Zombie Row: Why East Fremont is the Las Vegas that will never die

Every day I drive through a time loop called East Fremont Street. I want to be clear that this is not the newly branded Fremont East, denoted with fancy monument signs and the fire of ex-Burning Man sculptures. This is the Fremont that time forgot – a dozen or so blocks that take a hard left from quirky right into lonely and brutal. This is not the place of downtown developer plots or nostalgia fever-dreams. This is the place where dreams go to die – and then come back from the dead.

Zombie row.

Having spent my childhood ambling about in a dozen or so states and almost two-dozen cities – from the shadow of the St. Louis Arch to the wilds of Sarah Palin country – I’ve seen towns on every part of the bell curve. Of course, you want to find yourself on the rising side of a bell curve, so you can feel the exhilarating thrill upwards. The top, with its view, is always nice, too. What you want to avoid is the precipitous drop, which comes with an almost perceptible tick, like the last rail before the roller coaster crashes back to earth.

But even boom-towns have problem children – wayward byways that defy gentrification. In their own way, they are a testimony of the passage of time and the vagaries of progress. They stand sentry against the weed-like growth enabled by the loose zoning laws of the West, where it’s easier to turn over fresh dirt than mind the gap. In Las Vegas, East Fremont serves as the sobering Sunday after the thrill of one-armed bandits under the neon glow.

Blue Angel Motel, August 2016. East Fremont Street, Las Vegas. Photo By: Emmily Bristol

Blue Angel Motel, 2016. East Fremont Street, Las Vegas. Photo By: Emmily Bristol

Here is where you will find the line that forms outside the plasma donation bank and signs shouting “Cash for Cars” and “You Buy, We Fry!” Every now and then one of the decrepit motels dearly departs, leaving behind the odd relic, like the Blue Angel who now watches over an empty lot where blow jobs and drug deals move in broad daylight. More likely, you’ll find these not-quite Route 66-era hotels with quaint Space Age names boasting free adult movies and hourly rates. Ain’t nobody got time for nostalgia here. These hard-scrabble blocks are the storefront of the most honest of trade on demand. Get busy or get to steppin’.

It’s hard to imagine a time when this street was the neon glow or that it was just a stone’s throw from Frank Sinatra’s house. These days East Fremont feels like the place Patty, the daytime hooker on My Name is Earl, would wash up after the bender that smacks the shine right off her heart of gold. And it sits uncomfortably close to the new-spangled progress upon which so many are banking. This is #nofilter writ large in an age of cult fusion eateries made famous on Instagram.

East Fremont is the yang to the yin of The Strip. If Las Vegas Boulevard is the dancing fountains mirage, then East Fremont is the desert. You can’t have one without the other. There is no Libertarian playground without the schoolyard whistle. Hedonism is not self-perpetuating. East Fremont is the Boulevard’s natural inertia.

And the truth is, as much as it might hurt to look at it, East Fremont is as much Las Vegas as The Boulevard. East Fremont was the boulevard back when people laughed about The Tropicana being built way out in the middle of the desert. And it will endure. Long after whatever thing it is we say we are now – long after the shouting, as they say – East Fremont will be East Fremont. There will be high brick walls around the schools and homeless people too tired to find a better place to sleep than the actual street. Whether you see it as a circle of hell or a sad mockery of hipster nirvana, East Fremont is Las Vegas and Las Vegas never dies.

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