Hardscrabble Days

Adversity and perseverance in the Arts District

I was not aware that Wash-a-Rama was the home of the $1.25 fluff and fold. But here I am, on Casino Center Boulevard, a block east of Main Street, a place that sounds like it ought to be the home of at least something. So why not fluff? Why not fold? Wash-a-Rama shares space with the Turning Point Café. The sign above the café door reminds me that Jesus Saves. There is no one in the café, no one in Wash-a-Rama, no one else on the sidewalk. It is 112 degrees. The sky seems bored with being blue. Something is burning.

I scribble in my notebook. When I look up, a silver Honda Ridgeline has pulled alongside me. The car is new and fresh, the man behind the wheel is gray-haired and clean-cut, and looks the way you’d imagine success looked if success still looked like anything in particular. The man is staring at me. At least I think he is staring at me. I returned to this city less than a week ago. Air in Oregon was cool. Life in Oregon was slow. Las Vegas, this hometown of mine, this memory-stained T-shirt I’ve never had a problem slipping into, suddenly feels laced with thorns. I walk past the Ridgeline. I do not make eye contact. And then I turn back. Nevada plates. They read “PERILS.”

Something is burning in the Arts District. Two days ago, on July 11, a transformer exploded. It blew out windows. On these blocks they’ve tried for years to roll back visions of boarded shop fronts. Now there are boards on shop fronts. They will make the boards go away, I know, these hardscrabble culture farmers who put down stakes here when everyone else was pulling them up. Effort is what happens after setbacks. These people are all about the inspired management of chaos. They know how to use discarded material, blind alleys, forgotten time. Just after the explosion, the Opportunity Village Donation Center burned down. It was full of discarded material. It is two days later. Something is burning once more.

There are Stardust stars on the Casino Center sidewalk between Colorado and California avenues. Sidewalk art always smacks of good intentions. Where does it all lead? Main Street is burning. The air tastes acrid. The burning building had once housed art. Now it houses something that tastes terrible when incinerated and released into the air. Twelve-twelve Casino Center is home to the Law Offices of Osvaldo E. Fumo. Nobody is there. Smoke rises over Main.

I talk to a man outside a flower shop. He has been here three years from Chicago. He takes explosions and fires in stride. This is an urban space, but the act of creation here requires a different sort of spiritual effort than the transformation of gritty Midwestern warehouses into artist lofts. Grit is a mere click away from art. This neighborhood, though once a commercial district for a rail town, never quite made it to grit. It went straight from life to death without picturesque decay. Creating the Arts District has demanded not merely repurposing, but re-seeding upon the salted fields of Hannibal. Urban renewals elsewhere speak of hope and labor. Here, the word faith takes on its true weight. In this one-story world, beneath an empty sky, artists built themselves a Factory, a District, a community.

The smoke is in my clothes. The moon-rover vans from Channels 3 and 13 are parked just beyond the yellow tape. Reporters dab their brows, talk to bystanders, lean against walls waiting for word from the fire department PIO. I look at the Brett Wesley Gallery in its pristine new building, and the Trifecta Gallery in the old Arts Factory, a building gleefully haunted by the possible former uses of its man-size kiln. Brian Porray’s work puts me in mind of unexpected gateways, dynamited passages to impossible places. The fire outside has been doused. The rust-brown facade of Alex Rivas Upholstery has been blackened. The Arts District lives to fight another day. I pass the Wash-a-Rama once more. The back wall is decorated with Alex Huerta’s 2007 mural. The word “ART” turns a corner and lends its “T” to “Truth.” Across the street, presiding over the district like a dark angel, is a Flood District billboard featuring the license plate “NO1WINS.”

Maybe so. But around here, they play on.

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