As Las Vegas’s historic Westside faces change, residents ask, who benefits?
By Nate Berg
At the start of a three-day design charrette in a small Las Vegas community center, one of the first questions Steven Clarke, ASLA, asked the 100-person crowd was how many had participated in a design charrette before. “About 80 percent of them raised their hands,” says Clarke, a fair-haired 45-year-old from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was new to this group of people, many of whom weren’t particularly happy to be doing another charrette. The purpose of the current exercise was to focus on the historic Westside neighborhood of Las Vegas, which has been a marginalized African American neighborhood since the early 20th century. Many of the community members who had gathered wanted to know what would be different this time around, Clarke says. The skepticism quickly boiled into anger. Some demanded to know how the charrette process would do anything to create jobs in the neighborhood. Others demanded to know how much Clarke was being paid, and by whom. “It got extremely tense,” he says. “It was probably the most challenging charrette I’ve faced in my career.”
The Westside was once the healthy heart of the city’s African American community. Today the area is largely vacant, a wasteland of urban disinvestment. The neighborhood’s blocks hold more than 200 empty lots and dozens of abandoned buildings and burned-out houses. The main commercial strip is a ghost town. Its few businesses—a minimarket, a barbecue joint, a clothing shop—are modest, and foot traffic is all but nonexistent. Down a side street, residents of an apartment building are hosting what looks like a regular sidewalk sale of old vacuum cleaners and electronics. A few blocks away, a middle-aged sex worker sits on a curb and halfheartedly propositions the few cars that drive past.
Just on the other side of intersecting freeways, less than half a mile away, is downtown Las Vegas, an investment hot spot where hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring in to real estate projects and neighborhood revitalization efforts. The founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, has invested $350 million in real estate as part of his Downtown Project. Nearby, a new public space, Symphony Park, features a performing arts center, a children’s museum, and a brain health clinic designed by Frank Gehry. Next to that is the Las Vegas Medical District, where more than a dozen major medical, educational, commercial, and housing projects are currently planned. The office of the city councilman representing the area believes it’s only a matter of time before that investment crosses the freeway and comes to the Westside. Despite this proximity—and its location at almost the exact center of the sprawling desert metropolis—the Westside is seemingly abandoned and largely closed for business.
“You didn’t just wake up one morning and everything was gone. It happened over time,” says Hannah Brown, who moved to the Westside with her family as a child in the 1940s. As a young woman, she bought her first home just across the border from the Westside’s core, in a middle-class housing development catering to African Americans that was designed by the African American architect Paul Revere Williams. As happened among many of her contemporaries, better opportunities soon led Brown out of the Westside and out of Las Vegas. Eventually she came back and retired, but lives a 20-minute drive from the Westside. Brown says that although many people have left the Westside, its community is strong and retains a sense of ownership over the neighborhood. “When I say ownership, that’s from the heart,” she says. “And that’s the ownership that I have.”
Back in the 1950s the Westside was a prosperous center of African American culture with a burgeoning middle class. But that period turned out to be the neighborhood’s peak. In the decades since, economic development has been almost nonexistent. Many people left if they got a chance. Those who still call the neighborhood their own blame the disregard of the city, politicians, and developers who weren’t willing to take a risk.
“If it was any other city in the United States, I think it would be this thriving neighborhood with developers just fighting over it,” says Clarke. He’s a landscape architect and led the design charrette in his role as director of the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) Downtown Design Center. In certain ways he’s happy that developers haven’t fought over the Westside just yet. After so many halted efforts, he hopes the design charrettes he’s led are helping people in the neighborhood finally see new possibilities for it in a new community plan. But many in the neighborhood remain skeptical about what the Westside can become and whether any new plans are just opening the doors to displacement and gentrification. “There’s quite a lot going on in terms of historic layers,” Clarke says. “But there’s a potential for the neighborhood to be something very unique.”
“It was never up to par, even from the beginning,” says Claytee White, the director of the UNLV Oral History Research Center. White has conducted interviews with longtime and former residents of the Westside, and has published a history of the African American experience in Las Vegas. This history, she says, has weighed heavily on the Westside.
