As if I were standing beside a pretty-people conveyor belt, its contents ranging in circumference from reedy part-time model to former University of Iowa defensive end, the entirety of Commonwealth passed around me. All unfamiliar save the three friends with whom I walked in, they were lawyers, judges, Zappos employees and the extended family of Hsieh-folk, a bundled-up waitress would tell me on the breezy upstairs patio. They’d drink expensive beers, order punch bowls, dance with a temerity previously scant on East Fremont. It wasn’t just here, either. The entire face of downtown was changing.
I didn’t understand the true scope of this story until the fifth day of research, by which I mean drinking downtown and asking strangers, “Hey, man, why are you here?” I met Jackie from Buca di Beppo, who usually goes to Aces & Ales but now comes downtown because of the cheap/lack of cover; Devin, the 40- or 50-something from Summerlin, taking a break from Boca Park’s thronging cougar demographic; Nick and Jack from Colorado, buying Jäegermeister with abandon, coming down because fuck, man, this place is so chill let’s take a shot — here’s to snow; and the handful of bartenders who can’t really put a finger on the difference, but can tell it’s changed — less ink, more Northface, more bro-hugs, less quizzical and judgy unfamiliarity.
And that was just The Griffin. Each bar is its own ecosystem, with its own unique fauna, I’d write in my notebook with bleary-eyed epiphany, observing the bumper crop of decidedly Latin-looking kids in what I guess you could call the downtown uniform if there is one: either a motorcycle jacket with a white shirt and tie or that same motorcycle jacket over a T-shirt and hoodie. Beauty Bar looks about the same, if not a little dirtier, like where detention let out but the kids just sat at the bar for five years. At Commonwealth they’re older, better dressed, not entirely but almost exclusively white as hell — an extension of what Downtown Cocktail Room has always been, but with a hipper hue: industry kids who don’t want to stick around the Strip, business owners and artists. But the most overwhelming part was that of all the faces I’d see in roughly a week, a number I’ll put around 500, I’d recognize no more than 20.
I’ll go out on a limb and say this wasn’t a gradual change. Even two years ago, the summer months saw Fremont Street presided over by 20-somethings in tank tops and cut-off shorts milling in front of The Griffin, lips wrapped around tall cans of crappy beer and Four Loko. A lasagna of bicycles stacked on top of one another, locked to street signs. It was young, hipster in the most scientific of definitions, the same 100 faces showing up at the same shows at the same three bars, mostly coming from the campus area or nearby neighborhoods. But with the new bars and locales — The Beat, Insert Coin(s), Vanguard Lounge — sprouting, the demographic shifted. The same faces were still there, if maybe in less frequency. They were added to almost overwhelmingly, first during First Friday, then every other unimportant weekend.
Where everyone is coming from has a few obvious guesses. Like the patio waitress told me, a lot of it is thanks to the Zappos integration into what was previously a small community. But as my week of research pushed forward, they were coming out of weirder and more obscure woodwork. A stocky valet who already works downtown likes it over the Strip because of its chilled-out, unpretentious vibe. His well-dressed, unseasonably tan companions nod in agreement. Mitch and Andrew — geeky, quiet, having an awesome time — were celebrating a going-away party in a little corner of Commonwealth. Mitch, a student living in Henderson, never used to come downtown, citing danger as the main deterrent (he’d call himself a Town Square kind of guy). Andrew, who lives at The Ogden, said roughly the same thing. How friends, even just a year ago, when he first decided to move downtown, were nervous for him. “It went from ‘Oh, you’re moving down there?’ to ‘Oh, you’re moving to Fremont!’”
But the astounding part of the evening: Never before have I been in such a welcoming environment downtown. The self-asserted veterans, the tragically hip, they don’t want to know you. You’re an imposter in their space. The incoming scene has no rights to the territory yet. They just want to be there, on the cusp of the burgeoning local community to which they’ve just now begun to acclimate. There are bad eggs — never before have I witnessed so many fights as in the last year — but that’s to a lesser degree. In the whole week never once was I jostled, stink-eyed or ignored. People said excuse me. Excuse me.
As one Saturday night wore on, the Commonwealth DJ spun better and more unique cuts. Plenty of soul, a little indie, nothing prepackaged for the Tao set. Empty glasses accumulated at a tall center bar, its residents drunker and louder, just getting started as I began losing steam. It was at this point, 2 a.m., that it seemed the crowd would become rude, invasive. None of that happened. “They were just so nice!” my girlfriend exclaimed upon leaving, crossing Fremont Street.
They really, really were.