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Downtown Development: Part Two

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” wrote the 19th Century theorist Thomas Carlyle. Twenty years later, British philosopher and anthropologist Herbert Spencer countered that such men arrived as the products of their societies, and that their actions would not be possible without the social conditions created before they were born.

The biographies of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and Michael Cornthwaite will certainly make up major chapters in the recent history of downtown Las Vegas. It was Cornthwaite’s dogged determination to develop downtown over many years that paved the way for Zappos’ move to the former City Hall. Credit is also due to the Mayors Goodman and business leaders who saw value in the area, owners of places like Beauty Bar, The Griffin, Don’t Tell Mama and The Bunkhouse.

Convinced of its potential, Hsieh and other leaders of the Downtown Project said they wanted to provide a spark to ignite downtown development. Even at this early stage, it’s clear they have accomplished that fantastically.

There’s substantial cultural and economic activity in the area now that wasn’t happening just a few years ago. Though a number of residents and a handful of businesses were displaced in the process, it’s hard to overstate the net gain the Downtown Project has brought to Las Vegas.

Downtown and the nearby 18b Arts District are also the frontlines of an ongoing clashing of cultures. In late November, prominent Las Vegans challenged facets of downtown development via Facebook posts: its new restaurants, treatment of the homeless, First Friday.

Steve Evans wrote on his Facebook page of disappointment with a new downtown restaurant: “I have high hopes for all the new downtown activity, but as supportive as I am, doubtful others will be as forgiving. Get it together!” The comment thread which followed was 38 responses long at last count, a lively discussion on the pros and cons of downtown development though mainly limited to dining options.

After attending the opening of a new business and witnessing a Downtown Ranger usher a homeless person away from the gathering, artist/designer Brent Holmes wrote on his Facebook page, “I am wondering when all of the (relatively) good people are going to stop telling other good people to do shitty things in the name of improving things and moving forward (Never, I KNOW).” Fifty-four likes and 29 comments.

Many believe there must be more compassionate ways to address the homeless issue.

Artist James Henninger shared his thoughts on First Friday on his page; “It blows me away that some companies and private citizens that have money think they know what’s best for everyone.”

Henninger shared his opinion that the event seems to be focused more on food trucks, craft jewelry and cheap t-shirts than on fine art. This was an issue before First Friday was sold to its present Zappos-affiliated owners. Yet as the event has served in a public capacity for more than a decade, perhaps it’s a subject that deserves thoughtful exploration.

Within these statements is the idea that we ought to be able to do better. We don’t want influential visitors leaving Las Vegas with stories that our downtown revitalization is hollow and compassionless gentrification.

Hsieh and his Downtown Project is the cover story of the January issue of Success.

Toward the end of the article a paragraph describes how Hsieh asks questions of his employees to help them solve their own problems. Once the root of the problem is discovered he is quoted as saying, “so fix that.”

Whenever I ask locals what the cause of their issues with downtown development is, the reply I most often hear is a complaint over cultural differences or breakdowns in communication. So why not fix that?

The locals I am thinking of created community, commerce and culture in challenging times and circumstances. They started events like First Friday and Neon Reverb music festival, and were already taking things in a good direction. They want nothing more than to see downtown succeed but feel that their contributions are now unwanted.

Many members of Vegas’ old cultural guard have adopted an approach where they make the most of all the new opportunity available. It’s the sensible thing to do. But there is a chance to achieve something even greater if common ground can be found. Downtown had value before this all began. Instead of displacing the community that was already there, why not find more ways to bring its strengths into the new era?

Las Vegas culture is real, has been developing for over a hundred years, and is what many influential people will be looking for when they seek out authentic experiences in our unique city.

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