Reflecting on the The Real World’s infamous Las Vegas season and the failed promise of Downtown
The bar remains, but the slot machines have been replaced by couches. At noon, the space is nearly empty and as dark as a basement. Co-work by day and party by night, the Gold Spike’s website says of its living room, touting free Wi-Fi and easy access to draft beers. I am co-working alone, filling out my weekly unemployment claim for the state of Montana, where I’ve just moved from. Nearby, seven twentysomethings in bathing suits argue in front of a camera crew. Later, this footage will air on MTV: The cast of The Real World, drunk and still wet from the pool outside, having sloppy, circular conversations. And me in the background, applying for casino jobs I won’t get, my face blurred.
I moved to Downtown Las Vegas in 2015, seven days after MTV began filming its 31st season of The Real World in the same neighborhood. The reality show, which premiered in 1992, was suffering an identity crisis. The original This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house together format wasn’t working anymore. The network had started experimenting in recent years — confronting cast members with their exes, adding surprise houseguests. That season, Real World: Go Big or Go Home, was the latest iteration of this: Seven strangers would live together for 70 days at the Gold Spike while completing “missions.” The missions were often things you’d do for fun in Las Vegas anyway — ride the SlotZilla zipline, hike Red Rock Canyon, party in a suite at the Palms — and there was no mention of a cash prize, just the abstract concept of “survival.”
Like The Real World, Downtown was also several years into an attempted renaissance. In 2012, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh had founded the Downtown Project and invested $350 million into the neighborhood, promising a Burning Man-inspired community where entrepreneurs and artists could eat tacos, take selfies in front of murals, and dance at outdoor concerts.
At 27, I was going through my own major shift. I had spent my twenties working seasonal jobs in the national parks. Now I was going to have an apartment, a bank account, cell service. Most importantly, I was going to belong somewhere. (I didn’t yet know that the Downtown Project had removed “community” from its statement of core values.)
This is the start of something, I thought, passing by a meerkat art installation. But I couldn’t tell if it would last or if it was just one gigantic Instagram post. There was The Market, a full-scale urban grocery shopping experience with an intimate café setting; Downtown Container Park, a retail and restaurant space made of shipping containers; Grass Roots, an expensive juice bar; and of course, the Gold Spike, a grungy casino turned co-working/party space complete with beer pong and boozy milkshakes. The seventh-floor suite, with its three balconies, blue tiger mural, and glowing letters spelling out VIVA, had just welcomed its first guests.
There was Kailah, a recent college graduate who aspired to write “a badass article” (she is now an influencer); Dione, a self-described “carny” with Tarzan hair; singer/songwriter Sabrina, who said in episode one, “I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of meeting my biological mother”; Dean from Los Angeles, who was going through a divorce; Chris, an ex-Mormon with bassist-in-a-folk-band style; and CeeJai', who put off law school for MTV.
There was also Jenna.
Real World: Go Big or Go Home is a grotesque season of television for many reasons, but Jenna is at the top of that list. “If you don’t respect the South, you can go back to the North,” she says in her casting tape, shooting a gun from a house where there’s a Confederate flag outside. Jenna is openly racist toward the show’s Black housemates, CeeJai and Dean, repeatedly describing CeeJai as “ratchet” and saying that she feels physically threatened by Dean, the least confrontational person in the house. She is also homophobic. “The thought of gay people having sex kind of disgusts me,” she tells the group.
While these aren’t the first examples of prejudice in the history of The Real World, what’s significant about the season’s treatment of racism and homophobia — along with misogyny, gun violence, and abuse — is how they are used as entertainment. In its early years, The Real World was known for turning subjects like these into a national conversation. The show’s third season, which was shot in San Francisco and aired in 1994, featured Pedro Zamora, a gay Cuban immigrant living with AIDS. Viewers empathized with and learned from Pedro. When he died, President Bill Clinton praised him and the show for teaching “all of us that AIDS is a disease with a human face and one that affects every American, indeed, every citizen, of the world.”
By its 31st season, The Real World was done enlightening. Instead of using CeeJai', whose father shot her mother and was then killed by police, to start a conversation about gun violence, the show sends her shooting with Jenna. Chris, ostracized by his Mormon family for his sexuality, could have been the most compassionate housemate, but he spends his time bullying women and calling them “bitches.” No one on the show changes. When Jenna’s racism pushes CeeJai' to her breaking point, there is no catharsis in seeing CeeJai' grab Jenna by her hair and repeatedly punch her face — just the tragedy of watching CeeJai' describe her disappointment in succumbing to the kind of violence that claimed her parents. In the aftermath of this event, the other housemates don’t have a conversation about their own privilege; they just laugh and keep drinking.
As the show filmed, rumors spread that Tony Hsieh was losing interest in Downtown. I felt the collective anxiety outside of bar/arcade Insert Coin(s), which appears shuttered and vacant on The Real World. Outside of my Downtown Project-owned apartment, the fence collapsed. In my kitchen, cabinet doors fell off when opened.
I read about the three people in the Downtown Project community who committed suicide in 2013 and 2014 — one by jumping off a building, one by hanging, and one by gunshot. I read the 2014 open letter in the Las Vegas Weekly from David Gould to Hsieh, published after Gould resigned as director of imagination for the Downtown Project. Gould called the era “a collage of decadence, greed, and missing leadership,” adding that many within the Downtown Project “squandered the opportunity to ‘dent the universe,’ (while) others never cared about doing so in the first place.” I thought I knew everything about Downtown, but it turned out I had only focused on music festivals, sushi bars, and rooftop pools. The stuff that looked fun.
Meaningful change requires that you look away from the party. Real World: Go Big or Go Home is proof of this. What if instead of being challenged by production to walk down Fremont Street in drag, the housemates had gone to the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada? What if instead of watching Jenna’s repeated racist behavior, we saw the group go to the Historic Westside to learn about segregation in Las Vegas?
Downtown Las Vegas in 2015 also chose the party. Instead of revitalizing the neighborhood with affordable housing, the Downtown Project invested in restaurants and bars. Instead of conversations about mental health, there was a giant cube for people to write their dreams on.
The tree-lined courtyard at my apartment, which had looked so pretty when I arrived, was filled with trash. The Downtown Project was technically my landlord, but they never answered my calls.
In the 31st season of The Real World, Downtown is the only Las Vegas. This 2015 universe is one in which you shuttle between The Market and the Vanguard Lounge. Where you must ignore the fact that The Market, despite its Whole Foods-style branding, sells Walmart products. Where you don’t know yet that in two years a man will get punched in the head outside of the Vanguard Lounge and die immediately, and then in another two years the bar will close, as will The Market, Beauty Bar, Grass Roots, and so many other Downtown businesses. And then a year after that, Hsieh will retire, die tragically in a fire in Connecticut without a will, and his remaining Downtown properties will be put up for sale.
To watch Real World: Go Big or Go Home now is to visit a Downtown that no longer exists. Today, there are new bars, new murals, and a new hotel that resembles the ones on the Strip.
But if you have $1,000 and you miss the past, you can still stay at The Real World Suite at the Gold Spike. You can swing in the hammock, give a pretend interview in the confessional booth, look down at the changing neighborhood from the balcony. You can spend a few hours in a bed where someone slept for 70 nights. You can imagine that person, who has abandoned a future in which they are a lawyer or a journalist or an activist or anything approximating change or even a conversation about change. You can go to sleep dreaming that person’s dreams. Dreams of pleasure, dreams of nothing.