When African Americans began moving to the city in large numbers in the late 1920s, segregation and restrictive covenants in the city’s core funneled them west across the tracks into what became known as the Westside. Plentiful jobs from the construction of the Boulder Dam and during World War II brought even more African Americans to the city, and by the 1950s the Westside was home to local businesses, prominent churches, and a vibrant entertainment scene that included the Moulin Rouge, the city’s first racially integrated casino. But after the city desegregated in 1960 and a later consent decree finally allowed nonwhites to work better casino industry jobs, many of the neighborhood’s residents gradually dispersed and the area fell into a spiral of disinvestment.
There are some signs of life. On Sundays, the neighborhood floods with nearly 18,000 parishioners of the roughly 30 churches in the area. Though the population today is skewing Latin American, the African American churches define the neighborhood’s culture and footprint. On a recent Friday afternoon, traffic was jammed at the parking lot of the Second Baptist Church, where a funeral was taking place. A few blocks away, another crush of cars was piling toward the Masjid As-Sabur mosque. It’s not the model of a thriving economy, but at least there’s a pulse.
The city funded the design charrette to try to inject new life into the neighborhood. But many remain skeptical about the intentions of the local and state governments. “They continually bring us projects that don’t include us,” says a local activist, Trish Geran. The most unwelcome urban intervention in recent history was the 2008 widening of Interstate 15, one of the freeways that border the historic Westside. As part of the project, the Nevada Department of Transportation closed the F Street Underpass, a main connection between the Westside and downtown, without the neighborhood’s input or notice. Geran launched a group to protest what many saw as an effort to further isolate the African American community. The group built a strong coalition and marched to city hall. Eventually the political establishment was persuaded, and F Street was reopened in 2014.
A city council member, Ricki Barlow, who represents the area, recognized that tension and pushed for this latest planning effort to give the community more of a sense of control over the neighborhood. The furor in response to the F Street closure was a major instigation to act, says a special assistant to Barlow, Joseph Mitchell.
The F Street dispute “became, I believe, this psychological barrier to the community and the local government working together. And it still persists to this day,” Mitchell says. “The idea behind this historic Westside plan was, how do we change the narrative and the discussion so that everyone can look at working together? This area, which essentially is downtown, should be and could be grafted into the discussion.”
The Downtown Design Center started its investigation of the Westside in January 2015, with grant funding from the Commission for the Las Vegas Centennial and support from Barlow’s office. “Since 1996, there have been four studies done in the area, and they all appear to have been sitting on the shelf,” says Clarke, who had just taken over the Downtown Design Center in December 2014. “I didn’t want this fifth study to be another that sat on the shelf.”
With a class of undergraduate architecture and landscape architecture students, Clarke led a detailed study of the neighborhood’s history and current conditions. A few weeks in, they held their first meeting with a handful of residents. Then, in March, the Downtown Design Center hosted the three-day design charrette, inviting anyone from the community to provide ideas and input on what the neighborhood needs. Clarke also recruited a team of design professionals to help.
For the first two days of the design charrette, Clarke and his team basically just listened to the community’s concerns—where economic development could be concentrated, what parts of the neighborhood needed preservation, what parts needed demolition. The students’ freshness made them a perfect sounding board. “They were very good at getting yelled at and questioned by the community,” Clarke says.
Beyond the overarching suspicion about the planning process, the community was especially concerned about any approach that would undo or push out the neighborhood’s African American heritage.
“We don’t want our history killed. We don’t want the blood, sweat, and tears that had gone into what made our community great erased,” says Shondra Summers-Armstrong, who’s lived in the community since the 1990s. “We know things change. We’re pretty okay with that. We know it’s not going to be the same as it was. But no one wants to be erased. No one.”
“When we first started, it was night and day, and [community members] weren’t liking anything that we were presenting,” says Stanton Southwick, ASLA, the principal of the Las Vegas-based Southwick Landscape Architects and one of the design professionals involved in the charrette. “As we worked through it over those three days, we were able to show them some of the new unique things that could come in and still preserve what they wanted to see preserved there, and just make their neighborhood so much better.”
