B.B. King and Tyrone Davis once played to adoring crowds at the New Town Tavern’s Star Lite Room, but those days are a distant memory. The ticket booth, where fans lined up to see the latest blues artists, is empty. The theater lacks a roof, and 1960s-era chairs are stacked in piles near the stage, exposed to the elements. The crowds are gone.
The New Town Tavern in 1960.
The cost to reconstruct the Star Lite Room’s roof was $100,000 in 2003.
Decades after its heyday, the Town Tavern, located at 600 Jackson Ave., is a ghost of its former self. The Star Lite Room, once a haven for black entertainers who were banned from casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard, closed its doors after water damage caused the roof to collapse in 2003.
Elijah Green’s family has run the Town Tavern for 44 years, through good times and bad. Green’s staff of 125 employees has dwindled to 12. The table games are gone, but the casino’s slot machines are still in operation. The Sunrise Café, where neighborhood residents would meet for breakfast before work, closed last year.
“It’s really been a nightmare for me to see it go from what it was and decline like it has,” Green says.
The center table at the Sunrise Café is where a group of concerned Westside residents meet at 7 a.m. each Saturday to discuss the future of the Town Tavern, which first opened in 1955, and the neighborhood as a whole. The meetings are led by Katherine Duncan, president of the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce, who first envisioned the historic Harrison Boarding House, at 1001 F St., as the focal point of the newly formed Uptown Community Development Association. But it quickly became clear that the Town Tavern and Jackson Avenue should be at the top of the neighborhood’s priority list.
Jackson Avenue was once known as the Black Strip, a place where “you could just walk to everything,” says Trish Geran, author of Beyond the Glimmering Lights (Stephens Press, 2006), a history of African-Americans in Las Vegas. The street teemed with bars, clubs and lounges, but there was also a nearby library, beauty salon, shoeshine stand and gas station. Westside residents want to revive the street, now lined with churches and vacant lots, and turn it back into the community epicenter it once was.
The community development association, which began meeting in December, first tackled the cluttered Star Lite Room as a community service project to coincide with Earth Day.
“We realized that no one’s going to come into our community and help us if we don’t try to help ourselves first,” Duncan says. “We have a tendency to point our finger: ‘Why don’t they do this? Why don’t they do that?’ Now we’re asking, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ We want to put ‘we’ back in the Westside and get the people that have a stake in the future of that neighborhood to roll up their sleeves and get it done.”
Mel Green, principal of Las Vegas-based firm KME Architects, contributed pro bono exterior renderings of the Town Tavern’s renovation for the development association to show government officials and area residents. Duncan hopes the Town Tavern will be completely renovated in six months, though that is unlikely to happen since the association first needs to obtain nonprofit status so it can solicit donations. Elijah Green was recently denied a business loan to make improvements to the property, and though the property is eligible to apply for the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency’s Visual Improvement Program, the agency will only contribute up to $50,000 in matching funds. Elijah Green currently has no funds to match.
Elijah Green says the price tag to reconstruct the Star Lite Room’s roof was $100,000 back in 2003 when it collapsed. It is unclear what the final cost of renovating the Town Tavern would be. Mel Green says he must first finish the interior design plans for the building before giving a cost estimate.
The community development association plans to hold a series of fundraisers and events to spark the neighborhood’s involvement in the Town Tavern’s renovation, including a black folk art festival in the works for June.
“We have to find the resources for the owners because they have not been able to find any resources to get them out of the dilemma that they’re in,” Duncan says. “As the Chamber of Commerce, we’re putting them with the people we believe can assist them, help them get their business plan together and show them a future plan, because they had lost hope.”
Westside residents hope the Town Tavern does not share the fate of the Moulin Rouge, the first desegregated casino in Las Vegas that was on tap for redevelopment before fires destroyed the property. Councilman Ricki Barlow, who represents Ward 5, points to the redevelopment of the Westside School as a indicator of the city’s commitment to preserving West Las Vegas’ historic buildings.
“Where in the past, Las Vegas as a whole has been a sea of explosion or implosion, now we are working toward being the city of historical preservation,” Barlow says. “The Westside School is a prime example of the city of Las Vegas’ efforts to do just that.”