What’s with all the hipsters trying to gentrify downtown?

Wow, you must be bursting at the temples now that Zappos is coming. And while I’m dismayed that you actually used the term “hipster” in 2011, I will entertain your passive-aggressive query.

Vocal members of the anti-gentrification movement (the nascent anti-hipster hipsters, if you will) rail against downtown redevelopment in general, and Fremont East in particular, by posturing that the Emergency Arts building was once a free medical clinic for indigent residents—a clinic chased out for coffee and art and a turntable spinning Gerry Rafferty. The implication? Fremont Street is a place for the underprivileged, and any efforts to improve the area displace the struggling with middle-class Trustafarian conceits.

Never mind that Emergency Arts was never a free medical clinic (it was a Fremont Medical Center) and that the building started its life as a J.C. Penney department store.

Fremont Street and its offshoots were once the bustling core of commerce in Las Vegas. Woolworth’s, Cornet and local fave Ronzone’s had locations there. Dozens of smaller outlets (GallenKamp’s and Florsheim shoes, Rex Bell’s Western wear store, Bond’s Jewelers) did, too, as well as cafés and first-run theaters. Downtown commanded this community role until 1968, when Irwin Molasky built the Boulevard Mall adjacent to his swanky (and today resurgent) golf course neighborhood Paradise Palms. Fremont waved bye-bye to stores and shoppers (which migrated to Molasky’s luxurious suburban development), and the downturn started. By the time the Meadows Mall opened in 1978, it was goodbye Penney’s, hello porno theaters.

So, after decades of decline that soured the soul of Las Vegas into a scary urban caricature, I wouldn’t classify the repurposing of vacant buildings as bad gentrification. Rather, Fremont East’s rebound counts as the start of the re-establishment of a productive and positive urban environment. Yes, downtown needs a full-size grocer, more retail to complement the new bars and restaurants, and a community-minded approach to deal with the inevitable culture clash. But those will come, as will a diverse population of productive residents. Besides, who needs porno theaters when we have the Internet?

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It’s tough for me to write about websites like Draw a Stickman without giving away the thing that makes them so wonderful. Even if I were to describe it to you, it wouldn’t be as much fun as clicking over to the site, drawing a stickman using your mouse and following the instructions that pop up. You don’t have to be a great artist to enjoy the minor masterpiece that unfolds. You only have to have been 10 years old and stuck in a boring classroom, with only a No. 2 pencil and a Pee Chee folder to create a means of escape.

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