Listen

News 88.9 KNPR
Classical 89.7 KCNV

member station

Desert Companion

Journeys on Charleston

_charleston_07.02.16_12_new.jpg

Charleston
Photography by Bill Hughes

A wide-ranging, multicultural, kaleidoscopic, close-up portrait of that other boulevard at the heart of Las Vegas

The last house on Charleston Boulevard’s eastern end is a two-story custom Spanish Revival with generous windows and a pool in the backyard. From here, in the desert foothills of Frenchman Mountain, the view is dramatic: By day, the iconic skyline of the Las Vegas Strip draws a sharp sense of place across a bustling valley; by night, the city lights conjure romance and awe. But like the road stretching out below, the views don’t tell the whole story, says Rosario Barba, who lives in the home with her extended family. 

“So much happens up here that you’d never know,” says Barba, 29. The house was built in 2008 for an elderly man who passed away before it was completed, and Barba’s dad, a painter and contractor, made an offer. Soon, the entire family moved in — on this day, they’re having a birthday party for a younger relative, and kids splash in the pool beyond the living room’s large glass doors. Barba is wearing workout clothes and a Bluetooth earpiece and is nonplussed when she invites an unannounced stranger in to talk about the end of the road.

“We get a lot of hikers and walkers — some hikers have died, and we get police and helicopters. We also get crazy people — when we first moved in, we had this guy who would walk all the way around our house carrying a briefcase and saying it was his house. Day after day. Finally, his mother came to get him, I think,” she says.

Support comes from

Then there are the couples who come up here to get amorous in their cars. She laughs. “They are louder than they think! They wake us up! Sometimes they get chased off by the police, and once, there was a guy whose wife came up here — see, he was not in the car with his wife.” She rolls her eyes.

More disturbingly, she says, the end of the road serves as a dumping ground — but not just for trash: “People used to come up here a lot and leave their dogs, like when they wanted to get rid of their dogs. It was awful. One time we saw the dog chasing his owners’ car as they drove away. We call animal control, but it’s sad,” she says. “Sometimes people dump injured dogs from dog fighting. One time there were these bags dumped over there (in the desert across the street) and they started to smell so we called the police, and it was dead roosters, from cockfighting.”

She shakes her head and pauses. 

While technically the Barbas are the last residents on East Charleston, she says there is at least one more person who lives farther out. “There’s the Mountain Man. He lives in the mountains up here. He comes down early in the morning sometimes, and we give him water, and I think he has some friends at Albertsons because I’ll see him walking back up with food. ... I don’t know his name, but he’s been living up there a long time.”

Her mother comes in and offers a glass of water; a drenched, sunburned kid shuffles across the tile floor and adds, “The Mountain Man has three tents in the desert. I’ve seen them.”

“Anyway,” Barba says, “we love it up here. It’s beautiful. We wouldn’t trade it for anything. And it’s very easy to give directions: the last house on Charleston.”

 

****

Charleston Boulevard stretches 22 miles from east to west across the width of the Las Vegas Valley, reaching into the desert at either end. Along the way, it crosses Las Vegas Boulevard, the railroad tracks and three freeways, traverses years of history and visits a wide sample of the valley’s demographics. Much of the east side of Charleston is dominated by Hispanic culture — shop signs in Spanish, dozens of Latin-influenced eateries. But other blocks offer smaller cultural enclaves — here’s the African/Caribbean International Market; there’s the longtime gay bar Flex; here’s the SGI Buddhist Center. While rarely celebrated, the cultural and ethnic diversity of the shops and churches and salons on Charleston speak to a much more complex image than many people have of Las Vegas. On this boulevard — not the famous boulevard — you go for miles without seeing a decadent casino or a glitzy strip club.

