Successful cities, the kind where interested and interesting people like to visit and live—where the regular exchange of ideas gives rise to innovation— depend on having both economic diversity and a critical mass of the culturally discerning. Students, new graduates and emerging artists cannot afford high rent, $15 lunches or $9 beers. Members of the creative class already established in their careers want not only high value in the food, art and entertainment they consume but also a sense of connectedness to the history of an area.
Cities like Austin, Portland, New Orleans are protective of their local culture sometimes to the extent of limiting even the development of needed roads and infrastructure (Austin). Such protective actions go too far and can choke progress.
Las Vegas always had culture. Recent financial investment in downtown was badly needed and, in my opinion, is doing much more good than harm. But we may want to be more careful to consider what is lost in the name of development.
From where I sit, the 18bArts District, which I consider part of the downtown community, is doing well. I might even say it’s thriving. Some of this should rightly be attributed to the Downtown Project’s spark and the massive investment into First Friday. By many accounts, however, First Friday’s re-launch over a year ago was careless in that it lacked consideration for the event’s history. It stressed quantity over quality, and though I am loathe to admit this, the strategy worked.
Using proven marketing techniques, a wide net was cast attracting tens of thousands of visitors, introducing many to the area for the first time. High quality was already present in the galleries and was further developed in other events around First Friday. Unlike many of the enterprises in downtown proper, the 18b, insofar as attracting creative and forward-thinking people, is getting it right. It’s doing so not by using a locals-only approach, but by actualizing ideals shared by natives and newcomers alike.
In early December, Austin transplant Michael Litt hosted Greetings from Las Vegas at the historic Gateway Motel. The sustainability-themed arts event attracted some 600 attendees. The event was a success on many levels because Litt, who hosted a similar event in Texas, took the time to find Vegas based curators and collaborators and selected area artists who have developed a reputation for producing works of substance.
Preview Thursday, the monthly 18b event before First Friday, has long been considered by the local cognoscenti as the more arts-focused event. In December this was expanded on by ArtsVegas.com with Late Until Eight: Thursdays in the Arts District.
In collaboration with art galleries and creative businesses in the area, artist talks, workshops and informal discussions with arts writers were scheduled, providing opportunities for deeper appreciation of the Vegas arts scene. ArtsVegas.com was created by Baltimore transplants Dave Hardy and Molly O’Donnell.
It’s clear that being from Vegas is not what’s important. Valuing substance over hype is. Having an eye for authenticity and the willingness to take responsibility for the holistic impact of development methods tantamount to social engineering are important too.
The Downtown Project is a little more “Let me see your business plan,” while the arts community is more “Let me see your skill and passion.” Those approaches each attract likeminded entities. Like most generalizations, it doesn’t apply perfectly to everyone in either camp. There is a flow of ideas from the Arts Districts to downtown and I am hoping that the “moneyed avengers,” as former CityLife scribe Max Plenke once called them, see the value in substance and authenticity, even if they are not fully converted themselves.
Ruben Rodriguez, booking agent and event coordinator at Beauty Bar on Fremont East, says he’s seen consistently fewer locals at the venue since the resurgence downtown began. He also says that more tourists have helped make up for that. One has to wonder if this is in the best interest of the area or even if this meets the “community building” goals of the Downtown Project.
Tech enclaves in San Francisco and elsewhere are gaining a reputation for their insensitivity to the pre-existing communities they move into. Those who have read Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of The City, or Richard Florida’s Rise of The Creative Class, — all books from which Downtown Project draws inspiration — would expect to find more idealism and less solipsism within their movement.
When I first heard the Downtown Project was giving up The Gold Spike’s gaming license after taking over the property earlier this year I was impressed by the radical idealism of the move.
More recently, it responded quickly to complaints and stopped the personal searches at Container Park. And it has made efforts to include more local artists and cultural programmers at its venues.
All reasons to hope for the best.
HEKTOR D. ESPARZA is a pragmatic idealist and founder of the youth mentoring nonprofit Push Forward.