Not what I had in mind: Gone five years, the author takes stock of the downtown he loved
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Maybe it was the little person wearing the sombrero and serving tequila shots to intoxicated Bible Belt revelers next to Mermaids that I just couldn’t forgive.
Really, Downtown Las Vegas? Is this what you’ve become?
Perhaps I just had a different set of expectations. I left this city for the solitude and grandeur of the Rocky Mountains five years ago, and somehow fate called me back. In the time I was gone, I certainly made my pilgrimages back, though never with any real intent of again becoming a part of this place. I thought I was done.
Still, this is Las Vegas, and it will always be a part of me. I kept tabs during my hiatus. I watched from afar as friends and acquaintances posted their pictures and descriptions of the new Las Vegas rising from the ashes of the blown-out housing market. I heard things were getting better. I read about Tony Hsieh and the resurgence of downtown. I read about the Malaysian investment company poised to make the kind of gamble that pronounced a return to growth in this city. I could feel it in my bones; Las Vegas is ready to explode again.
Obviously, I used to live here. I first arrived in 1985, on a Greyhound from Littleton, Colo. I was 19. After nearly two and a half decades, I called it quits. I left for Fort Collins, Colo., on Memorial Day 2008.
Long story short, I got called back. I arrived a few weeks ago after driving 13 hours straight through. Just take I-70, make a left at I-15 and ignore the bats. I was probably driving by Braille somewhere around hour 10, but I made it.
MORE THAN A quarter of a century ago, I sat in a coffeehouse on Las Vegas Boulevard and talked about downtown revitalization. (The Newsroom closed downtown in 1985. The original site is now the Fremont Street Experience parking garage). Back then downtown was mostly perceived as a dirty, illicit and potentially hazardous area. I have distinct memories of watching bag ladies search for half-eaten pizzas and giant hot dogs discarded by drunk tourists, hidden among the highball glasses and empty beer bottles in the planters along Fremont Street (back when you could drive it). Downtown, for most of my time here, was known for cheap drinks, low-limit gaming, single-card blackjack and sleaze. It was the province of the degenerate.
While I agree downtown is a completely different animal now — and has indeed become revitalized, newer, bigger and bolder — this isn’t exactly what we had in mind all those years ago.
MORE THAN A decade after The Newsroom closed, I relaxed with friends, discussing the same subject, this time in the shaded patio garden of the Enigma Garden Café (also gone, closed in 2000, just an empty dirt lot on Fourth Street now). We would talk about downtown revitalization often in our roundtable gatherings. My peers and I all had our ideas. Parks, lakes, gardens, flowers, dog runs. Hell, even Steve Wynn once wanted to turn it into Little Venice.
We envisioned a downtown that let this community interact with one another, participate and grow. We wanted a place to raise kids. The downtown of our thoughts embraced the natural beauty around us, created local connections and was intended to be supported by and for residents, not tourists. Of course, we also wanted a thriving arts community (which we now certainly have) and we wanted great amenities.
In 2006 I held a position as the IT/IS manager for what was then the first planned high-rise development in downtown, Streamline Tower. I sat in on city meetings and was among the very first in this city to even see the plans for the newly proposed “Fremont East” and the revitalized Fourth Street corridor.
It all looked pretty damned good. The idea of having an area just past the FSE where locals could come play on a Saturday night seemed like it was really coming to fruition. The discussion was distinctly focused on creating a downtown urban living area. A place where you could work, live and play in one central location. A very appealing concept to people like me, who, over the years of living here, kept getting drawn back to the center. And then the housing bubble crashed and the Manhattanization of downtown derailed.
Over the course of 20 years I watched many, many friends move into the surrounding areas. John S. Park neighborhood and the adjacent Huntridge neighborhood became the favored residences of poets, teachers, artists, performers and other downtown professionals. Buildings were being purchased and rented all around the Arts District and converted into living artist communities. From The Enigma Garden Café to The Attic to The Arts Factory itself, it seemed that everyone was really trying to make it come together.