To those who grew up in Las Vegas, Charleston may be an old friend, a limb of the family tree, a grandparent who tells stories of heydays and quirks, of tight-knit neighborhoods and popular locals’ destinations. But when you drive it now, its nostalgia is less apparent; it lays now, in many stretches, somewhere in time between the vibrant old days and the could-be-revitalized future. It also literally stretches out between the old and brand new — from its midtown historic and weathered buildings to its still-growing suburban edges, particularly on the west side, where Summerlin’s master-planned community edges ever closer to Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area as the road becomes Highway 159. But in another way, it represents an ideological battle alive in many Western-sprawl cities: There’s a tension on Charleston between what was and what could be; between past and future — the much-discussed, mostly stalled revitalization of the Huntridge Theater on Charleston’s midsection is a symbol of that struggle, and the passionate, sometimes acrimonious debates about its fate are a reminder of how invested many still are in the area’s potential.

But implied in the notion of area revitalization is a dissatisfaction with what is — the past was good, the future could be good, but what about right now? And what does revitalization — gentrification? — say about the people who are here right now, every day manning a small piece of this street, repairing cars, selling quinceañera dresses, practicing law, displaying art, serving pupusas, cutting, buzzing and braiding hair, designing floral arrangements, treating sick patients, walking, driving, riding the bus, crouching in the shade of a 50-year-old sign? Western sprawl cities are often limited on vertical growth and therefore less dense, and have newer, less architecturally revered built environments than many East Coast cities. But workaday streets like this one are nonetheless a fundamental part of the city’s character. Where Las Vegas Boulevard capitalizes on visitors’ escapist fantasies, Charleston Boulevard cradles thousands of locals going about their everyday business.

 

4530 E. CHARLESTON BLVD.

A few blocks down the hill from the Barbas, past some suburban blocks, past a strip mall or two, a boy and his grandmother run hand-in-hand through the blazing heat toward the bus stop. The RTC 206 is wheezing up as they arrive, and when the doors open, Roberto, 6, who is carrying a well-kicked soccer ball under his other arm, hops on first. His grandmother slides the fare card and sits with him. They are sweating and laughing, and Roberto, whose name is printed across the back of his yellow jersey, says in Spanish, “How long until we get there?” and his abuela, her wavy salt-and-pepper hair sticking to her neck, pats his leg and says, “Not very long.”

Roberto presses his forehead against the window as the bus chugs on, and this is what he sees: a homeless man lying in the shade of a building, which makes him rubberneck; a yellow Corvette in a strip mall parking lot, which makes him point; and a young woman wearing a pink cowboy hat and dragging a red wagon full of laundry down the sidewalk, which makes him smile.

They hop off of the bus near the Charleston Indoor Swap meet. Inside the strip-mall building, the air-conditioning is heavenly, and they navigate rows and rows of small bays selling all kinds of goods: shoes — every single display shoe is wrapped completely in cling wrap and perched on a wall; jewelry — gold-tooth grills in glass cases sell for upwards of $300; posters of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, Jesus and Hello Kitty. In the back, a crowd of people sits in chairs and stands against the wall, waiting to get into the hair salon, Chapi’s. Little boys Roberto’s size run the aisle with fresh haircuts; grown men and women sit and wait their turn. Roberto and his grandmother take a seat with them. Next to the salon is an eatery, Tierra Caliente, where Spanish music is playing overhead and where you can sit on yellow benches and eat tamales de pollo and elote for $9 while a framed picture of “The Last Supper,” $48, stares at you from a bay next door.

It’s a world few would know is here from the outside — the way so much of this street is. The view, often hardscrabble, is both an accurate and incomplete description, which is kind of Charleston’s personality: There is always more to the story.

 

4069 W. CHARLESTON BLVD.

Open almost any door on this road and you’ll learn something that will add a layer to your understanding of Las Vegas. 

The Tebha family has been running the A-1 Vacuum and Sewing store since 1943. Their shop sits in a bright yellow building on West Charleston that, despite its loud paint job, is easy to overlook. Inside, more than a hundred sewing machines and vacuum cleaners sit quietly in the front rooms while members of the family work in the back.