Three plans were presented to the public on the final day of the charrette. The ideas included the revival of a historic commercial strip of Jackson Street, building a parking garage for churchgoers, and turning the Moulin Rouge casino site into a technical college. The students then turned those ideas into a cohesive plan, and then Clarke and a team of researchers further refined the plan into a professional plan.
The HUNDRED Plan for the Historic Westside Community was released to the public in January. It proposes eight “big moves” to bring back the neighborhood, including encouraging mixed-use infill along its corridors and edges, implementing a Complete Streets strategy, and reinventing the Moulin Rouge casino site as an entertainment district.
One rendering shows a gateway plaza, with a reclaimed sign from a defunct motel near the Moulin Rouge site declaring “Welcome to the Historic Westside.” Another shows a revitalized Jackson Street, with ground-floor retail, second-floor housing, bike lanes, and street trees. Another shows historically inspired cottage housing, with large front porches along the sidewalk that are intended to spur neighborly interactions.
“Those charrettes began to bring hope again,” says Claytee White, the historian. “But there’s one missing component. And that’s money.”
Joseph Mitchell, the city councilman’s special assistant, says investment in the area is inevitable. He wants to see the investment and redevelopment happening downtown make its way to the Westside—but in a manner that’s aligned with the desires of the community. “Smart investors, they see the value of what it can be, not what it is,” Mitchell says.
In June, the city council approved the 2035 Downtown Master Plan, a document aimed at guiding the development of downtown and its surrounding areas. The plan for the historic Westside was added into that master plan as an appendix, which Clarke says will help put it into motion. As the city updates its zoning in the master plan’s area, parts of the historic Westside will be rezoned to enable the kind of mixed use and commercial development its residents have been calling for. These changes won’t happen overnight, but Clarke says having the plan as an official city council-approved document will help ensure that its ideas for the neighborhood are included in future development.
Whether that kick-starts a renaissance on the Westside remains to be seen. For now, some change is happening. The historic Westside Grammar School, built in 1923, is currently undergoing a $12.5 million renovation that will turn it into offices and community space. The Tenaya Creek Brewery is renovating a 13,000-square-foot building across the street from the Moulin Rouge site to house its craft brewing operation and tap room. And in May, a group of investors broke ground on a $100 million renovation of the Moulin Rouge itself, with plans to reopen the historic casino and hotel in 2019. These projects are distinct signs that something is happening in the neighborhood, and there’s hope they can spark more investment and activity on the Westside.
“Vegas is known for these massive, silver-bullet projects. They come in and build these huge projects. And there’s nothing like that happening on the Westside,” Clarke says. “It’s one of those neighborhoods that’s going to need a series of catalyst projects in order to create this critical mass.”
Though many on the Westside know new development is needed, some worry about whether the community’s vision will be part of any developers’ projects. “They’ll be bringing their own plans, not restoring mine,” says Hannah Brown, whose Westside roots date back to the 1940s. There’s also some concern that any new development could wind up displacing the community the HUNDRED Plan was intended to help. “I’m not saying that’s what I want to see, but I think realistically that land isn’t going to sit empty,” Brown says.
Mitchell says part of the plan calls for the creation of a community development corporation to guide the plan’s implementation and make sure it aligns with the community’s goals. He’s building up the board of that CDC now, and expects it to include prominent Las Vegas businesspeople, as well as representatives from UNLV, the Downtown Project, and the Urban Land Institute. It will also include Westside landowners, church representatives, and some residents who’ve lived in the neighborhood for decades. “I believe [residents] are the most critical voice to bring to the discussion, that we’re not just about development; we’re about preserving the identity and character of the community as well as embracing and accepting a need for change,” Mitchell says.
Clarke is confident the CDC approach will ensure locals have some control over the future of their neighborhood. It’s the part of the new plan that differs from those of the past, and what he hopes will guarantee some power being put back into the hands of community members. “Based on my experience with the Westside community, they will have a voice whether the developer wants it or not,” he says. “They are very vocal. And so they will have a say in what’s going to happen in their community. I don’t doubt that at all. More than any other neighborhood that I’ve done work in, this community will band together to get what they want. And they will fight for it.”
Nate Berg is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
Credit: UNLV Downtown Design Center.