Sometimes when people talk about Zappos, you might be inclined to think the company delivers happiness. Only secondarily does it come up that they’re an online shoe retailer that has been bought by Amazon (which now seem intent on delivering products to us via drones).
Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh is regularly cited as the force behind the vision for the revitalization of downtown, in the form of the Downtown Project. There’s a lot of vision…and passion. Vision, passion, commitment…and phrases such as “a family-friendly playground of innovation” swirl around the media reportage, which often seem to be Zappos’ corporate press releases digested wholesale.
Make no mistake, Las Vegas has unquestionably benefited from the employment and the businesses Hsieh’s energy has attracted. Downtown still needs revitalization. The Container Park and the Learning Village on Fremont East are active, positive signs of this vision finding form.
We keep crying out for enlightened capitalists who are interested in doing some good in the community, rather than just lining their own pockets with tourist and gaming dollars, and Hsieh seems to be delivering on this hope in tangible ways.
Yet, one can’t help feeling there’s some metaphoric Kool-Aid to be swallowed here.
Why is there always such rich PR lingo surrounding the Downtown Project? If it really is a good, community spirited initiative, why do we have to be sold on it continuously?
One of many examples of PR lingo is the term “street level concierges” coined for the Downtown Rangers. Are they the Downtown Project’s private security force? No, not exactly, we’re told. They’re more like unarmed “hospitality agents” in uniform.
What they really are is just another take on the Guardian Angels, but with an “observe and report” mission rather than direct intervention. Basically, a collective of nice, youngish people in mainly beige shirts acting as eyes and ears on the streets to make us older folk feel more secure while spending money in the neighborhood.
Oh, but there was some bad publicity for the Guardian Angels. No, the Downtown Rangers aren’t like them at all.
Last Friday, the Downtown Rangers founder and boss Christopher Curtis gave a presentation at the latest installment of the Downtown Project’s Speaker Series. A native of Queens—a Marine sergeant, who has had international embassy assignments and a meritorious career with Las Vegas Metro Police - he’s led an authentically action figure life.
In his talk, he shared anecdotes of his training on the police force in the Fremont area back during the seedy, vice-ridden days of the ‘90s. He told colorful stories of dealing with “flaggers,” the street denizens who could point you to the right motel for prostitutes or where to buy crack. We learned how cops “tickle the wire” as a way of fooling dealers and pimps off the street for a while. Back in the day, when a legitimate bust couldn’t be made, there was always the charge of “interfering with the path of a passenger pigeon” to fall back on.
All great stuff.
What was even more interesting was the bold link he drew between the black market dynamic of the vice and crime past, and the new spirit of entrepreneurship and community-mindedness that the Downtown Project is seeking to foster.
“The Downtown Rangers are the new flaggers,” he said. “Only they’re not telling people where to find a hooker or buy some rock, they’re recommending where to get a good pizza.”
I spent the weekend checking out the Rangers and the scene downtown. There appears to be nothing sinister at work. Curtis is the Downtown Project’s Ambassador of Good Chill (as he would like to be thought of). On the other hand, he didn’t know how many Rangers are employed, which I would’ve thought would be a top-of-mind answer to a question asked all the time.
They don’t have a clear patrol schedule (I followed five pairs around), although previous media reports put it at 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Fremont Street. Like most corporate entities, Rangers won’t talk to the media outside of a set-up photo-op.
Truth is, the days of exciting vice downtown are gone—for many reasons beyond the investment of Hsieh. The problem now is homelessness and the mentally ill, and no one seems to have the visionary solution for that. I don’t know if we need the Downtown Rangers, but if we do, we need them at 1 a.m. on the dark streets of 7th and 8th streets, not necessarily in Container Park, which already has its own private security team.
It’s hard not to like Curtis when first meeting him. His enthusiasm is infectious. I’m sure Hsieh is real in his hopes for downtown. But I’m not ready to sing “Kumbaya” in the drum circle yet.
Can’t we support revitalization, local businesses run by people who aren’t multimillionaires, and laid-back ex-cops…without drinking the Kool-Aid? CL