“These two industries, vacuuming and sewing, were grouped together in the 1950s,” says Shawn Tebha, who, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, is welcoming and generous with his knowledge. “My dad was an engineer for Singer in California, and when (job changes happened), he thought, ‘Well, I might as well open my own store.’”

We walk through the building, which is a maze of oddly placed steps and strangely placed doors — different building permits allowed for varying add-ons over the years, which have grown the building to 7,000 square feet — and Tebha reminisces.

“I grew up in here. As a teenager I learned to fix them, because as a child I sometimes broke them,” he says, laughing. “Back then there was a lot less traffic on Charleston. Everywhere, actually. You could get from here to Pecos and Sunset in 15 minutes without speeding. Not now.”

When his dad started the business, he says, people relied on word-of-mouth and the Yellow Pages to find their sewing store. Now the Tebhas have to jockey with the Internet and big retailers like Walmart. 

“The sewing market nowadays has become online, or at least people do their research online. But I ask them before they buy online, is it quality? How do they know? Also, many manufacturers buy from the same set of parts. We will work with you, and you get personal service.”

Tebha says sewing is a $10 billion industry now, and business is still decent for A-1.

“When someone comes in here, I ask, ‘Were you just learning to sew, or do you already sew?’ Back in the day they did everything on it — sewed all of their clothes and things. But now some specialize,” he says as he walks me around some 300 sewing machines on display. The oldest, a black 1930s manual Singer, goes for about $300; the fanciest, a new Janome machine that can do 500 different stitches, goes for $15,000.

“Because we’re a family-operated store, we charge on work done and give a warranty on our work,” he says. “We take pride in what we do. Things change, but that does not change.”

That’s a sentiment I find throughout my travels on Charleston: pride in hard work. While drivers-by caught in traffic might routinely ignore small, old storefronts in some stretches, they’d be cheating themselves to write them off entirely. Time and time again, I am reminded of the significance of small businesses not only to economic sustainability, but to creating the rich textures of a community, which seems particularly important in a city so shaped by transience.

 

107 E. CHARLESTON BLVD.

As the sun sets on the first Friday of the month, six or eight police cars line both sides of Charleston between Third and Main, making room for pedestrians who are flocking toward the Arts Factory. Tents are set up in the parking lot, and on blocks extending from this seat of the Arts District, other parking lots are charging $15 for a space. It’s the First Friday Art Walk in “18b” — 18 blocks loosely grouped around this stretch of Charleston near Main. Visual arts and crafts will anchor the festivities, but the party spreads out from the galleries and tents into the streets, with bands, random dancers and performance artists, a bit of alcohol and a lot of socializing.

By day, the area is more subdued but still eclectic, and for those who’ve been here years, the buildings themselves recall memories: What is now the Indoor Garden Organic Super Center was for years an exterminator that displayed a giant image of a cockroach on the exterior; across the street, the Holsum Lofts, now home to Lola’s restaurant and retail stores, was actually the Holsum bread bakery, where locals could smell fresh-baked bread as they approached the underpass it stands above.

“Charleston Boulevard has been and still is one of our main drags,” says Michael Green, associate professor of history at UNLV and a longtime Las Vegas resident. He’s quick to name a dozen or more businesses that have come and gone, from the site on east Charleston where Lowe’s is today that was a popular Montgomery Wards until the 1990s, to the now-closed Showboat Casino and Silver Dollar that drew revelers to that East Charleston area for years.

Perhaps the most talked about historic building on Charleston today is the Huntridge Theater, on the corner at Maryland. Soon after its construction in 1944, the Huntridge became a locals’ staple. It was built on land once owned by investor Leigh Hunt, who was the president of Ohio State University and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the late 19th century. When he died in 1933, he left the Las Vegas land to his son Henry Leigh Hunt, and the neighborhood and theater were named for them. The Streamline Moderne building designed by S. Charles Lee, which first showed movies and then musical acts, is on the United States National Register of Historical Places. It was also one of the first unsegregated venues in Las Vegas.

