Downtown Las Vegas goes big

A band of visionaries is pushing past the glitz and looking toward the future. There’s this thing called downtown. And it’s blowing up
Wayne Curtis

At a company-wide meeting in fall 2012, Hsieh took the stage with four other jeans-wearing Zappos execs. During an open question period, a young woman stood and praised the company for embracing Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest before other online retailers. “What’s the next big social media platform we should watch for?” she asked.

Hsieh paused for a moment, then answered. “Well, there’s this thing called downtown. It gets people together. It may seem crazy,” he said, “but five years from now it won’t.”

The next morning, I meet Hsieh for breakfast at Eat. Natalie Young is again circulating and greeting everyone, and the place is again brimming with diners, locals mostly.

Hsieh points through the window to a vacant lot across the street, where the Downtown Project is scheduled to break ground soon for Container Park. The public space will consist of a lawn for outdoor performances ringed by repurposed shipping containers where retailers and restaurants will set up shop. The park will serve as a place where businesses can try out new ideas that then move into other downtown spaces; some of the businesses will set up permanent homes in the park itself.

After breakfast, we walk several blocks to the Fashion Lab, a warehouse sparely furnished with sewing machines, design tables, and dress dummies. It’s also getting the support of the Downtown Project, with the goal of making it a space where independent designers can cluster, collaborate, and create.

We head over to an empty shell of a restaurant that the Downtown Project recently snapped up, then walk by a low-slung old motel. “We bought that too,” Hsieh says. There’s a man on the roof wrangling a long tape measure. Hsieh notices him and laughs. The building came with no plans or schematics, he says, so they’re trying to figure out what exactly they bought before coming up with ideas for what to do with it.

Which strikes me as a perfect way to understand downtown Las Vegas today. It’s a city plotting a future and sketching out a blueprint as it goes, fueled by boundless optimism about what lies ahead.

WHAT TO DO IN DOWNTOWN VEGAS

Skip the circus of the Strip for the soul of downtown.

The Mob Museum. Of course Vegas has always had its share of wiseguys named Tony who’ve showed a sudden interest in the town. The story of gangs and mobsters springs to life at the interactive Mob Museum, three floors of artifacts (or evidence?) from the days of Al Capone all the way up to Whitey Bulger. $20; 300 E. Stewart Ave.; themobmuseum.org

Smith Center for the Performing Arts. In terms of iconic presence, the art deco–style Smith Center feels like the city cousin to the Hoover Dam. The new state-of-the-art entertainment venue cost close to a half-billion dollars and features four separate performance spaces. This is where you go off the Strip for Broadway shows and Yo-Yo Ma. Next up: The Discovery Children’s Museum has relocated next to the center and plans to reopen in March. 361 Symphony Park Ave.; thesmithcenter.com

The Beat Coffeehouse. Two blocks from the Fremont Street Experience, the Beat Coffeehouse energizes downtown’s cool crowd with sturdy joe, sandwiches, and a browse space that includes a vintage vinyl store and a warren of three dozen creative businesses, including galleries and artist studios. 520 Fremont St.; 702/385-2328.

The Neon Museum. If the history of Las Vegas is written in neon, the Neon Museum is its Old Testament. It features 200 donated and rescued pieces of electric heraldry—including signage from the Flamingo and Stardust casinos. The La Concha Visitors’ Center leads you to the outdoor Neon Boneyard, which tells the remarkable story of commercial daring that gave rise to old Vegas. $18; 770 Las Vegas Blvd. N.; neonmuseum.org

Downtown3rd Farmers Market. Not every leafy morsel of organic goodness comes here in the back of a FedEx truck. The Friday morning Downtown3rd Farmers Market takes over a repurposed transit terminal next to the Mob Museum. Local producers sell jerky, jams, honey, mushrooms, and more. You’ve never gnawed on greens from the Moapa Valley, 50 miles north of Vegas? It’s your lucky day. 9–2 Fri; Casino Center Blvd. at Stewart Ave.; downtown3rdfarmersmarket.com

El Cortez Hotel & Casino. Billed as Las Vegas’ oldest continuously operating casino, El Cortez recently treated itself to a $32 million facelift, adding upscale cabana suites across the street and refreshing its old-timey casino bar. But make no mistake: Nostalgia will always be the main amenity at the onetime Bugsy Siegel haunt, embodied by 92-year-old former owner Jackie Gaughan, who lives upstairs in a penthouse suite. From $37; 3-night min.; elcortezhotelcasino.com

Trifecta Gallery. The arts district just south of downtown occupies a sprawling, once-charmless 18-block area that bustles with galleries, museums, bars, and other hallmarks of urban life. Set on the ground floor of the multiuse Arts Factory, Trifecta Gallery has won acclaim for its diverse and locally focused programming. (Sample show: artist Kristen Peterson’s still-life panoramas of Updikean middle-class misery, done in pipe cleaners.) Visit during First Fridays to explore from gallery to bar and back, meeting the denizens of the new downtown. 107 E. Charleston Blvd.; 18b.org

Page