Coordinator Deb Massey, left, and Sherry Alexander, recreational leader, pose at the Stupak Community Center at 251 W. Boston Ave. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
Call it Naked City, Meadow Village or Whores Alley, it’s not the same place it was.
Just off the Strip, it was the place to go in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when you needed a quick bump of rock cocaine, meth or a street prostitute. In the late 1990s, Naked City was still a scary place, with the criminal entrepreneurs spilling over into the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue.
Naked City is still physically the same place, a densely packed warren of small apartment complexes circling small courtyards, with many of the swimming pools filled in with rocks; a scattering of stand-alone homes; some buildings so trashed as to defy categorization as residential or commercial; and a few vacant lots. A couple of 7-Elevens are the local sources for food and drink.
Naked City is bordered by Las Vegas Boulevard to the east, Industrial Road to the west, Wyoming Avenue to the north and Sahara Avenue to the south, about 40 square blocks in total, counting some that have been scraped bare of buildings. It is surrounded by light-industrial facilities and warehouses to the west and north, and mixed commercial properties to the south and east, including the Stratosphere and the still-closed, federally owned strip club, the Crazy Horse II. Some of these structures date to before World War II, ancient by Las Vegas standards. The neighborhood was one of the first places to live for the growing number of Las Vegas casino workers after World War II. The showgirls used the swimming pools and flat roofs of the area to lay out in the sun and avoid those pesky tan lines. Thus, legend has it, the moniker “Naked City.”
As in many urban neighborhoods across the country, the post-1960s era was a long period of decline. For decades it was dangerous to visitors and to its thousands of residents and families, even though it was near some high-priced Strip properties. But Naked City today is not the same neighborhood. Many of those who have lived and worked and grown up in the area or nearby say the anchors of a city-run neighborhood center and a nondenominational Christian church, and some of the same changes in demographics and law enforcement that have reduced crime rates in big cities across the United States, have reduced the open crime that once defined its character. Investment is coming into the area. Residents are more upbeat.
Since 2005, calls to Metro are down more than 24 percent. But calls for property crime are down by 50 percent, calls for robbery, assault and homicide are down an extraordinary 76 percent, and calls for drug-law violations are down almost 81 percent. Metro still got more than 1,500 calls for service and help last year, but the number and severity of those calls has dropped substantially in less than a decade. Compared to the threatening place it was just a few years ago, when deals for drugs and sex were out in the open, the neighborhood is a very different place.
It is mid-February, and the shelves at the little church called Casa de Luz are bulging with bread, rolls, canned goods and other foods. By the end of the month, those shelves will be empty. For families without reliable transportation, the little church is a lifesaver. Some of the families living in the crowded apartment buildings in Naked City don’t have reliable transportation, and the nearest supermarket is almost two miles away.
“This is a food desert,” Briana Mackey, a volunteer with Casa de Luz, says of the area. “For some of these families, this is the food that gets them through the end of the month.”
When you ask people around here about what has made a change, the little church comes up a lot.
“There’s been a lot of changes here,” says Ryan, a recovering drug addict and formerly homeless man, now clear-eyed and working, who was attending church services. “It’s more than just a Sunday thing.”
But the “Sunday thing” jams a lot of people of all ages and ethnicities into the tiny courtyard at Casa de Luz. Most of those who come to the church services are from the neighborhood; some have gotten jobs and moved into other parts of Las Vegas, but they’re coming back to watch Dan Winckler — Pastor Dan to the faithful — play songs of worship on his turquoise-blue Fender Telecaster.
The kids go to John S. Park Elementary or Fremont Middle School, but they’re drawn to the church for the fellowship, the uncritical atmosphere and the art and music projects that Casa de Luz offers throughout the week.
The services and the programs and the food bank almost didn’t happen — and the little church could have ended at a number of critical points over the last three years. The organizers of Casa de Luz have depended on a low-cost loan of the space from the original owner; survived a bank foreclosure; overcome community opposition to their application for a zone change to stay at the spot; and received essential donations of money and the building itself from various benefactors. On one recent sunny day, some local developers came down to discuss plans to fix a roof that leaks into a now-unused part of the building.
Winckler, while preparing for the meeting, notes that it has been exactly four years to the day since a his Christian ministry first reached out to the area, with an open event two miles west, at Eastern and St. Louis avenues at what was then Jaycee Park. This was during the worst of the Great Recession, the international collapse that hit Las Vegas especially hard with crushing unemployment and thousands of housing foreclosures.
The outreach ministry “was very successful,” Winckler says, attracting several hundred people looking for help, spiritual relief or just something to do on a Sunday. A month later, in March 2009, the small group that would become the evangelical core of Casa de Luz did another outreach, this time at the Stupak Community Center on Boston Avenue. “We had over 1,000 people in the courtyard.”
And the group did one more, this time with a service element, that attracted even more people, including more than 200 volunteers who worked throughout Naked City to clean up the neighborhood, paint fire hydrants and take care of other basic community maintenance.