Green remembers going to shows at the Huntridge Theater, where, he jokes, Sen. Richard Bryan had “his first fundraiser.” As a kid, Bryan didn’t have enough pocket change to get into the movie showing at the Huntridge, and may have asked around for a little help, or so the story goes. Most longtime locals have a story to tell about the Huntridge, which makes it both beloved and forlorn as today it stands empty. On a recent sizzling hot weekday, two homeless men with shopping carts are curled into its shade. Attempts to raise money to redevelop the theater are ongoing.

 

2000 E. CHARLESTON BLVD.

On Friday night at 7 Mares Mexican Restaurant, karaoke starts early. We’re on a stretch of East Charleston populated by Mexican, El Salvadorean and all manner of Latin-American restaurants and shops. Across the street is Mariscos El Dorado, which occupies the building formerly home to Fong’s Garden, opened by one of Las Vegas’ prominent early developers, Wing Fong, in 1955 — a destination once so popular it’s where Harry Reid took his new wife on their wedding night. Fong’s Garden was the center of a small Chinatown in the late ’50s, according to Green. Behind Mariscos El Dorado, near where Fremont Street, Eastern Avenue and Charleston collide to create a triangle of land hosting a busy Arco gas station, the weathered Blue Angel statue still stands on her perch atop a sign pole, though the namesake hotel is long gone. Here Charleston is a treasure chest of finds, both historic and new. At 7 Mares — Seven Seas — the vibe is relaxed and happy. The walls are painted bright yellow, blue and green, a swordfish hangs above the booths and a large selection of mariscos fills the menu. 

We chitchat with the waitress, although we speak very little Spanish and she speaks only a bit more English. We eat fish tacos and drink cold beer and watch several women sing karaoke, all in Spanish. Then, this: “A special welcome to our English friends tonight,” she says on the mic. “Do you want to sing?” Of course we do, and though all we can manage is English, it doesn’t matter — within minutes, several other patrons will be singing along with us, and soon, comped beers arrive at our table.

The waitress tells us it is often even more crowded, but it’s the beginning of the month and many people have to pay their rent today, so some regulars stayed home.

_charleston_07.16.16_50.jpg

Signs of the street
Photography by Bill Hughes

Signs of the street: The Charleston Indoor Swap Meet

_charleston_07.02.16_15.jpg

Signs of the street
Photography by Bill Hughes

Signs of the street: Angie Enk does laundry at Wash 'n' Fold.

_charleston_07.16.16_49.jpg

Signs of the street
Photography by Bill Hughes

Signs of the street: artists Dry Point, left, and Alexander Sky talk to manager Daisy Vega at Esmeralda's Cafe.

_charleston_07.02.jpg

Signs of the street
Photography by Bill Hughes

Signs of the street: the literal end of the road.

_charleston_07.02.16_3.jpg

Mermaids
Photography by Bill Hughes

We sea you: The mermaids of Mariscos El Dorado watch over East Charleston Boulevard, as - in a sign of the times - Clark County touts its road-building program.

_charleston_07.10.16_38.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.02.16_8.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.06.16_34.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety

_charleston_07.02.16_26.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.13.16_42.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.20.16_69.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.20.16_61.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.20.16_53.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

Rich Variety: All the way out to the last intersection at its west end the street teems with life, whether it’s Frank Walters at M&M Soul Food Cafe, Steven Riddle of Velvet Underground Comics, a guy negotiating the Charleston underpass, or all the sights and sites in between.

_charleston_07.10.jpg

Rich Variety
Photography by Bill Hughes

The light of the last intersection on West Charleston.

