Downtown Las Vegas--Different
Public Art, Music and a walking culture define the original home of Sin City, downtown Las Vegas
By Max Hartshorne
To most travelers, Las Vegas is a word that conjures up images--blinking slot machines, some of the largest resort hotels in the world, and the famous Vegas Strip.
But before the strip, before the city that holds more conventions than any other took its present form, there was already a city where smaller hotels and more modest gambling establishments were star attractions, downtown Las Vegas.
Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas.
Downtown is not very far from the famous Las Vegas Strip, at the end of Las Vegas Boulevard South. The 4 1/2 mile long strip is just a few miles from downtown, in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester, but it’s much different, as anyone who has been there can attest.
I spent some time in downtown Vegas in March 2016, what I found was a walkable city, overflowing with public art, with an exciting new energy partly injected by a $350 million private investment by the owner of an online shoe company and lots of live music--not just in the casinos, either.
When Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappo’s, was convinced to set up shop in downtown Las Vegas while having a beer in a bar in 2011, he went all in. Not willing to accept what was there, he bought up land and buildings to help create what he and others knew the city needed.
The company's headquarters is located in the former 10-story city hall building, and the influence of his "Zapponians" ripples throughout the city.
Hsieh also bought the former Golden Spike Casino and it's now housing for many of the people who work in the company's massive call centers, taking orders for shoes and other products 24 hours a day. You might not know this because it still has the signs of its former life as a casino, but instead of hotel rooms, it's now small apartments.
From an urban grocery store, to many new cafes and restaurants, to a health clinic, his Downtown Project has transformed the downtown into a vibrant, safe and fun center for both tourists and locals to thrive.
And so far it’s been private money that’s funded the resurgence. With more than 2000 employees, Tony’s people get a lot of suggestions…and often their answer is yes, with a check to fund the business until it gets off its feet.
The ultimate example of the Downtown Project's work is the Container Park, a collection of pre-built metal structures and shipping containers that provide short term leases for start up businesses. Among the successful ventures is a wedding chapel, and Ernie's BBQ, created by a Zappos employee who always wanted to have his own barbecue joint. Now he does, with a line out the door!
When people wanted to make the park more family friendly, they added a playground and picnic tables. Today there are 43 businesses in the Container park and new ones sprout up frequently.
Smaller Hotels and lots of Art
With a population of about 600,000 in the city, downtown Las Vegas is not overwhelming, and neither are the size of the hotels compared with the 5000-room MGM and the other famous resorts of the strip. As one Vegas Strip regular put it, “Trying to meet up with a friend in the lobby when your room is on the other side of a 5000-room hotel takes a very long time.”
We stayed at the Downtown Grand, and with 400 rooms, renovated completely in 2013, it has everything you’d want, including the blinking lights and blaring music of the casino. Hey we’re still in Vegas, remember?
The Grand features 24 hour restaurants in case you get hungry, and right across the street they own the Triple Georges Steakhouse, in case you win big and want a fine steak to celebrate.
There are many attractions in downtown Las Vegas that you don’t have to bet on, and might surprise you. One of them is the 18B Arts District, with incubator spaces that nurture the creativity of the artists and provide exhibitions for the public to view in former warehouses.
On a sunny morning we toured these 18 blocks of galleries where every time you turn a corner another public work of art awaits.
More than 20 antiques and vintage shops make up Antiques Alley, and the main hub of the district is the Arts Factory and Art Square, three remodeled former factory buildings with an outdoor art garden.
Whether it’s a gigantic Mad Max-esque green schoolbus with twenty-foot high aliens popping out of it, or a mural resembling something drawn by Andy Warhol, the art is everywhere.
The art never stops popping out, from cartoonish giant cat heads to complex murals to geometric shapes, it seems that no building is left without an artist’s touch to bring it to life.
Breakfast at Du-Pars
Part of what makes downtown Vegas fun are the many older institutions that still thrive here. One of these is Du-Pars, inside the Golden Gate Casino. This is the oldest casino in Las Vegas, it opened in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada and bragged about its electric lighting, (but no air conditioning in those days). It wasn't until 1931 that gambling was again legal in Nevada, and in 1937 the hotel re-opened as the Golden Gate.
Today Du-Pars is packed with people who want HUGE breakfasts, their pancakes are famous and gigantic. Nobody leaves this place hungry! On the walls of the Golden Gate Casino are images from the day Prohibition was lifted, bringing big smiles to everyone in Vegas.
