Bursting the downtown bubble

Downtown is stupid. There, I said it.

Over the course of living in the Las Vegas Valley for 17 years, I have had an occasion to work downtown a handful of times. It has never, in any of those years, been fun or easy to work downtown.

I know. I know. I’m a defacto Las Vegan. (I’ve lived here longer than any other place in my entire life.) I’m not supposed to pull the curtain back and poke at the machinations that prop up this idea that downtown is a magic, glitter-filled unicorn. We’re all supposed to stick to the script and call downtown Super Rad (as the Aquabats might say).

But downtown is not super rad. In fact, it super sucks.

I first worked downtown around the time that former Mayor Oscar Goodman made his famous “rotten apple core” comments about the city’s center. That was shortly after becoming mayor in 1999. So, it’s safe to say that for at least as long as I’ve lived in Las Vegas, someone – pick a Goodman, Cindy Funkhauser, or perhaps Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh – has been trying to refashion the hodge-podge of old-school casinos, corporate monoliths, and incongruous low-rent businesses with hand-painted signs into some kind of new-Brooklyn or some other such bullshit.

Now, with the 18b Arts District on the map and First Friday turning 14 this October not to mention The Smith Center several blocks away, we should be able to claim that Las Vegas has arts and culture without snickers from the peanut gallery, right? And with Hsieh’s Downtown Project incubator pumping millions into creating a vibrant cool-kids mecca of walkable hipster eats, shops, high-rise apartments, and salvaged casinos – mostly along Fremont East – we should be able to declare downtown not only saved as the core of the city but a cultural center, amirite?

Oh wait, Downtown Project is rumored to be shuttering. And First Friday has become more kinetic street rave than art walk. Then there’s the fact that I have to walk past empty lots and boarded up buildings to get to my fancy eats. (Be careful to not step on the homeless person sleeping on the street as you go.)

Since my day job is downtown, I see what’s happening first-hand. Sure, it’s cool that Donut Bar has opened up a few blocks from the office. And I love that there are vegan and vegetarian food options downtown. But $12 is a little steep for rice, beans, and veggies. And if anyone outside of downtown (because 99 percent of my friends work in the suburbs) wants to join me for lunch, the nightmare parking conditions will be sure to make them balk at ever coming back.

Once Project Neon, the massive multi-billion-dollar road construction project set to completely remake the Spaghetti Bowl, gets into full swing the insular bubble of downtown – those who never leave it and those who never go there – will only worsen.

And this is the nut of the problem of downtown. It’s expensive to live there. It’s expensive to eat and drink there. It’s crowded with a mix of drunk tourists and aggressive panhandlers. Raising small children there is damn near impossible. (Name one park not overrun with homeless people or drug dealers that is also not in Container Park.) And it has few draws for suburbanites who want to grab reasonably priced eats and take their families on outings without adding extra fuss – such as lack of (paid!) parking and one-off draws – to the mix.

Sure, the Container Park is fun, but it’s a destination. After you go through the pain of parking and decamping to the park, that’s all there is. When you’re done at the park, you’re done. The Las Vegas Natural History Museum, the Discovery Children’s Museum (now at The Smith Center complex), even the 18b Arts District are all too far of a walk if you’re with anyone under the age of 10. And any parent knows that a day that involves constantly getting in and out of the car is not only irritating, but a recipe for meltdowns.

Now, I can already feel the ire of downtown parents getting ready to chide me in the comments. But be honest. You know I’m right. Of course, I’m not saying there are no families with small children downtown. I know several! But every downtown parent I know has told me in hushed tones about how they regret moving there, about how hard it is with kids, how expensive, how the constant vigilance about crime is exhausting, and how the lack of a full-service grocery store is a nightmare. I get why you don’t want to say it out loud, so let me do it for you.

Even my coworkers, who mostly live downtown all drive to work, because crime. What good is a “walkable” neighborhood if nobody feels safe enough to walk?

Here’s the truth. Outside of the times I have worked downtown, I never go there.