What many parts of Charleston lay bare are the strong tendons connecting our daily struggles to the simple joys in life, in a city where we so often think in terms of ostentatious wins and losses. I met a woman at an East Charleston laundromat who told me her family came from Venezuela. She moved here because her uncle had a friend who lived here, and he got a job in construction some years ago. Now she and her husband and two children live around the corner from the Wash & Fold, which is next to the tiny Can Cun Hamburgers, Tacos and Tortas stand. They live with other relatives — a woman and two more children — and between them, they hold four jobs, three in retail and one at an auto shop. Does she like it here, in Las Vegas? A smile. “Yes. We are happy to be with family.” That’s all; there is laundry to be done, there is family to return to, there is no more time for talking to note-takers.

 

1800 W. CHARLESTON BLVD.

Walking west toward the Charleston Underpass, which was built in 1960, it’s all heat and dust and noise. Frustration is palpable on the road — cars vie to get past one another in two or three lanes and get stopped every few yards at another light, ultimately beating no one, least of all time. Here, at the ground level, narrow sidewalks cause pedestrians to sometimes stand aside for a bicyclist who has chosen to ride the sidewalk instead of dare the traffic, or stand aside for another pedestrian who uses a walker because the two of you do not have room to pass at the same time, or stand aside for someone on a mobility scooter or pushing a stroller. The road is littered with cups and cans, and a film of hot-asphalt-smelling dust sticks to you as you walk, and rushing cars whoosh hot air into your face.

Up ahead, ambulances and police cruisers are all over the Del Taco in the medical district, just west of I-15, at lunchtime. There’s been a fight. A homeless man is being handcuffed in the parking lot; his face is bloodied. Two Del Taco employees sit inside filling out police reports. One, a young man, has a scratch on his face and blood on his knuckles.

“He wouldn’t leave the bathroom, and he was drunk or something,” he says. “I told him he had to leave, and he attacked me, and I had to defend myself.” He blots the blood off of his fingers and uniform. “I’m okay, though.”

Customers, some in medical scrubs, some in business attire, some in shorts, go about their business ordering burritos and tacos while the police take the alleged perpetrator away. The employee finishes his report.

Across the street stands the University Medical Center compound, which is a prime reason Charleston grew to be the road it did. The medical center was established in 1931 as the Clark County Indigent Hospital, set up on what was then a dirt road. For its first few years, it had 20 beds, one doctor and one nurse. Today, it is not only the state’s only Level 1 Trauma Center and home to a freestanding pediatric emergency center, it is the centerpiece of a district of medical centers and doctors’ offices, which now includes the UNLV School of Medicine.

These medical and legal offices along this stretch of Charleston hide the historic neighborhoods just off of the main artery, neighborhoods you can find on a 1960 map in UNLV’s archives: the Scotch 80s, Hyde Park and Rancho Nevada Estates.

These neighborhoods weren’t randomly placed here, says Andrew Kirk, professor of history and director of UNLV’s Public History Education Program.  

“The Scotch 80s and McNeil (subdivisions) are sort of hidden away, (but) they started in the 1940s, and were built through the 1960s. These were the suburbs of Downtown then.” He says that Ashby Street, a block off of Charleston, was originally an impressive, wide street with dirt paths on either side, standing out when it was built because “this was out in the country then.” The existence of Charleston enabled these neighborhoods to evolve.

“They are near the springs. There were more than one (spring). There’s a concentric circle around what we now know as the Springs Preserve that was broader. So really, these neighborhoods started because they were the most sensible places you could build a house.” In fact, says Kirk, “one of the myths people have to overcome about (Las Vegas’ development) is that it ‘makes no sense.’ Early on, the patterns of development were familiar and sensible. There is a good reason they built there.

“Once you’ve got the anchor of Downtown, you’ve got Charleston as a major spoke” leading to the hospital and the springs, he says.

On older maps that show the original Las Vegas townsite in 1905, Charleston isn’t there. Instead, it’s a baseline for the grid, referred to as the Fifth Standard Parallel South, below the townsite’s streets, which go south only to Garces Street. In two maps, the line that would be Charleston is mysteriously called “Mt. Diablo.” Charleston got its name from Mount Charleston, which is thought to have been named by a member of the Army Corps of Engineers who, when he explored the territory, named it after Charleston, South Carolina, his hometown.