While I was visiting the city I was fortunate that the Neon Reverb Music festival was taking place over the weekend. This festival takes place at seven different bars and music clubs all within easy walking distance downtown. With a pass that allowed access to all the shows, ($50) I took in five different musical shows, ranging from painful-to-listen-to strange punk to soulful singing--it covered the gamut.
The clubs were all different, one called the Bunkhouse down on the far end of Fremont, has a nice outdoor area with picnic tables and a food truck; another, called the Backstage Bar and Billiards was a cavernous room with plenty of dance space.
At the Beauty Bar, while the more popular deep house DJ music blasted up front, the music took place in an outdoor terrace, a completely different experience. This bar doubles as a hair salon during the day and a grooving joint full of dancers at night!
Las Vegas has always been the world's center for neon signs and gaudy sparkling visuals. But where do these treasures go when casinos are torn down, businesses closes and people move on? Many of the have been preserved on display in the city's outdoor Neon Museum.
Visitors can take a tour of a 6-acre neon boneyard where relics like the original Binions Casino sigh lie in various stages of repair at this museum.
You walk a pathway with a guide who shares many stories of these signs. Tours at night must be made in advance and cost $25 per person, you can also take a tour during the day for $18.
Hearing the history of each sign is a fascinating glimpse at this relatively young city. Though only six are still lit in their orginal neon, the museum uses colored spotlights to show off some of the older relics that no longer light up by themselves.
Downtown Las Vegas lost a great restauranteur when Kerry Simon died in 2015. Simon's legacy was made at the Hard Rock Casino and many other restaurants, and his spirit lives on at the Carson Kitchen, where a lively contingent descends each night to enjoy some of the quirky menu items like black rice with oxtail, bacon jam, fried chicken skin, and rainbow cauliflower. Out back there is a firepit and people hang out while they wait for tables at the popular restaurant.
Other restaurants including a sushi place and a planned new donut shop are located in the same building.
For something completely different (and very Vegas) we also enjoyed dinner at a new small restaurant with a Paris theme, called F. Pigalle. Here the specialty is fondue, that throw=back to the 1970s, which is simple and delicious. The twist here are the baby bottles that come with red or white wine in them. Kind of a hoot!
Brunch on the Patio
The next morning we had a delicious brunch right next door at Park on Fremont, where the outdoor terrace is a perfect place for a "patio pounder," a bottle of champagne with a side of OJ, and their Monte Cristo crunch French toast stuffed with bacon and melted cheese topped with powdered sugar. I chose the Huevos Rancheros with chorizo and their homemade chile sauce.
Fremont Street is the center of downtown Las Vegas, with its famous 400-foot long video ceiling and the zipline that whizzes tourists hanging from wires up above. There are still what you might expect in a town that permits carrying open drinks--lots of staggering drunks and many people you might choose to ignore while walking through what's called The Fremont Experience. The cops here, we were told, don't mess around, so be careful!
Fortunately, you can avoid the drunks and on Fremont, you'll find many, many fun attractions including a variety of music venues, a record store, and all manner of restaurants.
One which we avoided was the Heart Attack Grill, where anyone over 350 lbs eats free, and the waitresses look like nurses. You can entertain yourself by viewing the patrons clad in hospital gowns gorging on their unhealthy offerings in the big picture windows!
The Mob Museum
Another fantastic attraction not to be missed if you visit downtown Las Vegas is the four-story Mob Museum. For anyone who is interested in crime, the history of the city, or in how law enforcement fights the bad guys, this big former courthouse has it all. The voluminous amount of photos, videos, and documents about famous mobsters, as well as bad guys recently in the news, like Mexican drug lord El Chapo, is very well presented and it's a fun way to pass an afternoon. Read more about the mob museum on Readuponit, the editor's blog.
The combination of the effects of multimillionaire Tony Hsieh investing such a big fortune into the city, and the end of the recession has meant spectacular growth for downtown Las Vegas, and it might not be like this forever. The 2000 employees of Zappos, like their founder, have embraced the city and for many this means a car-free, truly modern way of living.
The Downtown Project's Success Stories
For Natalie Young, who started a restaurant called EAT, funded by the Downtown Project, having access to capital has been the difference between her success as a restauranteur and not making it. Many other business owners, we were told, have been funded by the project and continue to open stores and other operations that bring needed services to the city.
A grocery store, for example and the health clinic and many others who have short-term leases at the Container park. Young people continue to seek jobs at Zappos, where a culture has been built around fantastic benefits and a deep level of caring about the wellbeing of their staff.
It's working, as any Zapponian would tell you and we met a bunch who love working for the company.
The Las Vegas Strip has always been a city of big dreamers. Now downtown Las Vegas can dream a little too.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.