Casa de Luz was formally established within a year at its location on Tam Drive, just a few blocks away from the Stupak Center.
Winckler says the survival of the church is something close to a miracle. In May 2012, the building owner — a bank — was preparing to do a foreclosure auction. “We really didn’t know what would happen,” he says. “We prayed about it.”
An unexpected but welcome intervention by the Las Vegas philanthropic organization Moonridge Group saved the building and the church.
It is a story that has been repeated several times over the last four years as the church has survived on shoelaces and prayer, but Casa de Luz has built a roster of supporters of all faiths from the downtown area, including elected leaders such as Las Vegas Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents the area.
Winckler says the early difficulties helped forge the church’s relationship with the community.“God is going to take care of us,” he says. “I’m glad we didn’t have a lot of money, because we had to depend on God. We know God will cover us.”
When Winckler and his colleagues — a number of his associates use the title “pastor” — provide services in the little church courtyard, the enthusiasm is hard to ignore. Some of those conducting the services wear biker leathers, others join Winckler with contemporary hymns, others lift their arms to God. The crowd wouldn’t be out of place at any popular community church that caters to a modern sensibility. The difference here is that most of those attending the services walked from just a few blocks away.
Winckler says he has noticed a couple of big changes in the neighborhood in just the last several years: “Crime rates have dropped dramatically. And compassion has increased dramatically. People are really starting to help one another.
“The biggest change, though, is with the children. Their grades are up. The kids are nicer to each other. … It has been a collaborative effort, and there have been a lot of people and businesses working together. But the change is that now this is a community.”
One of the many who have passed through the doors of Casa de Luz — and one of those who has stayed to help the church — is Angie, a former methamphetamine addict. When she began attending the church, she was homeless, and then she and an extended family of a half-dozen kids and adults lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Naked City.
“Six of us all together, in a two-bedroom apartment, all the grown people coming off drugs,” she recalls.
Casa de Luz helped her and her husband get straight, clear up outstanding police warrants and get drivers licenses. And when a linen-supply company nearby came looking for employees, the church helped her husband land a full-time job, where he is now a supervisor.
Angie recently renewed her wedding vows at Casa de Luz.
“We all got sober, everybody started working, the kids started doing better in school,” she says with a smile.
Angie is now taking online classes towards a business degree. As she has changed, so has the neighborhood. She says the church is one factor that helped clean up the Naked City, which she first encountered almost two decades ago. At that time, there were “dope dealers on every corner.” Today, they aren’t there. There may be drug dealers or prostitution behind closed doors, but children can walk the streets without fear, she says.
“Casa de Luz — it changed us, and they do that to everybody.”
Another place that many here credit with making a difference is the Stupak Community Center, about four blocks to the northeast. Although Casa de Luz helps out anyone who needs it, the church is definitely a faith-based institution. The center is just as equally a public, municipal project, but still an important element in the resurrection of the community.
Sherry Alexander, recreational leader for Las Vegas, has worked at the center for three years, and had worked at the center’s old location across Boston Avenue a few years earlier.
The new building is clean, bright and has classrooms, a large gym, a dance studio, a large storage area for food and clothes for those in need, offices and a full-service commercial kitchen.
Alexander says she has seen the neighborhood change, with the disappearance of drug dealers and prostitutes — and the growth in the crowds of young people and adults who take advantage of programs at the Stupak Center. She estimates that 200-300 people a day attend the various programs.
Among the services offered at the location: classes in English as a second language, classes for immigrants seeking to become American citizens, homework tutoring, a food pantry and vouchers for food distribution at other sites, a Clark County library, dance programs and indoor soccer, basketball and volleyball. The center hosts area cheerleading contests once a year. Sometimes, the Stupak Center works with Casa de Luz and other area organizations to offer health fairs and art programs. Alexander says that the families, children and adults who participate in Stupak Center events bring in an enthusiasm that affects everyone, including the staff.
But sometimes the neighborhood provides graphic examples that Naked City can still be a dangerous place. A year ago, following an ordinary and unrelated program for young people at the center, a man was brutally stabbed just outside the center’s back fence. Staff and volunteers were just cleaning up from a “Safe Night” event designed to make people feel safer in the neighborhood, introduce them to social services and educational opportunities, Alexander recalls. A couple of the teenagers who had helped with the program came and got her, she says, telling her that a man was laying on his back, bleeding from his head.
Metro police had been called and joined her as they came to help the man, who was still alive but in obvious distress. Alexander and police used the center’s outdoor video cameras to view the actual attack. The video shows the men passing each other, then one of them suddenly knifing the other. The victim staggered and almost immediately collapsed. “It didn’t look like they even knew each other,” Alexander says. She says the video shows several people, including one woman walking her dog, passing the victim on the ground before someone finally called the police. “That kind of bothered me, that people walked by, but our kids knew enough to come get help.”
The attack was in daylight, but by the time the ambulance took the victim away, it had turned to dusk. The victim died. Police have not arrested the assailant.