By the time a 1942 map was printed, the road is called Charleston, and there’s a mark where UMC stands now called “County Hospital.” Other than the railroad tracks and crossover with the “Road to Los Angeles/Highway to Salt Lake City,” little is else noted of the outlying areas.

“But it was a critical street because it’s the road that took you out of town in the 1950s,” Kirk says. “It was a tiny road meandering out to Red Rock across the desert, but it was important.”

 

3923 W. CHARLESTON BLVD.

On the end of a longstanding strip plaza at Valley View and Charleston, M&M Soul Food is enjoying a bustling lunch hour. The TV is broadcasting baseball; service is fast and friendly — plates of hot, buttered corncakes hit the table as soon as you sit down. The walls are covered in framed photos of celebrities. Fried okra and black-eyed peas and collard greens are delicious and filling; sweet potato pie seals the deal.

But most of the other spaces in the Panorama Shopping Center are empty, as so many are along Charleston.

“Preservationists like to say that neglect is the best friend of preservation,” Kirk says. “Benign neglect.” That way, original structures can be saved rather than experience the cycle of tear-down and rebuilding. But the downside of the neglect is that people start to move farther out, leaving blight.

“Charleston has had periods of significant decline, so people moved out to the suburbs farther and farther. It’s a very Western pattern.”

Like many cities, Las Vegas has the core, where some buildings are old enough and neglected benignly enough that they offer some potential to preserve charming architectural styles. On the outskirts, newer suburbs like Summerlin push businesses back inward a little bit. But then there are the miles in the middle, the love of which is often hard-won.

“That’s where it gets tricky,” Kirk says. “In the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, you have these areas where the architecture was these big, fake colonial houses, and the growth was so fast that they were slapped together with poor materials. We just had massive growth, and a lot of big-box-anchored strip malls. And it’s hard to envision that architecture as evolving and surviving in the ways (1950s and 1960s architecture) did.” So, he says, one must consider that some “rings of the city” may not be worth preserving — “but the land there will still be valuable” — and ultimately the structures on those areas may be demolished and replaced with infill development. “The more thoughtfully things are laid out to begin with, the more chance they have of surviving,” Kirk says. 

The biggest conundrum may not be the housing but the strip malls — dozens of them line Charleston, east and west. “Who knows what’s going to happen to them,” Kirk says. “The 1950s versions,” such as the one M&M Soul Food is in on Valley View and Charleston, “may be more adaptable. They’re small-scale, with decent parking but not oceans of parking, and they have small spaces. It’s the big-box-anchored ones that make no sense. We do need little stores, and small spaces will be in demand. They’re more usable and adaptable and more appealing, and some are more ‘designed.’

“The real question is what to do with the big boxes in a modern economy, when everyone is shopping for those things on Amazon? I don’t know.”

 

4241 W. CHARLESTON BLVD.

Still, so much can happen in the elbow of one of these weathered strip malls on Charleston over the course 30 years or so. A man can leave his successful career in hospitality, discover his love of plants and home decorating, and make a business of it, opening a retail outlet on Charleston. And then, maybe he’ll meet a guy who uses the space next door to house old comic books. Maybe they’ll chat about collecting comics, and the guy who grew up working in hospitality and later opened a silk plant shop will start to deal in comics and collectibles. Soon enough, he’ll open his own comic book and collectibles shop next door to his plant shop, and create one of the city’s best-loved comic book stores. All in a tiny corner of an oft-ignored strip mall on Charleston.

“Comic books are for adults,” says Steven Riddle, owner of Velvet Underground Comics. He’s tall, gray-haired and trim-mustached, with a slew of Old Vegas stories he’s willing to share. But today, the conversation is about his busy shop. “It’s very serious business. People come back because there is a reputation, and you earn that reputation with integrity and honesty.”

