Two guys are walking up Stewart Avenue. One is wearing skinny jeans; the other has a cloth bag in his hand with green vegetables flopping out the top. They’ve been shopping at the weekly farmers market next to the Mob Museum, the parking lot of which is full and guarded by a uniformed officer.
At Stewart and Las Vegas Boulevard, they pass the empty, crescent-faced former City Hall. Renovation begins this month to turn it into Zappos’ headquarters, a hive for more than 1,000 employees. The two young men are headed home—perhaps to the trendsetting Ogden high-rise. They cross the Boulevard and head south, then disappear in foot traffic.
A couple of blocks away, on Fremont and Seventh streets, the old Motel 6 is closed and surrounded by a chain-link fence. It has just been bought. The new owners—the Downtown Project, founded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh—haven’t said what they’re going to build after they demolish the motel this month. When they closed the deal, they told the Las Vegas Sun that it may become residential and retail units made out of railroad storage containers—creative, practical.
Each day, another piece of this new era falls into place—choice bits of history are preserved, others destroyed, and new contexts arise. If you stand here at the fenced-off Motel 6, next to faded racks of porn and across the street from the bustling Beat coffeehouse, you feel like you’re right in the thick of history—of this modernizing, or post-modernizing, of downtown. When you look west, across the tops of Fremont East’s bars, you see the huge new signage on the side of what was once known as Fitzgerald’s and is now called The D Las Vegas—something old made new, different. Even when you look east, you see the wave moving down Fremont. More motor inns that had become flophouses are fenced off, waiting for their next incarnation. The expanded bus lane—finished this year—is freshly paved and spotted with sleek silver-seated bus shelters.
At Fremont and Eastern, the Blue Angel Motel is being prepped for demolition, a familiar Vegas finale for a storied site. Betty Willis’ iconic Blue Angel figurine herself will be saved, polished up and placed in front of 91,000 square feet of new entertainment and retail space at the intersection’s Las Vegas Gateway Center. Selective preservation, re-contextualization.
Here now, though, in the blocks between Seventh and Eastern, are some people who have been forgotten about somewhere else before: An elderly woman leans on an empty grocery cart as she walks near 11th. Two women who were helped out of homelessness by a nonprofit are housed at the Sunflower Apartments at 13th. A man digs through a dumpster near the Traveler’s Inn, where a senior resident who was recently widowed waits for a charity to deliver food to her home. The Siegel Suites advertises, “Live Here, Eat Free.”
The heyday charm of Fremont’s motor inns faded long ago, leaving this crumbling—and dangerous—refuge for the disenfranchised. But one wonders whether our commitment to preservation and re-contextualization will extend to these members of the community, too. Where will they go, and how will they be treated? Perhaps this historical wave of creative energy—and capital—can embrace that challenge as well.