Streets for People of Las Vegas

Las Vegas Strip, April 30, 2020. Photo by the author.
Susanna Phillips Newbury looks at zoning, urban development, and gentrification in Las Vegas before and during the pandemic, critiquing the city government’s claims to make “Streets for People.”
[Ed. note: this post is part of a dossier on “Lockdown Aesthetics and Gentrification.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Gentrification is municipal policy enforced by zoning. In Los Angeles, today’s most pitched battles over dispossession in the face of unprecedented housing crisis occur in the thick of arts-based cultural development. Skid Row meets the Arts District; artist-run exhibition spaces sit among botánicas and salsa canneries on the historic working-class, immigrant Eastside. This results in neighborhoods not cleared of standing communities, but increasingly unaffordable to those outside white-collar professions adjacent to the arts: entertainment lawyers, game designers, tech employees. As I write about in my chapter in Aesthetics of Gentrification, one artist, Susan Silton, addressed these and other changes in a series of late-2010s performance works focused on enabling art communities to witness such changes in ethical terms, even as she found herself pushed out of her own studio spaces. By tying complex contemporary urban phenomena to historical events and markers of dispossession, she frames art and gentrification as perhaps complicit, but not a one-way street.

Here in Las Vegas, where I live and teach, we have our own Arts District, a small neighborhood northwest of the Strip where a number of local galleries limp along and burn out next to vintage furniture shops and a tangle of independent restaurants, bars, and breweries. Along Main Street, once jammed with cold storage warehouses flush against the Union Pacific rail line, sidewalks are newly planted with trees, the street now one-way, the air above it strung with bistro lights. In 2016 City Council adopted the Vision 2045 Downtown Las Vegas Master Plan, a place-based initiative to reform city code and add zoning incentives to make what it called “Streets for People.” The Arts District, renewed over five years, yields predictable results: wide sidewalks, shade-granting native plants, bike paths, active ground-floor commercial tenants, and outdoor dining.

In April 2020, I went for a bike ride down the Strip. There was no traffic. I rode in the street. A few people wandered sidewalks hemmed in by guardrails, probably not tourists. The casinos were closed. I furtively met friends and their toddlers in vacant parks with playgrounds caution-taped off. I worried about my neighbors, a casino porter and on-Strip retail employee both furloughed from work. I worried about my students, a number laid off from their own jobs and unable to navigate an overwhelmed state unemployment system. I worried about COVID patients on TV news struggling for oxygen. Then George Floyd gasped “I can’t breathe” and was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25th. In Vegas, thousands broke quarantine to march downtown in masks, carrying posters. I ran into students; it felt good to say hi from afar, but even better to be in temporary communion with them in streets for people. I saw far-right militia members approaching lines of police, pelting plastic bottles. It was sobering, but somehow comforting in its transparency.

Black Lives Matter March, Downtown Las Vegas, May 30, 2020. Photo by the author.

We were all nervous about another economic collapse. Just before the pandemic, median home prices in Vegas hit new records. Fourteen months in, that hasn’t come to pass. In fact, records keep shattering. But you could understand our jitters. Last time Vegas had to sell the farm. In 2010, the City of Las Vegas (a municipal entity of 600,000 residents separate from the Las Vegas Strip and other parts of the 1.6-million-person metro region) sold its downtown City Hall to a private developer for $25 million. He then leased it to the online retailer Zappos, a division of Amazon, run by its original co-founder Tony Hsieh, who in turn purchased the building outright in 2020 for $65 million.

When Hsieh moved Zappos to City Hall, he first thought of constructing his own custom-built campus on the site, but switched to the idea of “building community” in the area. With an endowment of $350 million, Hsieh founded a non-profit urbanism and development outfit, the Downtown Project (DTP Companies), and acquired over 100 parcels of land and abandoned buildings along Fremont Street, the original Strip. Backed by the city, DTP Companies’ plan of redeveloping ten blocks of dilapidated motels and vacant lots into a tech playground presaged imminent outsourcing and automation in the hospitality space, hastened by the pandemic’s check-in kiosks and QR code menus. Although the restaurants and bars seeded with DTP loans come and go, the look of this experience corridor remains the same: mired in a weird late-aughts folk-tech aesthetic, anchored by a forty-foot praying mantis sculpture coughing fire at random intervals from sunset to midnight in front of a container park mall.