Riddle kindly shows me around the store — aisles so tight you can barely squeeze through, and silk plants and decorative tree branches tucked in and above the shelves. The books are in immaculate condition. The place is crowded on a weekday afternoon, something you wouldn’t expect when you spot it from the road, tucked back in the corner of this Hyde Park Shopping Center behind a motorcycle shop and an upholstery store. Classic pop and rock play on the radio, and among the books are also collectible statues: Wonder Woman, Superman. Behind the counter there are rows of clean, handwritten pullboxes for customers who pre-order a certain comic book. Riddle’s financial ledger is hand-written — meticulously — as well.

“This is my neighborhood. I grew up here. I went to Clark High School. I love it here,” he says. “West Charleston is the original western-reaching street, you can take it all the way to Red Rock. Thirty years ago, if you were on West Charleston, you were the dude, you were in a good place. And I still think you are.”

I have come to think that despite its rough-and-tumble stretches and its pockets of blight, Riddle could be right about this. Or maybe it’s because of those patches, combined with the more vibrant areas, along with the shout-outs to historic Vegas, and the longtime businesses such as Annie’s Hubcaps, The Omelet House, Kessler & Sons Music, and the newer businesses like Silver Sage Wellness marijuana dispensary or Krayvings Feel Good Food, that Charleston is a such an enchanting trail.

 

5201 W. CHARLESTON BLVD.

On a late Friday night, Flex Cocktail Lounge is packed, there’s a drag queen on the stage, and two male go-go dancers performing on platforms. Flex has been a gay bar since the 1990s, and long before that it was the Hyde Park Lounge, reflecting the neighborhood around it, which was built in the 1940s and 1950s. Like many of the businesses on this western-central stretch of Charleston, it’s been remodeled several times.

Change characterizes a lot here. A few blocks west, there’s a plaza where the once popular Red Rock 11 Theater used to be. Today it’s a shopping center with a variety of retail outlets, but in the 1970s, it was one 500-seat theater, and by the ’80s, it was expanded to 11 theaters. As newer theaters were built in outlying areas, Red Rock 11 was closed.

The Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services facility at 6161 W. Charleston was built in 1969 to provide both inpatient and outpatient care. Next door, the 80-acre College of Southern Nevada opened in 1988, the third of three campuses of the Clark County Community College. Such developments served to push still more residential and business construction westward on Charleston.

But no single development affected West Charleston more in the last three decades than Summerlin.

In 1952, Howard Hughes purchased 25,000 acres of desert land adjacent to Red Rock Canyon. It sat vacant for decades, until plans were announced in the late 1980s for Summerlin, a master-planned community named for Hughes’ paternal grandmother, Jean Amelia Summerlin. By the mid-’90s, the western end of Charleston had become a major thoroughfare to thousands of new upper- and middle-class suburban homes. By the mid-2000s, the entire west end of Charleston had become a fundamental part of the massive master-planned community and its many “villages,” which drew more strip malls anchored by grocery and big-box stores. The traffic and crowds grew still more with the 2006 addition of the $930 million Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa — complete with palm trees swaying atop its 20-floor tower — and the 2014 shopping venue Downtown Summerlin. On this block at 11011 W. Charleston, a bit of Las Vegas’ tourism image returns: plentiful gaming, show theaters, fine dining, boutique shopping and a luxurious pool. Whether it’s tourists or locals enjoying a staycation, Red Rock Casino says modern destination Las Vegas. But much of the rest of this area, not dominated by gaming, says something more like comfortable, upper-middle-class Western suburbia.

 

8855 W. CHARLESTON BLVD.

It’s lunchtime on a Thursday. The intersection of Charleston and Rampart is jammed with cars. All corners offer massive, busy strip malls, most dominated by chain stores and chain restaurants: the standard concrete horse of P.F. Chang’s fronts the northwest center housing Ann Taylor and Williams-Sonoma shops; Boca Park shopping center spreads out in layers of retail behind a Target on the northeast corner; Claim Jumper restaurant dominates the southwest. Here, in the southeast center, set behind a stretch of grass-and-tree landscaping and a large, crowded parking lot, is Whole Foods Market, next to a Barnes & Noble and a Pier 1 Imports.