Alexander says the incident is a reminder that the neighborhood can still be dangerous, but it is still not the same place she saw a decade ago. “I saw three or four shootings at the old building” across Boston Avenue, which was torn down in 2010. “I definitely feel safer here now, being out at night walking around, dropping kids off in the neighborhood.” And working at Stupak has its advantages. “You just feel like you’re more needed down here,” Alexander says.
Two young men, Julio and Jayden, are among the many community children who spend much of their time between Stupak Center and Casa de Luz. They live in the neighborhood. Julio is a sixth-grader at John S. Park Elementary. He says he likes hanging out at Casa de Luz for the worship and because his friends also hang out there. Jayden, who attends Fremont Middle School, likes the art programs, the basketball and other activities at the Stupak Center and Casa de Luz.
Julio says he’s learned to DJ and use the microphone at the Art Reach program that the church and community center have teamed up to provide. But it’s also clear that both boys come to the center and the church because they are safe places to hang out outside of school.
Jayden thinks about why he’s there, at Casa de Luz on a weekday afternoon: “I like coming down here. I like the people here.”
Capt. Shawn Andersen, with Metro’s Downtown Area Command and a 23-year veteran with the police department, says he does not know what is driving the change — “I’m certainly not a sociologist.” But he believes the area is very different from the 1970s and 1980s, when there was “a strong narcotics presence, a lot of prostitution. For a lot of years, that neighborhood was pretty rough,” he says.
He says gangs used to openly control streets in Naked City — but unlike those who live in the neighborhood, and those who work in and for the residents of the area, he calls it by the name on the old city maps, Meadows Village.
Andersen credits a few factors. One is that there are simply fewer people living in the area: a number of the apartment buildings have been boarded up for health and building code violations. “I can tell you that if you have fewer people in a place like that, you have fewer problems,” he says. “We have far fewer people living there than we did a few years ago.” The population of the area is down by about 2,000 people between 2000 and 2010, down to fewer than 36,000, a reduction of more than 5 percent of the total ZIP code population, according to Census data. The population centers also have shifted, with people moving out of the older apartments in the heart of Naked City and relatively affluent people moving into the Allure high-rise condominium on Sahara Avenue. Still, while relatively small population shifts can make a difference to a neighborhood, it’s not just reducing the concentration of people that has changed the area.
Coordination of social services, public health services and law enforcement has been an important piece in the puzzle, Andersen says, that has contributed to crime reductions throughout Metro’s jurisdiction, and in other parts of the country.
“I can’t arrest myself out of our problems in Meadow Valley,” he says. “I just can’t. But we’ve gotten a lot better at collaborating. When we are working together we are much more effective in making an impact.”
Capt. Andersen, Pastor Dan and the city employees working at the Stupak Center all agree on one thing: Naked City needs a grocery store. And they should soon get their wish.
A developer is in the final stages of opening a grocery store at the old White Cross Drugs at Las Vegas and Oakey boulevards, where Tiffany’s Café still offers 24-hour breakfasts. James Shoshani, who opened up the little Bells Market less than a mile from Naked City, promises that the new White Cross grocery opening is a matter of weeks, not months, and that it will have a full line of produce, including vegetables from local growers. The site is an easy walk for residents of Naked City.
Winckler says a grocery store isn’t the only thing he’d like to see move into the area. He’d like to see a Laundromat, a clinic and a small performing arts center to engage young people. But Winckler, like others who live and work in the neighborhood, says a place within walking distance to buy groceries is one of the most important first steps.
There is clear evidence of other investment in the neighborhood. Apartment buildings that have been boarded up for years, including one right beside the Casa de Luz church, are getting rehabilitated. A small city park is scheduled to open this summer across from the Stupak Center.
There is another big investment coming to the area just a few blocks from Naked City: Remodeling of the former Sahara Hotel, shuttered two years ago, began this month, and the new resort, SLS Las Vegas, is scheduled to open next year. Andersen says that the re-opening should be positive for Naked City and downtown, especially if the property hires from the surrounding community.
Councilman Bob Coffin says the changes in Naked City — an area he says once carried the appellation “Whores Alley” — is very welcome, but he’s reluctant to predict the future of the neighborhood. He believes that the city’s Stupak Center and Casa de Luz have helped make it a better, safer place for families, but more work needs to be done. Slumlords and property managers stealing electricity off of dangerous, home-made power lines are all over the area, he says, and they are a danger to everyone. But new ownership of the apartment buildings is helping to clean up those issues. Investment such as Shoshani’s and the revitalization of the old Sahara resort will lift more boats, he believes.
Coffin, who has been active in local politics for decades, has seen the fortunes of Naked City and other neighborhoods, such as the nearby John S. Park and Huntridge neighborhoods, rise and decline. He notes that just a few years ago, investors were buying up property in Naked City with the hope that it might one day become home to an arena, a potential that seems distant now but could return.
“It’s changing,” Coffin says. “Time will tell if it is for the better. We have to be ready for anything.”