Edward N. Edstrom, Fremont Street, 1952. Source: Wikipedia

DTP never really took off, so we thought it would always look the same. At least, until Hsieh died, intestate, in a November 2020 house fire. He’d stepped down as Zappos CEO and left Vegas for the moneyed slopes of Park City. In March 2021, representatives of his estate announced their intention to sell at least ninety downtown properties. No word so far on whether their new owners want to build community. But in casinoland, things aren’t as precarious. A new hotel-casino just opened up farther down Fremont. The old Hard Rock Hotel & Casino re-emerged as a Virgin Hotel & Resort property, managed by Connecticut’s sovereign Mohegan Tribe. Someone finally purchased the former Fontainebleau casino tower, left unfinished since the 2008 crash. The multinational firm Genting nears completion on its first Vegas casino, and the California San Manuel Band of Mission Indians purchased the Palms Casino. Sheldon Adelson died in January. Three months later his Sands Corp. reached a deal to sell its Las Vegas properties for $6.5 billion to focus on operations in Macau. MGM Resorts powered back to 100% capacity a few days ago. People don’t wear masks.

My neighbor, the porter at the still-shuttered off-Strip casino, may never go back to work. Caesars Entertainment, its parent company, sold it in 2019 to the New York-based development firm Imperial Companies and its sub-corp Dreamscape in 2019. Dreamscape describes itself as “stewards of both creativity and capital.” Lucky for them, their latest creative market-cap lies just south of Las Vegas’ third Tourism Improvement District (TID). The fifteen-acre property received the designation at the request of New York developer Fisher Brothers. Its surrounding area consists of light-industrial buildings, auto repair shops, and a mobile home park. TIDs designate tax exemptions to spur tourism-oriented business, as long as at least fifty percent of anticipated revenue comes from non-resident spending. Nevada’s tourism taxes are our major source of state revenue (we don’t have an income tax), going toward civic services like schools and infrastructure. The first beneficiary of this designation opened this spring: an enclosed “experiential entertainment district” with immersive art installations from the Santa Fe collective Meow Wolf, backed by Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin. My students are interns there. Its name, Area15, is a play on Area 51, the highly secretive US Government black site where above-ground nuclear tests occurred in the twentieth century. How dystopian.

Only certain developments count as appropriate TID projects, according to Nevada state law. Among those are sports stadiums for professional baseball or football teams; “tourism or entertainment projects,” such as libraries, racetracks, “picture galleries,” and “aquarium facilities;” or, tellingly “art projects” defined as “any works of art which are 1. Selected through a public process; and 2. Displayed within the boundaries of an improvement district which is: (a) accessible to the public, and (b) on property: (1) Owned by a governmental entity; or (2) Over which a governmental entity has a permanent easement for public access.” (NRS 271.037). That’s how it works in Vegas. Public-private partnerships use “art” to spur business and services for non-resident visitors by redirecting revenue away from civic services.

Often, we think of the visual face of gentrification as surface appearance. What a person wears, what type brands a storefront sign, what beverage emerges from its front door, what shade of skin, of ethnicity, of national origin passes by its windows. But by the time surface appearances come into view, gentrification is a fait accompli. The aesthetics of gentrification are different: they are bureaucratic; they are technical; they are articulated through code. They are speculative projections of future action—in essence, sub-aesthetic. They require collective witnessing, attention drawn in. Will the aesthetics of gentrification look different, post-pandemic? They might result in different points of sale: kiosks rather than concierges; home office screen stations instead of techie romper rooms. But until a fundamental question is answered, such aesthetics will remain the same. Whose streets? Based on what’s happened over the pandemic, the answer from Las Vegas is they are for the people only when the rest of the world is, as we are, at home.

Susanna Phillips Newbury, "Streets for People of Las Vegas," Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 3 (June 2021)
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