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Downtown Development: Part One

Having written about arts and culture in Las Vegas for over a decade I can honestly say it’s a dream come true watching all the energy and enthusiasm flowing into downtown and the 18b Arts District. But since I could form any kind of qualified opinion, I have never perceived that Vegas lacked culture. Though perhaps not as obvious and easily identifiable as in other major cities, authentic culture has always lived here in pockets and places both downtown and throughout the Valley. I have worked alongside cultural programmers to host concerts, art shows and other community events. I consider these people extended family and share their hopes and visions for a fully realized Las Vegas.

When I write about the dissatisfaction which many of us have with aspects of the new downtown, particularly those entities and individuals affected by Zappos, the Downtown Project and other well-financed newcomers, I do so not as a disinterested observer but as an active participant.

One of the most troubling aspects of the ongoing dialogue over downtown development is the complete dismissal of anyone critical of Zappos or DTP as merely hateful and envious people. There are many credentialed leaders of cultural programming and business who hold critical views of DTP’s methods. On the opposite extreme, there are “haters” who try to find fault with anything associated with Zappos and are disappointed whenever there is a positive story about DTP in the papers. Neither blind hatred nor blind allegiance will serve any community well.

Over the past two and a half years, I have taken part in and overheard countless conversations about the new downtown. Early on, there was gleeful optimism and grand expectations of what the Zappos affiliated partner’s takeover of First Friday would mean for the local cultural community. Many had worked diligently for decades on shoestring budgets keeping culture alive in Las Vegas and were eager to see what having a whole-shoe budget would look like.

As the months went by, these conversations, though still optimistic, became increasingly marked by talk of disappointment and disillusionment. Mentions of the outsourcing of jobs for which there were qualified people already in town were common. Displacement of individuals and businesses made news. These kinds of things can be expected with business development and are generally accepted as worth the net economic gain it brings. With Zappos, given the whole “Delivering Happiness” deal and DTP’s stated goal of “Making Las Vegas the most community focused large city in the world,” it follows that people expected a little more than the usual corporate hubris.

Within the tech, cultural and business communities there exist numerous stories of people meeting with representatives of Zappos or DTP, and then not having their emails returned for months or not at all, or seeing something like the ideas they shared surfacing without their input or consent. In defense of the Z-Tribe, there is a solid chance that at least in a few of these cases, their own people were developing similar ideas in response to the same situation, opportunity or problem. In biology this is called convergent evolution, when different species adapt in the same way in response to similar environmental pressures.

The offended people largely kept their complaints to a small circle of friends. Many local writers, myself included, were familiar with these stories, yet I believe they did not write about them for the same reasons I haven’t until now. I believe we want Zappos, DTP and the new downtown to succeed and we know growing pains come with such a grand, ambitious endeavor.

I believe we are beginning to see negative side effects of a corporate company culture that did amazing things for Zappos as a business, but perhaps is a bit too homogeneous to provide the blueprint for meaningfully diverse community building. Homogeneity in the corporate world provides a platform for consistent deliverable results. In communities, as with ecosystems, homogeneity comes with inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If conditions become unfavorable for a single species densely packed into an area, the entire population is affected.

As DTP continues to primarily select like-minded individuals for its various projects, it is building into its system a weakness not a strength. Dense urban cores are complex systems which thrive on both economic and cultural diversity. Moreover, downtown and the 18b Arts District were not blank slates. Exerting cultural hegemony through shear financial might may be legal, and even acceptable in the corporate world, but it is ethically questionable. This approach undervalues the people and culture already in the area.

Are the dissenters in the minority? Almost certainly. But being in the minority is in no way an indicator of being wrong. And is this really a part of the revitalization story that Zappos’ fearless leader is okay with leaving behind?

HEKTOR D. ESPARZA is a pragmatic idealist and founder of the youth mentoring nonprofit Push Forward.