A few people eat salads at the tables outside the grocery store under the shade of the patio; one is typing on his laptop. A uniformed security guard watches the parking lot. Inside the enormous space, rows are busy with slow-roaming shoppers, a good many wearing stylish gym outfits, pushing carts first through displays of bright, organic produce, then on to the butcher shop, where signs explain, “No cages, no crates, no crowding” and “No added hormones, no antibiotics, ever, no wondering.” In the middle of the store, rows of jarred supplements, vitamins, herbs and tinctures are complemented by a bookstand with titles such as Conscious Capitalism and Liberation Soup. A rack of “Super Soft Organic Boxer Briefs: No Sweatshops / No Toxic Pesticides / Fair-Trade Certified Cotton / No Child Labor / Non-GMO Cotton” sell for $28.99 per two-pack.

Upon leaving, I’m approached by two small boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, in the parking lot: “Excuse me ma’am,” says one. “We don’t mean to bother you, but we’re trying to get money for our football team.” He’s holding a clipboard and I ask him if it’s his school team or a league of some sort.

“Not school,” he says. “Twenty dollars is good, but if you don’t have that, anything will help. Have you ever seen a $2 bill?”

I’m about tell him that yes, I have seen a $2 bill, when the security guard claps his hands loudly four times, striding our way across the pavement, and the boys scurry off.

“I’ve told them time and time again not to do that here,” he says. “It’s not a real team. Their dad is around here somewhere in a four-door Nissan.” He stalks off through the sedans and SUVs, looking, but they’re nowhere to be seen. I feel sheepish, as I was going to give them a few bucks — and as I load my bag of Naked Beet Chips and So Delicious Coconut Milk into the car, I consider the different concerns of people on this boulevard.

I think of Roberto and his grandmother laughing and running to catch the bus on their way to get haircuts; I think of the nervous, well-groomed couple and their three small children I met on the bus who were all heading to the welfare office; I think of doctors and patients in UMC’s full emergency room; I think of the shoppers showing their social conscience by buying Organic Boxer Briefs not made with child labor or toxic pesticides.

Where 15 miles east I struggled with language skills, here I grapple momentarily with the way the distribution of wealth alters our immediate concerns and reframes our sense of urgency and responsibility. What’s most remarkable is that all of these efforts to survive and thrive are happening on the same street, at virtually the same time — a street once noted as nothing more than a parallel on the map, a dirt road to a hospital, a trail to the valley’s foothills.

I drive onto Charleston, heading west.

****

At the 215, Charleston briefly spreads to 10 lanes and a median before trickling through the westernmost edge of Summerlin toward Red Rock Conservation Area, where the road becomes known as Highway 159, or the road to Blue Diamond. On this edge of town, the view from Charleston is breathtaking: Red Rock Canyon’s dramatic rise and bright red iron oxide stripes remind us, after a long traffic-filled trip across town, that we are still just a blip in the multimillion-year timeframe of this valley, a blink in the cosmic scheme of things.

The westernmost street sign that identifies the road as Charleston, rather than Highway 159 or Blue Diamond Road, is at Sky Vista Drive, the latest, but not the last, of Summerlin’s advancing suburban streets. The desert beyond Sky Vista is already graded for more development. The homes already here are desert browns and beiges, sizable, upgraded, some behind gated entryways. 

The streetlights and the landscaped median ends at Sky Vista, and Charleston turns into the two-lane highway, a “Designated Scenic Byway” that will pass through Red Rock Conservation Area, past Spring Mountain Ranch State Park and Blue Diamond, and eventually end at State Route 160. 

When you turn around from this point and look back, eastward, you realize that you have traversed worlds, skipped through decades, met vastly different people, but barely scratched the surface of Charleston’s offerings. With this street, there is always more to the story.

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!