What happens in retro Vegas...

Oct 15, 2012

by BRENDAN SHANAHAN

As a symbol of the rise and fall of Las Vegas, it is perhaps unfair to single out The Harmon, but it’s almost impossible not to. An elliptical blue-glass skyscraper shining in the desert heat, The Harmon was designed by Sir Norman Foster, who is arguably the world’s most famous architect. It was to be the signature tower of the CityCenter project, the largest privately funded construction project in US history, featuring buildings by top-flight architects adorned with $US40m ($38.4m) of contemporary art.


Then came the GFC. First, The Harmon was cut from 47 stories to 27. Later, defects were found in the building. Now it is slated for demolition; exactly when, nobody is sure. In the meantime, it sits in the middle of the Las Vegas strip, empty and wrapped in advertising, a reminder that until the fickle forces of international capitalism killed the party, Las Vegas was the fastest growing region in the US and, as Time magazine called it, “the new all-American city”.

Since the bust, Vegas has fallen on hard times. Unemployment is up, tourism is down and 70 per cent of homes are worth less than what was paid for them, giving the city a worse rate of foreclosure than Detroit. It seems a bleak picture of the so-called Entertainment Capital of the World, home to about 590,000 people.

Recently, however, Las Vegas has begun to experience an unlikely revival. A coalition of big business, local enthusiasts and state government has responded to the challenges of the city’s present by drawing on its past, reinvigorating Downtown Vegas, the true heart of the city, and turning this long-neglected area into one of the most promising post-recession developments in America.

The Las Vegas Strip familiar to many is, for the most part, a fairly recent invention. Amid the pirate ships and fake Venetian canals classic hotels, such as the Flamingo and Tropicana, remain, but most were destroyed to make way for the mega resorts of the 1990s and 2000s. Further to the north, around the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, hints of old Vegas still linger.

This is Downtown, where the city’s gambling industry was born and casinos such as The Golden Nugget, Binion’s, El Cortez and The Plaza recall the days of the Rat Pack, mafia boss Bugsy Siegel and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Today, commercial and
residential developments are creating an urban bar and restaurant scene while the nearby Arts District has galleries and artists’ spaces. Vintage clothing and furniture stores cater to a new, sophisticated class of resident and tourist looking for an alternative to the Strip’s frenetic commercialism or the blandness of the suburbs.

“When I became mayor, Downtown was really in a state of depression,” says local politician Oscar Goodman. “I decided that if I was going to have a cause it was to revive Downtown.”

As a three-term mayor of Las Vegas (1999-2011, now replaced by his wife, Carolyn), Goodman is one of the most recognisable figures in the city. A criminal lawyer, Goodman represented some of the biggest names in Vegas organised crime. His flamboyant antics are legendary: he brags about drinking a bottle of gin a day, has his own set of collectable figurines and played himself in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. He is also the face of an excellent new steakhouse in the revamped Plaza Hotel: Oscar’s, offering “Beef *Booze *Broads”.

“I was sitting with a casino executive,” says Goodman, recalling the day of the market crash. “He said, ‘Oscar, we’re going to the bank today to get a loan to develop part of the casino.’ He got a phone call. Comes back. He’s ashen. I thought somebody had died. He said, ‘They cut off our credit. There are no loans.’ It happened that fast.”

Despite economic uncertainty, and much opposition, Goodman pushed on with his program for Downtown, overseeing projects including the Smith Center, a concert hall and theatre venue that has given Vegas a dose of high culture to complement its low.
Perhaps Goodman’s greatest legacy, however, is The Mob Museum.

Housed in the ex-Downtown courthouse, the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement (its official name) ranks beside the Bellagio fountains and dancing white tigers as Las Vegas’ new must-see. It’s a superb look not only at the “colourful identities” who founded Las Vegas, but at the growth of organised crime across America. Exhibits include the wall from Chicago’s Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains.

“I had to fight people,” says Goodman on the foundation of the museum. “They didn’t want to admit that our history was unique. Many of our founding fathers in Las Vegas were involved in criminal activity. That was tough for a lot of people to swallow.”

The opposition to The Mob Museum is, perhaps, symptomatic of a town notorious for neglecting its history. Little in Las Vegas is safe from the wrecker’s ball – classic hotels such as the Stardust and the Sands were imploded with relatively little opposition, their memory preserved only in the Neon Museum, a haunting collection of classic signs now preserved as a record of city history.

Not all locals are indifferent to Vegas’ past. “Uncle” Jack LeVine is a blogger, Vegas history enthusiast and the only real estate agent in town specialising in classic homes of the mid-century modern period. Most of his business is done within the older urban areas around Downtown, areas that fell into disrepair in recent decades but which are now being transformed by young professionals.

“The mid-’90s was the peak of the flight out of Downtown,” says LeVine. “At that time, the only people who were buying were gay guys. But then interest started to grow. We got the artists and the musicians moving in. People wanted these houses because they realised the art had gone out of architecture.”

Although the bottom fell out of the housing market, and prices remain stagnant, LeVine says the interest in “mid-mod” homes increased during the crisis as bargain hunters jumped on undervalued historic neighbourhoods such as the architect-designed Paradise Palms. It was helped along by a sudden pop-cultural shift, evidenced by the TV series Mad Men and the soul revival led by Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars. Nostalgia for America’s golden period is now found everywhere, from fashion to interior design to food.

“These forces continued to grow during the downturn. My business got bigger and bigger. I used to have to explain to people what ‘mid-century modern’ meant. I don’t have to any more.”

