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Fremont Street
Brent Holmes

Experience required?

Desert Companion

In 1995, the Fremont Street Experience canopy lit up. Did it help save Downtown or set it back? Twenty years later, the debate goes on

It’s Halloween night and Fremont Street under the canopy is cascading with energy. The weather is comfortable; the glow from the canopy’s LED is at turns a dreamy pink and a tranquil blue. There’s that wonderfully liminal feeling you get where you’re both inside and outside. Bands play loud music (“On the count of three I want to hear a big ol’ ‘Yee haw’ from y’all.”) Humans fly overhead every now and again. And in the surge of bodies and strollers and wheelchairs there are familiar faces: superheroes, assassins, Scooby Doo friends, ghosts, hippies and witches, Jokers and devils, Romans, Bronies, Blues Brothers, break dancers, hobgoblins, Elvis, Mr. T., Super Mario Brothers, a one-legged man, a robot (man), Pan Am stewardesses, a homeless guy (“Any Help; Thanks”), and, why not, Marilyn Monroe.

There are Mormon missionaries, and fundamentalists bearing signs of the end times (“The wicked shall be turned to hell. Time is running out. Repent or Perish”). They pass the nearly naked showgirls negotiating photo ops with a guy dressed up as a cop.

The crowds are heavy, ebbing and flowing, pushing and pulling in mighty waves; navigating the four blocks under the canopy takes half an hour. “I don’t like it here,” I hear one man complain behind me to his friends.  “It’s all random hustle. I can’t actually see anything.”

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To be on Fremont on any night, reminds me of the hair metal bands of the ’80s. From a distance (and if you’re young) there’s something disreputable, seedy, almost dangerous about them. But up close, even on an amped-up night like this, vitality of the Fremont Street Experience, however garish, strikes me as a harmless and invigorating good time.

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Fremont Street Experience, and as Downtown has begun to reinvent itself all around, it’s worth considering the impact Fremont Street has had on Downtown and, in a moment where more locally sourced, artisanal urban amenities are flourishing — be they the Mob Museum or Container Park — what the future of this might steel structure will be.

As with many things in modern Las Vegas, the Fremont Street Experience begins with The Mirage. The debut of the first contemporary megaresort in 1989 not only opened the curtain on the Las Vegas that you and I enjoy today, it also set the stage for a reckoning about Downtown.

Fremont Street — and Downtown in general — once thrived. In the ’60s, remembers architect Bob Fielden, Fremont Street was really vibrant. There were still pharmacies, grocery stores, shops, men’s clothing and theaters. It was more of a typical American main street. But the Strip grew more dominant, the city spread out, shopping malls opened, and Downtown faded. By the time of the Mirage, Downtown was perceived as rundown, unsafe and irrelevant, between the rise of neighborhood casinos, Indian gaming in California and, of course, the Strip.

So in the early ’90s, Downtown casino owners, including Steve Wynn, who owned the Golden Nugget, and Jack Binion, who had taken over his father’s namesake casino, got together and began brainstorming ways they could compete with the growing opulence of the Strip.

“Our primary goals for Downtown were a few things,” says Mark Brandenburg, a longtime owner of the Golden Gate Casino. “Yes, we wanted our own hook, our own volcano. But initially what we really wanted to do was transform the image of Downtown so it felt safe.”

Their eyes immediately turned to Fremont Street. “The street was the primary asset,” says Brandenburg. “What other major thing did you have? Everybody recognized you needed to do something with the street.”

But what?

Wynn had floated building a canal down Fremont Street. Brandenburg recalls a meeting where Binion, in a rich Texas accent, expressed his incredulity. “(Binion said) ‘I think it’s fine. What I’m trying to say is just two years ago, you couldn’t get this group to agree to pay $500 for the second coming of Christ. Now you’re talking about spending about $50 million to put canals on Fremont Street. I’m just saying slow down just a little bit.’”

Or the time a developer came in and pitched building a giant-sized replica of the Starship Enterprise, on two blocks of Fremont between Las Vegas Boulevard and Seventh. It might have been two blocks long and 23 stories tall. Filled with restaurants and bars and attractions and who the hell knows what else. The Star Trek demographic was second only to Monday Night Football, the developer boasted, and would be a perfect fit for Downtown.

