In the mid-2000s, downtown Henderson tried the classic gentrification tactic of recruiting the creative class to improve the aesthetic and commercial appeal of Water Street, offering practically free rent in the now-demolished, city-owned retail pads between Victory Road and Pacific Avenue.
First Friday was blossoming into an institution in Las Vegas’ Arts District, and the Henderson Redevelopment Agency had launched Third Thursday on Water Street. This was the way cities were supposed to save themselves: Go bohemian, then go bourgeois. It didn’t work. The fledgling Henderson art district never achieved critical mass. By 2010, Third Thursday had been merged with the city’s Friday-night ArtBeat cultural arts series at the Henderson Events Plaza.
Partially thanks to the city’s overestimation of the commercial real estate market just before the bubble burst, almost all of Water Street’s galleries and studios are gone. Only two remain: Elayne LaPorta Fine Arts—which sells pricey giclées and prints of folk art and Biblically inspired paintings by its late namesake—and the City Lights artists’ co-op gallery and headquarters, which has been relocated to a city-held building on Army Street, away from the main drag, sandwiched between an alleyway and a senior center.
“They attempted to do what they did in so many areas, to revise Old Town into an artist community,” says City Lights member Jim Longwell. “But if you don’t get the momentum going, it does not happen.”
City Lights has been a mainstay of Water Street since 2003, prior to the emergence of Third Thursday and the visible signs of redevelopment. Longwell says the co-op rents its current building “really cheap” from the city, allowing the nonprofit—its 501(c)(3) status is pending—to focus on its education initiatives and scholarship programs, as well as its sponsored events such as the Lake Las Vegas Art Fest. But the gallery itself—which exhibits work both by its members and by outside artists who rent space—doesn’t see much traffic on a daily basis.
That lack of traffic is a problem for Water Street businesses in general, but worse for art galleries, where bodies in the door—unlike at a restaurant or bakery—don’t necessarily translate into paying customers. That problem is compounded by a noticeable absence of the youthful energy typically found driving arts-based gentrification: Many of City Lights’ members, for example, are retirees, including Longwell, who made his home in Henderson after traveling around the country with his wife in a motor home.
Nonetheless, stalwarts such as the Coffee House’s Don Watkins remain certain that a strong arts presence in Old Town is essential to its re-emergence, insisting what the area needs are “shops that have art.” But if recent history is any indication, Watkins’ own in-house featured artists may be about as much Bohemia as Water Street can support for now.