Seth Schorr is one of the new Vegas-bred entrepreneurs investing in Downtown. Their vision differs from previous developers who built huge, self-contained resorts on the Strip. Schorr sees in Downtown the potential for a true city centre, where locals and tourists mingle with mutual benefits. “This is about authenticity, whereas the Strip is about fantasyland,” says Schorr. “Downtown Las Vegas is unique [in] how much business owners cooperate. Everyone knows that for Downtown to succeed it’s got to be a collaborative effort.”

Schorr is developing The Downtown Grand on the site of the old Lady Luck, a Vegas icon fallen into disrepair. It will re-use older buildings on the site, preserving their vintage character. “It’s a perfectly good building. Knocking it down wouldn’t make sense in any other city. People say, ‘Oh, you’re just rebranding the Lady Luck.’ And I say, ‘No, it’s a totally new hotel.’ Only in Las Vegas do people [say]: ‘If you don’t knock it down, how is it a new hotel?’”

The Downtown Grand is just one of many hotel projects giving a new twist on old Vegas. The D Las Vegas is a slick revamp of Fitzgerald’s casino, complete with old-school, coin-operated slot machines. The city’s oldest hotel, The Golden Gate, has been expanded, and the much-loved El Cortez – whose Cabana Suites offer superb Vegas retro glam that sets the benchmark for Downtown accommodation – is undergoing a slow-but-steady refit.

Of all the movers and shakers in the new Vegas, it can be said that there is one whose influence is supreme. Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, an online retailer that grosses more than $US2b per annum. In 2004 Hsieh moved Zappos from San Francisco to Las Vegas. This year, in a deal brokered by Oscar Goodman before he left office, it will move again, this time from its suburban headquarters into the old Downtown City Hall building.

“Our aim is to make this the most community-focused big city in the world, in the place you’d probably least expect it,” says Hsieh. “Our hope is that if we do that and share what works and what doesn’t on the Downtown Project website then it will inspire others into revitalising themselves.”

The Downtown Project is Hsieh’s $US350m ($336m) personal investment. Over the next few years he will spend $US100m on land purchases, $US100m on high-density real estate development, $US50m investing in new small businesses, $US50 million on a start-up fund for tech businesses and $US50m in education, arts and culture. He aims to make Downtown Vegas the new hot spot of the creative industries and give Las Vegas a much-needed civic heart.

“Because there’s such a vacuum around it, the people who decide to stay here really, really care about community,” says Hsieh. “More so than any other place I’ve lived, including San Francisco.”

Hsieh’s influence will be crucial, but the area has such potential you can’t help but feel that with or without him, this will be one of the most exciting regions of post-recession America. “The word’s getting out about Downtown. We have the community feel of a small town, but the infrastructure to support 40 million visitors a year. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

STAY

El Cortez
600 East Fremont Street.
www.elcortezhotelcasino.com
Homely and hip, shabby and chic. From $US30 ($AUD29).

The Golden Nugget
129 East Fremont Street.
goldennugget.com
The refit has scrubbed away a little of the charm, but it’s still the premium option Downtown. Old-school glamour with all mod cons. From $US49 ($AUD47).

Plaza Las Vegas
1 South Main Street.
www.plazahotelcasino.com
Evokes vintage Vegas, but fresh and modern. From $US29 ($AUD28).

EAT

Oscar’s Steakhouse
1 South Main Street.
plazahotelcasino.com/dining/oscars
Oscar Goodman makes regular appearances at this excellent Italian steakhouse at The Plaza hotel. Take in the best view in Vegas or chat over a cocktail with one of Oscar’s “broads”.

Golden Steer
308 West Sahara Avenue.
goldensteersteakhouselasvegas.com
It’s been here so long (1958) that Sammy Davis Jr is probably buried under a booth. The eponymous ruminant looms over Sahara Avenue like a pagan god of meat.

Sinatra 3131
Las Vegas Boulevard, South Las Vegas.
www.wynnlasvegas.com
The best “old school” restaurant in Vegas. Sinatra-themed (it has one of his Oscars) and superb Italian food.

DRINK

Mob Bar
201 North 3rd Street.
mobbarlv.com
Fun and classy, with flapper waitresses and silent movies.

Downtown Cocktail Room
111 Las Vegas Boulevard. South Las Vegas.
thedowntownlv.com
The swankiest of the new Downtown bars, dark and inviting with art-bedecked walls and perhaps the best cocktails in town.

Artifice
1025 First Street.
artificebar.com
A gaming-free club in the Arts District, with reasonable drinks and a flirty atmosphere.

The Lady Silvia
140 Hoover Avenue.
www.theladysilvia.com
No phone number and no sign. Knock and the door shall open. Inside it’s modern with an eclectic, retro twist. DJs spin unobtrusive tunes while locals sip martinis.

SEE

The Mob Museum
300 Stewart Avenue.
themobmuseum.org
A must-see, integrating traditional exhibits and new media to tell a fascinating story.

Fremont Street Experience
425 Fremont Street.
vegasexperience.com
A huge LED light canopy and stages with free nightly acts. Light shows are on the hour from 8pm.

Neon Museum
810 Las Vegas Boulevard.
+1 (702) 387 6366. neonmuseum.org
Includes the Neon Boneyard, a pop-art graveyard of fallen Vegas icons. Book ahead online for tours.

National Atomic Testing Museum
755 East Flamingo Road.
nationalatomictestingmuseum.org
Located near the University of Nevada, an insight into a little-known aspect of Vegas history. Rotating exhibits cover everything from “atomic” design to UFOs.

Source Qantas The Australian Way November 2012

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