The Bones Beneath the Beauty

The Charleston Underpass turns 50

Like Nelson Algren’s lady with the broken nose, the Charleston Underpass isn’t much to look at—but few places feel more real, and so we love her anyway. There’s always plenty of traffic rushing underneath. There are only a few pedestrians; sometimes there’s a train, like there is today, shortly after noon. The Union Pacific locomotive pulls in just past the bridge to change personnel—three guys with green vests and coolers jump off, and their replacements climb aboard. A railroad cop monitors the handoff from atop a small tower, and then the train resumes its course with a long sigh. The giant red Kline boxcars stream by for the next five minutes, while the diagonal shadows of power lines gently slice the side of each car.

Las Vegas doesn’t have much in the way of soaring bridges, elaborate subways or grand train stations. But we do have that one unsung entryway into the arts district and into downtown. The Charleston Underpass—by which we really mean the marriage of the bridge and the road that runs beneath it—celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The bridge carries Union Pacific freight trains over Charleston Boulevard; the boulevard itself was one of the most important arteries of old Vegas commerce, and remains a crucial part of the grid to this day. Together, bridge and boulevard speak more of workaday Las Vegas reality than high culture, but as the years pass, one starts to sense a certain humble beauty in the bricks.

The underpass is just east of Interstate 15 on Charleston. Drive just past South Grand Central Parkway (the road to the Las Vegas Premium Outlets), and Charleston descends under the bridge. When you dip into the shadows, you’re traveling the route of some of Las Vegas’ infamous floods, a space that has been revised and reengineered and perhaps even fixed. There’s not much to mark the moment, just three Art Moderne concrete panels affixed to the side of the bridge that note, “Charleston Underpass, 1960.” A fourth panel is missing.

Once the panels have caught your eye, though, they have a way of staying with you. There’s something solemn about the inscription that, combined with the mass of the bridge, gets you thinking about Las Vegas in terms of decades, maybe even centuries, rather than mere months. It is a reminder that infrastructure quietly undergirds urban civilization, and should be built to last. Perhaps because of this, the underpass provides a suitable entrance to the arts district—much better than the blink-and-you’ll miss them, 45-foot high pair of paintbrushes the city commissioned for that same purpose. Infrastructure almost always marks the boundaries within a city better than tacked-on public art gestures.

The underpass and railroad bridge are small but integral pieces of the grit that gives the stretch of the city between downtown and the Strip so much of its character. The walkway under the bridge runs well above the street, giving the space underneath a claustrophobic feeling. In other words, watch your head. Just east of the underpass stands the slick neon sign for Holsum Lofts, while on the west the roadway passes the outdoor yard of the Artistic Ironworks, as well as stores selling law enforcement gear and carpets. (“Carpets Galore,” reads the sign, “we guarantee to beat them all.”) Nearby, a tall Union Pacific sign bears the company slogan: Building America.

The underpass was actually built twice. The original bridge was built by Union Pacific in 1942; construction of the original underpass began in November 1948 and was competed in February 1950, at a cost of $744,000. A second bridge was added in 1960, around the same time that the underpass was widened. But this latter job proved to be a headache. A six-month construction schedule ballooned into a 15-month ordeal. It finally opened, in 1961, “to the bitter cheers of a small group of businessmen” whose businesses had suffered during the delay, according to a Review-Journal article. One of the big hang-ups? A simple repaving job was stalled because the contractor couldn’t procure the right gravel. Nevertheless, through various tweaks and revisions, the 1960-61 underpass and bridge remain with us today.

Mention the underpass to a longtime Las Vegan, and the instant word-association response is “flood zone.” For decades, when it rained, the underpass would almost completely fill up with water. Naturally, this deterred few motorists from trying to cross anyway. “When I came on in ’78 it flooded real bad,” says Ted Snodgrass, a lieutenant with Metro. “The only thing you used to see was that the damn thing would flood all the time, and cars would get stuck.” The city completed a storm drain project a decade ago, and the water flow has improved remarkably—Mayor Oscar Goodman apparently once offered to chain himself to the underpass to assure motorists that flooding was a thing of the past.

The underpass is a part of what Snodgrass calls the “gray zone” of tracks and highway infrastructure, the no-man’s-land network of spaces that provide shelter for the homeless as the world zips by. It is neither private space nor the public square; it is the place that is never a destination. Such spaces don’t get much attention in our high-speed, image-saturated lives, but it’s worthwhile to reflect—if only for that instant before you pass into the shadows beneath the bridge—on the role of public infrastructure in the life of the city. We may appreciate the new sheen of much of Las Vegas, but the real backbone of our city—and no small measure of its poetry—is to be found in the structures that quietly do their work, resisting attention and demolition, providing the backdrop for our daily grind and deepest dreams.