For a moment, maybe these seasoned casino owners actually mulled it over. But finally, at a meeting, Wynn told them all to take a deep breath, and brought them to their senses. “What are we doing here? Have we talked to Jon Jerde yet?”

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Hoops
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Elvis
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Gangster
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Red showgirl
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Performer
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Toys
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Sox
Photography by Brent Holmes

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Blond tourists
Photography by Brent Holmes

Architect Jon Jerde had designed a splashy outdoor mall in downtown San Diego, the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the pirate ship at Treasure Island. Wynn asked him to come out to Las Vegas and have a look around.

Jerde walked around Fremont Street with its bold, pulsing neon crowding densely atop the narrow street separating the casinos. He saw two walls of light. “His thought was, if you could put a ceiling over it, with a light floor, you’d have a complete light environment that you’d be able to control,” says Paul Senzaki, the original project manager of the Fremont Street project for Jerde Partnership, and now a senior vice president. (Jerde himself died earlier this year.)

Jerde and his team also played with the idea of a series of aerial gondolas that would float up and down the street, featuring live performances, like floats in the Rose Parade. But the logistics didn’t make much sense (where would you store the gondolas, for one?) and the idea was trimmed back to just the canopy.

So, when it was all said and done, a $70 million steel canopy, 1,500 feet long, 90 feet tall and 90 feet wide, covering four city blocks — it also doubled as the world’s largest video screen — turned out to be the most sober, prudent mid-’90s idea about defibrillating Downtown. The Fremont Street Experience has evolved organically over the years. Three concert stages were added below. In 2004, the canopy’s two million original light bulbs were replaced by 12.5 million LEDs. The whole place churns out half-a-million watts of sound. A few years ago, an 850-foot zip line and a 1,750-foot zoom line that departs off a 12-story slot machine were stuffed into the proceedings.

According to the Fremont Street Experience, some 17 million people came down to check it out last year (the LVCVA reports slightly lower numbers of visitors Downtown). “When we opened up, the feedback was so dramatic,” Brandenburg says. “It felt new, fresh, clean; it accomplished those goals.” Brandenburg also believes the core Downtown has been an important contributor to city tax base and helped make funds available for other projects.

Its economic impact, though, is hard to gauge. According to the Gaming Commission, Downtown casino revenue over the last 30 years peaked in 1992 at $703 million. In 1994 it had dropped to $642 million; the following year it had risen to $672 million, a 5.7 percent jump. Revenue reached $683 million in 2001, and has been on the decline ever since. And according to LVCVA, the number of rooms Downtown has dropped by a third between 1995 and 2014, and Downtown visitation has dropped by about 30 percent in the same time.

 “I think it still holds up,” Senzaki says. “We looked at it as creating an urban space. It was never a piece of architecture. Really, what we were doing was creating an environment. I think it’s still very successful at that. It’s become the de facto image or name for Downtown. Everybody talks about Fremont Street and they know what it is.”

But it has more than its share of critics. Brian Paco Alvarez, the arts curator at Zappos, sums up the essential line of criticism about as elegantly as one could hope, as we walk around the Experience one Friday afternoon in late October. “It’s just a cacophony of noise and bad design,” Alvarez says. The threads of old store fronts, old businesses, are all but invisible beneath the slick paint job of buskers, bars, music and zip lines.

For Courtney Mooney, urban design coordinator with the city, the problem of the canopy was that it arrested layers of organic development that had played out along Fremont for decades. For her, the attempt to chase the contemporary spectacle of the Strip rather than being itself was a mistake. “Fremont Street had its own identity,” she says. “They should have gone with their own authentic identity. People would love to see that old Las Vegas.”

“I think that the FSE was probably a good idea at that time in Downtown Las Vegas history,” offers a diplomatic Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Downtown Cocktail Room and one of the leading figures of the redevelopment of East Fremont, the FSE’s much hipper, more urban brother. “I think it’s also important to break out the different components of the experience. The live entertainment is mostly pretty great. The canopy is pretty dated, but some of the people still seem to enjoy it, and the loitering buskers are annoying and embarrassing.” (To address that concern, a city ordinance that went into effect at the start of November restricts the times and areas around the Experience that buskers can operate in.)

