A mindful renaissance: Let's redo downtown right
The musician and cultural critic Brian Eno once coined the term “scenius” to describe the burst of collective creative energy that occurs when you put the right people together in the right place at the right time. There was scenius in Florence, Italy at the end of the 15th century, and in the expat bars and cafes of Paris in the 1920s. While scenius was flourishing in the New York music and art world in the 1970s, Silicon Valley was producing its own high-tech version, exploding out of the garage where Jobs and Wozniak built the Apple computer and architectured the personal computer revolution.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has been cultivating scenius here in Las Vegas via his Downtown Project, Delivering Happiness movement and VegasTechFund startup investment fund, all of which seek to draw in the kind of brilliant tech startup entrepreneurs who would normally congregate in more traditional locales like Palo Alto or New York. The process is ongoing, but if you take a walk down East Fremont Street, you’ll already see the impact of his efforts: new businesses, new co-working and hacker spaces with lots of power outlets and high-speed Net access ... and a whole lot of new, hip, young, super-bright nerds, their startups fueled by energy drinks and unbounded enthusiasm.
If you’re the kind of person who gauges urban progress purely by the financial bottom line, this influx of geeky new blood is an unqualified success. Developers can’t build the foodie joints and artisanal cocktail boutiques fast enough. After decades of single-industry cultural stagnation, Las Vegas is finally seeing the rise of Richard Florida’s mythical creative class, right smack in the middle of an area that has long been one of the most economically depressed in the city.
A lot of the tech crowd who’ve been moving into Downtown have publicly likened the experience to colonizing a new planet or a new frontier: a blank canvas to paint a bright future upon. But the unpleasant reality is that Downtown isn’t a blank canvas. It’s a canvas that has showcased a lot of bright futures over the decades, futures that faded away and rotted as the fortunes of the city moved slowly south along Las Vegas Boulevard. Once-prosperous casinos became seedy hangouts for down-market locals and homeless people looking to get out of the relentless desert heat. Motels where young couples once cuddled on their Vegas honeymoons became flophouses, long-term housing for transients and addicts and lonely pensioners.
So far, the strategy of the new Downtown tech elite has largely been to entirely ignore these existing inhabitants, or to push them further down Fremont or the Strip by demolishing their flophouses and quietly encouraging Metro and the casinos’ security to keep ’em moving. And why not? After all, nothing kills the buzz of being a venture-funded master of the startup universe quite like looking out the window of The Beat coffee shop and seeing an aging, shirtless crackhead on the other side of the glass, waving his arms and shouting nonsensical profanity at the empty air.
In all fairness, the gentrifiers of Downtown seem to have become more aware of these issues in recent days. When the Downtown Project purchased the John E. Carson residential hotel at the corner of 6th and Carson in April, the residents were provided with a month’s free rent at the nearby Dragon Hotel and moving supplies. It was a humane and thoughtful way of handling the transition ... and a marked and welcome change from the treatment of the inhabitants of the Town Terrace apartments, who were given summary eviction notices when the Downtown Project purchased the property in 2012. (Spokespersons for the Downtown Project have said that the evictions were a result of miscommunication, and they were ultimately rescinded when residents complained to the press.)
But much of the gentrification of Downtown still seems to be happening without any real accountability. Nobody seems to be thinking very hard about the consequences of tearing down inexpensive housing or low-cost businesses in favor of hip apartments or trendy boulangeries. Or if they are, they aren’t really talking about it, at least in public.
It’s a complicated situation. I’m both chief technical officer of a Vegas tech startup and — unlike a lot of the downtown tech people — a longtime resident of the city, and that makes my feelings about the issue even more ambiguous. And as a lot of people involved in the downtown tech scene have reminded me at parties and networking events, sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Maybe so. But what if you happen to be one of those eggs? All those poor scum who beg for change on the mean streets of Downtown may be winos and crackheads and lunatics, but they’re still human beings. They still occupy a place in the world. Much as we might hope otherwise, they won’t just disappear. They have to be somewhere. If it’s not Downtown, the last refuge of the down-and-out, then where? North Las Vegas? Midtown? The suburbs?
Part of both individual genius and collective scenius is mindfulness, awareness of one’s place in the world and the consequences of one’s actions. Tony Hsieh’s Downtown is an exciting and vibrant place, full of hope and potential, and I’m truly hopeful that it will succeed, and bring not only new industry and new economies but new social and cultural opportunities to the city. But I also believe that in urban development as in medicine, the primary directive must always be Hippocrates’ dictum: First do no harm.
We must be mindful. As we build this bright new future for Downtown, we have to ensure that it benefits everyone, prosperous and poor alike, those who are arriving and those who have always been here ... especially those who have nowhere else to go. Otherwise, Downtown’s victory will be a hollow victory indeed.