Hey, Fremont Street. Cheer up. Don’t let growing pains get you down

Fremont Street

Dear Fremont Street:

Hey! It’s been a while since I’ve seen you! Gee, how you’ve grown over the years — from a rough and dusty saloon street to teen-cruising spot to what you are today, part canopy-covered pedestrian plaza, part hipster bar district. I get it: You’re just starting to figure out who you want to be. And, of course, now that you’re a teenager, you’re experiencing certain ... changes. You have new feelings, you’re trying new things. We’ve all been there.

In fact, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about: Your behavior lately really has your parents concerned. The drinking. The late-night carousing with underage friends. Those guys and girls who come over in their Elvis and showgirl costumes and hang out all night. I heard that the city just banned package liquor sales in the Fremont Street Experience, and that they’re urging the police to crack down on aggressive street performers — not to mention continuing to grapple with underage drinking in the East Fremont Entertainment District.

Don’t worry. I’m not here to lecture. And I’m not here to put you on a curfew or kick your friends out or forbid you from drinking. That’s your parents’ job.

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I’m just here to give you some perspective. To remind you that you’re not alone. Other party streets, other famous (and infamous) entertainment districts have gone through similar growing pains. Take that as a comfort that you’re not alone in your journey, in your struggle to find yourself.

Consider Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Talk about a wild child. You probably wouldn’t know this from the stereotypical images of bead-draped revelers chugging daiquiris from plastic hand grenades, but there’s a genteel historic neighborhood surrounding Bourbon Street. That neighborhood has never been too crazy about the partying that goes on in what one New Orleans blogger lamented has turned into “a staggering parade of drunken idiot boys and girls who make ‘Jersey Shore’ look like a Chanel runway.” Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc. puts it more politely to me.

“It’s definitely lively — some might call it too lively,” says Lousteau, whose group is dedicated to preserving the historic flavor of the French Quarter neighborhood. “Bourbon Street has put a lot of pressure on the residential character of the French Quarter. The noise from the street has virtually eliminated full-time residencies on cross streets and adjacent cross streets.” While a no-glass bottles law passed around 1980 made the streets safer and police presence is generally strong, she says dealing with the beast of Bourbon Street is an ongoing saga. “If the rules were enforced — regarding sound levels, commercial solicitation in the street, people selling shots — a lot of people would be a lot happier.” A proposed revamp of a sound ordinance died in April after months of campaigning by Lousteau’s group (and counter-campaigning by a rival musicians’ advocacy group).

In Texas, there’s Austin’s famous 6th Street, with its six-block subsection known as “Dirty 6th,” a raucous human river spiked with cheap beer, loud music and howlingly drunk undergrads. The Downtown Austin Alliance, the public improvement district charged with boostering the area, is nudging Dirty 6th to outgrow its phase as a bar-crawl launch pad where hipsters meet up to “preload” on cheap swill. One item under discussion here is a move to get Dirty 6th business owners to fix up their crumbling buildings — not an easy case to make when the college kids who flock to your bar for $5 cans of Lone Star don’t care if the place is a dire hovel. “We’re not seeing reinvestment into the buildings. The historic district is being overused, but not reinvested in,” says Molly Alexander, executive director of the alliance. “It’s kind of a little old and tattered.” And when the bars close at 2 a.m. — drinking curfew, not a bad idea, right? — there’s another unintended consequence. “At 2:15, people spill into the street, so you have a street party that is uncontrollable.” Alexander wonders: “The question is how you make (improvement) work so it’s not a burden on business owners, but it’s also an asset to the community. We haven’t figured it out, but we’re really hoping there’s a place for leadership and vision.”

And in New York, the Times Square Alliance formed in 1992 to shepherd the iconic plaza into the modern age, joining an ongoing redevelopment campaign that eventually transformed Times Square from Taxi Driver seedy to Disneyland clean. Today, the alliance has a full-time staff of 40, and 100 part-time and contract staff of street-cleaners and security guards. Even the blinding, billboard-size marquees that wash the square in electric glow are monitored and enforced by a migraine-inducingly detailed zoning code.

I guess my point is that growing pains are unpleasant — but also that dealing with grown-ups’ rules is inevitable. These areas have a few things in common: laws that at least try to curb drinking, a civilian security corps, and strong, professionalized public-private alliances funded by special tax zones. Fremont Street, I’m almost a little sorry to say that it’s just part of growing up.

[Hear more: Hear a discussion of cleaning up Fremont Street on KNPR's State of Nevada.]

But you’re young yet. Take solace in the vitality of that youth — and in the fact that they can’t regulate everything that happens in a public space. Look again at Bourbon Street, a boon to the economy of New Orleans, but an infuriating scourge to many of the nearby residents aghast at the excesses that take place on the storied avenue despite their best efforts to manage the daiquiri-fueled demimonde. Tulane University professor Richard Campanella, author of Bourbon Street: A History, looks upon the tension with bemusement.

“I could show you examples in almost every decade of people decrying Bourbon Street, saying it’s worse than ever, it’s out of control, it’s going downhill,” he says. “As an observer and analyst, I’m mildly amused when you look at things over the span of many years and realize we’ve been through this before, we’ve heard these arguments before, that this whole city is the product of this contentious spatial conflict. Another way of thinking about it is that it’s democracy in action.”

So, Fremont Street, you may have to live with a few new rules — but don’t take it personally. Your parents still love you.

“One hundred years from now, scholars and thinkers will write about Fremont Street in the early 21st century in very intrigued and interested and engaged ways,” Campanella says. “It will be seen as cool and authentic and real. The passage of time renders the inauthentic authentic.”

If you want to talk, I’m here for you.

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