Sin City's downtown is on the brink of reinvention


“We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

-- From Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser

The Beat Coffeehouse, in Downtown Las Vegas, feels a bit like a fishbowl. Whether the fish are inside the coffee shop or out on the sidewalk and streets depends, I suppose, on one’s perspective. But there’s little doubt that the big plate-glass windows divide two distinct cultures on this particular Monday morning. Scattered about at tables inside, a few men, each dressed as if he’s out of a GAP commercial, pound away on their Mac laptop keyboards; two twenty-something women yammer on about their Sex-and-the-City-esque weekends; and one fastidiously disheveled guy appears to be interviewing another for a job, replete with references to the latter’s LinkedIn profile. At the coffee counter, 39-year-old Tony Hsieh, the CEO of tremendously successful online retailer Zappos, stands in line in his usual uniform: Zappos t-shirt and jeans. His intensity can be felt halfway across the room.

Just inches away, on the other side of the glass, grizzled, deeply weathered men pass by, each with his own distinctive limp, looking straight off the pages of Richard Avedon’s In the American West; a 20-something man in a shiny suit, salmon-colored shirt, no tie, stumbles blearily out of the El Cortez hotel across the street, looking as if he has gone 12 rounds with a slot machine, an endless stream of well drinks, or both; families pass by as if lost, almost all of them with American-flag themed shirts (it’s Veteran’s Day). Nearly everyone passing by seems to be smoking cigarettes, either old-school or the new e-cigs, which look like miniature hookahs.

The El Cid hotel in downtown Las Vegas has yet to be caught up in the latest transformation. Photography by Jonathan Thompson.

The deep contrast between these two scenes is transformation incarnate. The Downtown Las Vegas of the past — a place that increasingly seemed to be where the folks on the losing end of the craps tables ended up — is giving way to something that looks a little bit more like the scene in the coffee shop that Monday morning. While such transitions have occurred somewhat organically in other areas (think Williamsburg in Brooklyn or the Mission District in San Francisco) this one is being pushed along rather aggressively by both public and private entities. That includes Hsieh and his colleagues, who have put up $350 million to launch the Downtown Project, which describes itself as “a group of passionate people committed to helping transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world … by inspiring and empowering people to follow their passions to create a vibrant, connected urban core.”

That’s a tough row to hoe in any city, but in a Southwestern sprawler like Vegas, where passions tend to be of a baser kind, it’s a big task. Like so many other Downtowns, Vegas began its decline after World War II, as the car and suburbs took hold and people oozed outward into desert tract homes. The Strip, most of which lies not in Las Vegas proper but in unincorporated Clark County, sucked up much of Downtown’s former glory with its resort casinos so massive that each is essentially its own city. Downtown withered. Big casinos and even county buildings were left empty. Residents tended to be career panhandlers or the homeless. The streets were reportedly plagued with crime. (For an in-depth history, read this excellent series by the Las Vegas Review-Journal).

Las Vegas' new City Hall with solar trees. Photograph by Jonathan Thompson.

Even as it declined, city leaders attempted to bring Downtown back. The Fremont Street Experience turned a couple blocks into what is essentially a gambling- and drinking-themed mall, for better or worse. A handful of luxury condo/loft buildings went up during the housing boom, and a few old casinos and hotels were revitalized. The City moved out of its “old” City Hall — built in the early 1970s — and into a new, LEED-certified, $146 million one, just a few blocks away. But it wasn’t just big development fueling the revival. The City also lifted a regulation for parts of downtown that mandated that bars be a certain distance from one another, allowing smaller establishments to open up. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the efforts have worked: Downtown is a much more pleasant place to work, live or hang out than it was a decade ago.

Hsieh came into the picture, peripherally, in 2004, when he moved Zappos’ headquarters to Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. The company was growing quickly, and seemed destined to build its own giant, self-contained campus, a la Google. But Hsieh is a fan of urbanism — he cites as a major influence Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City — and started eying downtown. In 2010, Zappos bought the old City Hall, converted it from domain of bureaucrats to hipster-corporate style, and moved into its new HQ this fall. While the place is somewhat self-contained, with its own bistro and coffee shop, it’s also open to surrounding sidewalks and streets, and Hsieh encourages his 1,450 employees to go out and be part of the city’s newfound bustle.

And this idea, that the city is the campus, is right in line with Hsieh’s Downtown Project and its goal, which is to increase the density of Downtown, thereby bringing more people — preferably creative, energetic ones — into contact with one another to create a community buzzing with ideas. The Downtown Project is pushing this concept along by helping small businesses get started (to get help, the businesses must have passion, community and be “story worthy”) and constructing what may be the world’s first shopping mall built from shipping containers. Hsieh and his colleagues have bought up condos in the Ogden, one of the upscale residential projects built during the boom. They’re starting a car-sharing system, and even bought the Gold Spike, an old casino, and converted it into a bar and hangout joint for urbanites.

I was recently in Vegas for a few days working on another story, but spent my downtime, as a fan of what Hsieh is trying to do, searching for this new hipster- and creative class-friendly Downtown. I certainly found shards of it, in the Zappos HQ, with its cluttered and closely clustered desks and its many ping-pong tables; in the aforementioned coffee shop and on random walls covered with zany murals. But step outside these places, and you’re back in Vegas, where low-slung buildings stretch out into the desert as far as the eye can see, where gambling is always around the next corner, bars are mostly thick with cigarette smoke, and where folks seem more interested in staring down a money-gobbling machine than in generating ideas for the next billion-dollar startup.

Las Vegas' 'old' City Hall and current Zappos HQ. Photograph by Jonathan Thompson.

And perhaps that's the biggest barrier to success: Vegas is still Vegas, no matter how much money or passion you pour into trying to make it into something else. Many Zappos employees still live way out in the sprawl, and drive to work, while the people who live downtown drive miles to get to a nice place to walk. It seems as if the whole project is at risk of becoming a hollow knockoff of a real creative core, just as those giant casinos on The Strip are facsimiles of Manhattan or Venice. There's also the threat present with all urban revitalizations of gentrification. That's a threat that seems a long ways off, but if it happens, where will the poor and homeless go? Out into the desert? (The Downtown Project has started a program to address this by giving job training to the homeless and others.)

One night I ate at Wild, the much-hyped gluten-free, locally-sourced pizza joint that started in New York and had just opened its Downtown Vegas branch. I struck up a conversation there with Cathy Brooks, who uprooted herself from the San Francisco tech world and moved to Vegas to start a dog day care center with Downtown Project support. She seemed somewhat baffled by the fact that she lived in Vegas, of all places, but also excited about the whole venture. After all, she asked, how often do you get a chance to create your own city? And where else, I thought, could something as audacious as that succeed except here in the West, and in Vegas in particular, where reinvention is a core part of the ever-shifting identity? Maybe Vegas being Vegas is what will make this work, after all.

As I walked back to my hotel that night, I saw a guy emerge from a casino. He had an ample beer belly shrouded in a hot-pink running shirt, hot pink shorts and flip-flops, his hairy legs adorned by ornate tattoos. Was he just another middle-American tourist finally letting loose in Sin City, I wondered, or a post-post-ironic  hipster entrepreneur fresh off the plane from Brooklyn looking to start up a “story-worthy” Vegas business? These days, you just can’t tell.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.