And it is still happening, though I am fearful that the precedence I see being set in the areas of Fremont East and the FSE are threatening to destroy this culture permanently.
I REMEMBER WHEN First Friday was a random idea in the mind of Julie Brewer (founder of The Enigma, alas, she is also gone). It started off really well, as an actual event where people who wanted to see and purchase art could interact with the artists who produced it. There was some music at the bars, but it was mostly about the community celebrating itself. First Friday let us reconnect every month, if only to say hello until the next one. The sense of connection was prevalent and most of the attendees were members of the same choir — artists, performers, musicians. We were all participants, no observers.
How that got turned into what it is now, I don’t know, but I will say that at least First Friday is a valid attempt to create something to connect us. It just outgrew itself and got taken over by the tourists — as everything worthy here eventually seems to be consumed or destroyed outright, bankrupted, demolished, renamed, rebuilt, re-envisioned, re-whatever.
DOWNTOWN LAS VEGAS: a Saturday night.
If any random Saturday night in Las Vegas is a good cross-section of the wider culture of the United States, then this country is in trouble. While wandering the worst of the tourist masses downtown, I could not help being reminded of the movie Idiocracy, where everything once good had been boiled down to the lowest common denominator, and no one saw it coming.
I cannot count how many Affliction T-shirts and too-tight skirts I saw on bodies that clearly spend more time engaged in social media than actual social interaction. If I had a nickel for every bad, misogynistic come-on line I overheard, I could almost afford the new high-limit room at the Union Plaza (Side rant: A high-limit room in The Union Plaza? Seriously? To the owners of that joint: You’re not The Palms or Cosmopolitan. I want my grungy little poker room back, you bastards!)
So, where is the community center? Where is the good grocery store? Is there anywhere left I can sit outside in the shade and enjoy an iced latte, or is The Beat the only decent café for miles? And when did Fremont Street become the Hollywood Walk of Fame? Makes me want to go out and buy an Underdog costume.
This is not the downtown I wanted. Fremont Street has become a sideshow strip mall of lounge acts, impersonators and circus performers. Complete with a giant slot machine, heart attack grill and a zipline. Impressive, yes. Sustainable, viable, communal? No.
To my eyes, Fremont East has become an overpriced and vulgar display of low art. I was hoping to draw distinction between the two areas of downtown but find little differential. If anything, FSE now holds more appeal for me because the drinks are cheaper but the people-watching remains the same, and I can actually find a seat at some of the casino bars.
I remember city meetings during my time at Streamline Tower in which there was indeed going to be an effort made to draw tourists from FSE across Las Vegas Boulevard into the Fremont East area. After all, without their ducats, it would never fly. Sadly, it succeeded, and beyond our imagining at the time.
Yes, Fremont East is now a thriving area. It just isn’t a place where I want to invite my local friends for a happy hour Friday or live music on a Saturday. The few friends I have talked with since beginning this article have confirmed my suspicions. Most locals don’t like downtown on the weekend any more, they tell me. These are the same people who strived so hard for so long to bring new breath into the place. Now they, too, have been run off by the tourists.
Perhaps we just need to stop telling them about good stuff, or they will eventually puke all over it. Sweet, sugary puke. With dubstep.
So, while I am still a solid and strong proponent of revitalizing downtown, I have to say that we may be too late. The rich may eaten it already. Perhaps Tony will save us, perhaps he really does see the long view of this city, and is here to make it better in a sustainable, viable, and participatory manner. I wish I really thought it so.
DON’T GET ME wrong, this city is making huge strides toward having a true urban center, and I believe that if we are willing to continue to discuss what makes an urban center attractive as a larger community, we will find solutions. I just don’t think we’re there yet. A friend of mine once suggested we should eat the tourists for breakfast. One night downtown, and I’m inclined to agree.