The Fremont Experience: "I’m the one with the shirt on." Photo by Michael Taylor.
The Fremont Experience: "I’m the one with the shirt on." Photo by Michael Taylor.

What Killed Las Vegas

I recently stayed at a hotel and lost money at the poker tables in Las Vegas – at the Four Queens and The Golden Nugget, respectively – situated squarely in the downtown monoculture of the Fremont Street Experience.

The Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall and attraction in downtown Las Vegas, is as you would expect; flashing lights, zip-lines, elderly men in Borat-style mankinis, and good for the 36 hours (maximum!) that you plan to be there. Which is to say, after a short while, it’s impossible to enjoy. If I lived in Las Vegas, I would avoid this place at all costs.

A casino on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Flickr user rayb777.
A casino on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Flickr user rayb777.

Just a few blocks away from the Fremont Street Experience, the Tony Hsieh-led Downtown Project has curated, funded, and purchased real estate for a number of locally-oriented businesses. Businesses catering to actual, real-life, Las Vegas residents.

Each of these locations independently represents a glorious reprieve, a gulp of oxygen, apart from The Las Vegas Strip or the Downtown Fremont Experience.

I visited the Downtown Project locations with two questions in mind.

First, how does part of a city die?

Second, how do you revitalize a city downtown?

I already know what has killed the popular parts of Las Vegas, just like I know what has killed downtown San Antonio (where I live.) For all the money that it brings, it’s also what makes the place unlivable.

It’s the tourists and conventioneers, damnit.

“Insect on a Dead Thing”

David Foster Wallace most devastatingly explained the problem of tourism in places like The Strip or the Fremont Experience in Las Vegas, or in my hometown of downtown San Antonio, in a footnote to his essay “Consider The Lobster.”

“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all…To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

Obviously we’re not going to print DFW’s views about tourists on the buttons of San Antonio Ambassador Amigos anytime soon, but I feel his pain.

Since Las Vegas represents the ultimate monoculture problem, a problem many times bigger than San Antonio’s, I was intrigued to see what Tony Hsieh’s vision and money has wrought, despite the odds.

If you’re curious as I was about what’s there, here’s a quick guide to highlights of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project

Eat. After the oversized Las Vegas buffets and the bland celebrity chef chains, the palate cries out for better food. In the morning after a night of poker I wandered off Fremont Street, seemingly past empty or underutilized buildings. It felt like out of nowhere that I found this bustling breakfast/lunch place, Eat, and nobody in there gave off a tourist vibe.

You get the sense of a brunch place responding to the vision of a single person or chef. I read about that single person behind Eat later, as Natalie Young blogs about her struggles. For San Antonians, think Liberty Bar on Alamo Street, or Il Sogno in the Pearl. Real food, prepared fresh. Very un-Vegas.

Eat was my first Downtown Project destination, and it set the right mood. I didn’t realize it until I finished eating, but I was around the corner from Container Park, the most completely integrated part of the Downtown Project.

In Container Park, reused shipping containers provide the architectural motif for a self-enclosed “shopping mall,” with unique stores, a kid-friendly tree-fort, a playground with hula hoops and giant toy building blocks, and a performing arts stage.

Reused shipping containers provide the architectural motif in Container Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user BeingFrozen.
Reused shipping containers provide the architectural motif in Container Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user BeingFrozen.

Over the course of two days in Vegas I visited Container Park three times. At night, a country-music band played while children gamboled in front of the small stage and parents drank beer. The kid-friendly nighttime scene reminded me of a large-scale Friendly Spot in Southtown, if The Friendly Spot had a flame-throwing preying mantis straight from Burning Man out front.

During my first visit to Container Park, I wandered in to Kappa Toys.

The owner, Lizzy, (with dyed-purple hair, a cosplay-dressing style, and named for Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice heroine) comes from Austin by way of Brooklyn. She seemed to have carefully selected every item in her store. She knows where her items are manufactured and how they’re made. Like many owners who are part of the Downtown Project, she was recruited personally by Hsieh to bring her unique business to Las Vegas.

Lizzy – a compelling evangelist for the Downtown Project – recommended to me the hangout place for a combination of coffee, cocktails, lawn games, and local party-scene – The Gold Spike.

Fully hooked on checking out the Downtown Project places, I headed that way immediately.

Here’s your first clue about how The Gold Spike differs from the casino monoculture: At the street level, the entrance has a blank, almost speakeasy type entrance.

I mean, I knew I was at the right address, and I had seen a large “Gold Spike” sign above the building from a distance, but the reflective doors to enter suddenly seemed forbidding. Was I allowed to go in? Will I need a special invitation? Is this even the place?

The Gold Spike in Las Vega. Photo courtesy of Flickr user time anchor.
The Gold Spike in Las Vega. Photo courtesy of Flickr user time anchor.

If I was a random tourist off The Strip or if I had wandered a few blocks from the Fremont Experience, nothing at the Street level of The Gold Spike made me welcome to come in.

Which. Is. Brilliant.

Obviously this is a calculated move to attract local clientele, and break away from the tourist casino monoculture. Presumably that is the way you can get Las Vegans to go there.

In addition to the essential draws of caffeine and alcohol, The Gold Spike offers board games, and semi-curtained private spaces indoors for playing them. Outdoors, in a walled-garden area, there are bean bag toss games like cornhole, plus grown-up frat-style games like lawn-size Jenga, life-size Chess, and soccer-ball pool (which looks just like it sounds).

Bitcoin Teller Maching at Gold Spike in Las Vegas. Photo by Michael Taylor.
Bitcoin Teller Maching at Gold Spike in Las Vegas. Photo by Michael Taylor.

At The Gold Spike I also saw my first Bitcoin Teller Machine (I do not approve!) and watched some young gentleman clearly in the drug trade make a withdrawal (I do not approve!) from this BTM.

I spent many happy hours here. If I ever return to Las Vegas, I will only ever stay at The Gold Spike hotel.

For my last stop of the Downtown Experience, I walked down Fremont Street to The Writer’s Block, a quiet, serious, small-scale, bookstore. But not so serious that they don’t keep their fat pet bunny in the back room in a cage, and, on the day I visited, host a writer’s workshops for teens.

If you like books (I do!) and enjoy talking to hard-core readers (I do!) The Writer’s Block offers a little slice of heaven.

Downtown Project thus far

All of these Downtown Project businesses, by themselves, are worth visiting, although they are separated by emptyish city blocks and are not well integrated with one another. It’s not yet a vital urban core to the casual observer (me). But they form the outlines of a real place within Las Vegas. For a visitor to The Strip or the Fremont Experience who craves something beyond the flashing lights, I recommend each one highly.

This story was originally published by Bankers Anonymous. Read more, including Las Vegas Part I – Stock markets are like a casino, and the opposite of a casino,” at www.bankers-anonymous.com.

 *Featured/top image: The Fremont Experience: “I’m the one with the shirt on.” Photo by Michael Taylor.

Related Stories:

Tourism Grows to $13B Economic Impact

Exploring San Antonio’s ‘Exploding Urban Core’

Do Horse Drawn Carriages Belong on San Antonio’s Streets?

‘American Venice’ Explores Complete History of the River Walk

Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor lives in the King William neighborhood of San Antonio and writes at www.bankers-anonymous.com on financial topics as a recovering hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs bond salesman....