The food options, while headline grabbing for “artisanal” and “curated” cuisine, are both too expensive and too … frou-frou for me. I don’t want curated food. I want something that tastes good and is not a pain in the ass to order. And when my five year old is with me, forget about it. I’m not saying that no kids like fancy food, but I am saying my kid doesn’t. And that’s a pain in the ass that is just not worth it when I am spending precious quality time with my family.

And this is where downtown really fails. If you are banking on rebranding downtown by luring people to live, eat, work, and play in the area in order to revitalize the core, you need people who can actually afford it. For the most part, that’s not going to be the 20-somethings at the bars or Millennials who are still early in their careers (aka have no expendable income). The people you want are the people like me, middle-aged professionals, and the retiring Baby Boomers looking to downsize. I know we are not the sexy demos, but we are the ones who actually have money.

For the most part, downtown does not interest me. It’s fun to go bar hopping every once in a while, but my days of doing that regularly are over. I have to go to work in the morning – right after I drop my kid off at school. My days are organized around my kid’s school, family activities, and birthday parties on the weekends. I don’t have time to fuck around with something that makes things more difficult or inconvenient. But by ignoring the needs of my demographic, downtown acolytes have made going there completely unattractive. They’ve created a cool-kid bubble, falsely assuming that elitism will cultivate interest. But instead of being interested, most suburbanites just shrug and move on.

The park at Container Park is cool, but I pass probably a dozen parks on my drive to downtown. (There are five parks in my neighborhood alone!) And why should I wait in line to eat at a tiny over-priced restaurant downtown when I can just drive down the street from my house and go to a local restaurant (yes, they exist in the suburbs) that better accommodates the culinary tastes of everyone in my family without a line, the price tag, or the elitism.

I’m not saying that downtown needs to turn into another HOA-governed stucco village. That would be terrible! However, what people love about the downtowns they are trying to recreate in Las Vegas is that they are multi-generational and include families* as well as young hipsters and retirees. What we have now is a feeble attempt at gentrification that tries to pass off urban problems like poverty, blight, and crime as “grit” and “realness.” That’s bullshit.

The fact is, downtown Las Vegas is like those folks who move to the desert and want a full, green lawn. They want the grass of their youth in a place that it doesn’t belong. There are two remedies to this. One, get real and give up the green grass for desert landscaping – that is, embrace what actually works. In the case of downtown, that’s an amalgam of casinos and law offices.

The other option is to stubbornly pay through the nose to plant grass seed, water it, fertilize it, pay landscapers to manage it and so on. This option is possible. People do it. But eventually, you’ll either get tired of the work or run out of money, or both. The latter is what’s happening in downtown.

In a city of transplants, people want to build what they had in other places – Portland, San Francisco, LA, Austin, New York. But this is Las Vegas. And the house always wins. 

It just might be time to get real about downtown. Instead of trying to create something that is not happening organically, we should accept that the unglamorous parts of downtown are the true core of Las Vegas. Not what it could be, but what it is. 

Perhaps the reason it stubbornly resists gentrification is because our town is not that kind of town. And that’s okay. When I think of Chicago, I think of the shipyards as much as I think of the Miracle Mile. Las Vegas has a unique DNA. It’s time to embrace that, warts and all. 

*UPDATE: There’s been some confusion or misinterpretation of what I mean by “family friendly.” Let me try to clarify. I do NOT mean turning everything into Disneyland. I mean a neighborhood that offers options for people of different generations, including families. For example, when my family visits Portland every couple of years, it’s not a problem to eat at hip, locally owned restaurants with a stroller, every dozen blocks or so there’s a green space or park, people are training for marathons, and shops cater to a mixture of clientele (e.g. artists, professionals, and yes parents). I’ll give you another example: a full-service pub with a family area in back. We went to one of these on our last trip. There’s a full bar, full restaurant eats, and an open area in back that’s easier for families with small kids. No revocation of adult spaces, just adding options. (Whether or not you agree with booze around your kids is a subject for another post another day, but for me that falls under personal choices.) What I’m advocating is something akin to the improve adage “yes, and.” This is actually how most cities develop naturally. It’s not weird. It’s not revolutionary. I’m not talking about saying no to bars or adult oriented businesses. I’m saying that NOT saying yes to offering other options is limiting, bad capitalism, and why downtown is still on the verge of failure. 

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