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I love photographing Fremont Street’s neon — but the shadows tell the real story of Downtown

Photography is an art of simplification, I remind myself as I tick through the settings on my camera. An F-stop of 1.7 will keep the depth of field shallow. I’m at 100 ISO at about a 60th of a second. Good, that should bring the exposure in nicely. Those highlights will blow out a bit, but that will look good here. Compose. Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for ...

“STOP TALKING TO ME!” screams a man somewhere behind me. I don’t turn around, because I don’t want any part of what’s going on. He continues to scream — racist obscenities mixed with reasons he hates this place. The woman with him tries to calm him, but he’s lost it, spewing his racism all over the sidewalk.

I look up from my camera to see a stylish couple looking a little frazzled at what they just witnessed. They’re standing there, afraid of getting in the way of my shot. They give me a kind look and I, in turn, thank them for not walking in front of me and wish them a wonderful evening. They walk on, disappearing into a restaurant just up the block.

I turn back to my camera. It’s quiet now. Overly quiet. The void is filled with the buzz of electricity from nearby neon signs coming alive to perform their nightly pirouette with an ever-dwindling dusk. It’s a dance that for decades has filled my viewfinder with the brilliance of glass tubing, metal, and hue as neon battles darkness in the waning heat of the day. Hopes of capturing that dance drives me to photograph here tonight. The sun has set, and the sky to the northeast has begun to turn shades of cornflower and pink. The screamer has disappeared around the corner, and I don’t hear him anymore. Distant traffic noise is mostly overpowered by soft music from an alley that’s lined with tables and chairs. Conversation flows as people enjoy food from the adjoining restaurant. Behind me, a black Rolls-Royce parked a few feet away seems a bit out of place. I’m lost in thought. What just happened? Where am I?

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The corner of East Fremont and 11th Street may be the most divergent place in Vegas. Don’t get me wrong, Vegas has always been a place of contradictions. But standing along the storied thoroughfare, I’m struck by what a complicated scene this is. Rundown and beautiful; dangerous and safe; it is old and new with such hope for a brighter future while clearly strained by its past. This corner is the tattered edge of business dreams meets the tattered edge of life on the edge. New stores that opened to pandemic hardships now display messages acknowledging the loss of the area’s visionary. “Thanks Tony,” says one. Successive motel signs, recently restored, display “DTLV Loves Tony” and “We Will Miss You Tony Hsieh.” Success is right here, but now feels miles away.

Fergusons Downtown is empty, but some of the tenants are there working late on their dreams. Across the street inside the café PublicUs, a man tidies up. Up the street, the iconic Atomic Liquors sign catches my eye. The famed bar is COVID quiet but open. Meanwhile, tonight’s chef at the Vegas Test Kitchen is bringing in a crowd. (I’m pretty sure one of their patrons owns the Rolls.)

I cross the street to change things up, trying to get back into my photo headspace. But before I can get set, I hear crowd noise. What now? I think, before I see a huge group of bicyclists turning west on East Fremont. The leader rides a double-decker cycle, perched six or seven feet up, commanding the group from his flybridge. People are smiling, taking their chance to get together and do something human. There has to be at least a couple hundred of them.

They cheer as they pass my camera and groan when I put it down. Kids and families, lowriders with LED lighting kits, and custom-made jobs with killer paint and graphics; old guys and young girls, some dressed for the ride, others dressed for the show. I get another cheer as I raise my camera back up just in time to catch a guy pop a wheelie like he probably did in his childhood.

They ride on through the unsure future of this place as if believing in the power of neon to chase away the long grip of darkness.
 

Photographer Aaron Mayes is the visual materials curator for UNLV University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives.

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