. The Fremont Street Experience is not just his neighbor, it is also his muse.
Price moved here from San Bernadino. In the 1980s and 1990s, he owned a used-book store that specialized in comic books. It started as a thrift store that was gradually taken over by books. One day, a customer offered Price 875 comic books. He bought them for 7 cents each, for a total of $61 — the largest amount he’d ever paid to a single seller. And he made a tidy profit off the deal. Eventually, he had more than 100,000 publications on his shelves during the comic book boom years.
Then he and his family fell victim to the bust. Speculation inflated the price of comic books until the mid-1990s.
“I would have people come into my shop and buy several copies of the same issue, and then come in two months later to sell it back at a higher price,” he says.
The bubble burst for him in 1994. The aftermath was just as catastrophic for comic book dealers as the housing collapse in Southern Nevada. About two-thirds of comic book shops went out of business.
For a while, Price limped along selling books. Eventually, he lost everything, including his wife. San Bernadino reminded him of his failure, and he wanted to leave. The low-rent districts of Los Angeles and San Diego had been gentrified and redeveloped out of his price range. So he came to Las Vegas. He has three children, but “none of them turned out too good,” he says. So he’s on his own.
“I knew there were a lot of hotels I could afford,” he says.
Price is tall, and thin from riding his bike in the blasting Las Vegas heat. He looks younger than his 75 years, his hangdog face offset by a pair of bright, eager eyes that sparkle when he talks about his art. The former book dealer used to be a house painter. Before that, he followed his parents into the restaurant business.
He arrived in Las Vegas with a backpack, having abandoned more than 80,000 books in a bankrupt store. Upon moving into the hotel, he rediscovered painting, an old hobby he abandoned in the seventies. He spends his days taking photographs with a digital camera. Then he puts them on the computer and works from that image. An interior shot of a crowded bus is beginning to take shape on a piece of paper taped next to his laptop.
These days, the only books in Price’s life are the paperbacks that make up a kind of community library outside his room. They sit on a shelf beneath a pay phone and a bus map.
The gruff Gregory Rivers winds up his night security shift on a plastic chair in the lobby. In addition to living at the John E. Carson Hotel, he also works there.
“How are you doing this morning,” Bud asks.
“I haven’t shot anybody yet,” he grumbles.
The crusty persona wears off soon enough, as Rivers gets to talking about the Dallas Cowboys and the place where he lives.
“It’s nice here,” he says. “Nice and quiet. It has its benefits and detriments. It’s a lot better than it was 10 to 15 years ago.”
It should be noted that the changes to downtown have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by the residents of the John E. Carson, even if they don’t spend a lot of time at swanky bars. The amplification system at the Beauty Bar, less than a block away, reminds them of the neighborhood’s transition every night. Sure they grumble about the noise (“Somebody ought to bomb that place,” says a particularly angry resident). But they are also grateful for the influx of people and money, which have flushed out some of the criminal elements.
They are wary, though. Picture windows in the lobby provide a clear view of the shuttered Western Casino, and the empty lot where the Motel 6 used to stand.
“The lawyers’ offices are closing down big-time,” Price said. “They sure have torn down a lot of stuff.”
Rivers couldn’t spend time in the swank bars of the new downtown even if he wanted to, since his work requires him to be on call after Dean and Rodney leave for the day.
In addition to his security salary, Rivers collects disability payments from the U.S. Navy, for injuries he sustained as a Marine in Vietnam. He grabs his right calf, where a mortar attack left its imprint, a map of scar tissue from ankle to knee.
“I was like Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam,” he says. “That was my job. I got to read the cable that my camp was attacked the day after I left it.”
Things aren’t nearly as hairy at the John E. Carson. In addition to handling routine maintenance, Rivers answers the occasional trespassing call, which usually concerns somebody relieving themselves in the patio area or launching glass bottles at the hotel’s dumpster. Once, he wrestled a drunk off a dangerous ledge of an exterior staircase. But most of his war stories come from Vietnam.
Rivers has lived here for three years, and, like many of the others, hasn’t given much thought to where he might live if it disappeared. Most of the men say they would find another place downtown if something happened to the John E. Carson. They might check in at the Dragon Inn, the Bargain Motel or the Bridger Inn. Somewhere close to the Fremont Street Experience for Price. Bud needs to be close to the Fifth Street School, where he feeds pigeons every morning at 5. The others want to be close to casinos and bus routes.
The revitalization of downtown doesn’t really figure in to their decision. But at least some are interested in finding out who their new neighbors might be. Now they’ll just have to find out if the new neighbors are as interested in finding out about them.