Certainly, no one likes Slotzilla, the giant zip line that stanchioned itself at the eastern edge of the canopy. It not only blocks views of the canopy from East Fremont, its landing platforms block views to the Plaza, the natural terminus of the Fremont Street, from within the canopy. Almost everyone complains of the way it ruins sightlines, its leaden presence, the way it cuts off touristy Fremont from more locals-oriented East Fremont. It’s a glimpse, actually, of Jerde’s old aerial gondolas idea, only we provide our own entertainment. “It’s one gimmick in a long line of gimmicks to bring people down here,” Alvarez says.

Others criticize the Fremont Street Experience on nostalgic grounds. Preservation advocate Bob Stoldal’s issue isn’t with the canopy but with the move to turn the street into a mall. “It was and is a mistake,” he says. Fremont Street used to be the termination of highways coming from Salt Lake City, Reno and Ely. “All that energy,” he muses, “on a key street.”

Mooney entertains a related thought. Imagine a Fremont Street Experience where there was still a Fremont Street, and you could pull right up in your car. “You’d never get a spot,” she says, “but how cool would it be if you did? Get out, talk to the owner, gamble.”

But Senzaki makes an interesting point. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of Fremont Street as a car-free pedestrian mall: “Closing off Fremont unified the four blocks of the casinos and it gave them a common lobby. It was always described as, ‘This is the foyer into a casino that had 8,000 slot machines and however many gaming tables.’ It made it an identifiable place.”

This seems undeniable — especially for those many Las Vegans (and I am one) who moved here after 1995 and so only know the Fremont Street Experience. The question that follows from there is whether Fremont Street Experience is the identifiable place that we still want.

I mean, what if we just ditched the roof? Are the old casinos architecturally strong enough to hold the street again? Would we have something more authentically Vegas? A better pedestrian experience? Would we have our Bourbon Street or Beale Street? Something less canned, something less overheated, a mellow cocktail to come down off a double shot of the Strip? Maybe, but I suspect that as bracing as it would be to drive on through Glitter Gulch with that old neon reaching for the stars — the innocent nostalgia of cruising the street would soon tire as a glut of cars turned Fremont into a parking lot. (Anyway, all those old photos of Glitter Gulch seem to depend as much on an era of cool automotive design as on the casinos themselves.) But pulling down the canopy makes sense if you begin to think of Fremont as one sensuous urban street, alive from Main to Maryland. Not a tourist zone under a video screen and a local hipster zone nearby.

Alvarez floats the idea of building a retractable canopy that could somehow still deliver the light show but that could also open up Fremont to the stars. At the least, we might in time take down Slotzilla, if its appeal fades, to better join the two ends of Fremont. But just as time may dull its theme-ride kicks, time may also dull our antipathy about it. If the Fremont Street Experience lasts another 30 years it could be a historical relic — or a historic landmark.

“I think Downtown still needs the Fremont Street Experience,” says Esther Reincke, the vice president of marketing and special events at the Experience between 1994-2005. “We need it to be successful. We need it for people to go down there. It is the heart of our Downtown.”

And that’s the challenge the Fremont Street Experience poses to the rest of Downtown. In its structural scale — which can seem equal parts clunky and graceful — it sends a clear message: Do better. Downtown is still a work in progress. There may be a day when Downtown has grown up enough so that we think mostly of the Mob Museum, or a glittering battery of towers around The Smith Center, or an East Fremont pulsing with life all the way down to Maryland Parkway, a place studded with new office towers, new condos, shops, stores, parks.

Perhaps when we have that Downtown we will have truly outgrown the Fremont Street Experience and we can choose to leave it, as a potent symbol of gimmicks born of dire economic times, or we can pull it down, and let those old neon signs shine.

For now, though, it still works. I am struck by a conversation Mooney and I had at a Downtown bar one night, by chance, with a Colorado potter named Kris K., who was in town visiting a friend. “It’s easier to see the insanity of Las Vegas,” he said of the tacky but honest charms of the Fremont Street Experience. “It’s right there. You just go up and back.” 

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