The frivolities of Sin City have long attracted millions of visitors. North of the strip is Downtown, a blossoming neighbourhood that’s swapping its once-dark reputation for a more authentic, but still glittering Las Vegan experience, says Farida Zeynalova
His shimmery purple mankini is tremendously distracting. There he is, right in the middle of Fremont Street, wearing a cowboy hat and posing nonchalantly with one leg cocked in front of the other, outside The Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. This is just a small taste of Downtown Vegas’ extravagant eccentricity.
My expectations of Las Vegas were mostly powered by Hollywood; razzmatazz on every corner of the neon-soaked Strip; a fiesta of flying dollar bills, 24-hour mega clubs and drunken Elvis impersonators roaming the streets at 5am. I imagined it as a bastion of wildness and frivolity, and the Strip certainly lives up to that. It’s as if someone has taken a canvas of dry desert, red rock and Joshua trees, and hurled a splotch of neon at it in a fit of rage.
But as we drifted away from the main drag, it slowly became obvious that Vegas could be less Oceans 11 and The Hangover, and more cultural renaissance. “Ma’am, let me tell you something. The real Las Vegans don’t hang around the Strip,” says our driver, David, as we head Downtown. A few years ago, the area was considered shady, no thanks to the detention center nearby. Before the flood of hipster eateries and mason jar cocktails, anywhere that wasn’t the canopied area of Fremont Street was mostly for cheap gambling.
I look out as the blinding desert sun continues to beat at the tinted windows, and it’s starting to feel like we’re in Vegas’ less hallucinatory, more authentic little sister. There are baby pink Cadillacs parked on residential driveways, retro coffee shops and American diners selling waffles, all wrapped up a filter of dry, Nevadan heat.
In a bid to shake off its somewhat sordid past, the Downtown Project, spearheaded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, was launched in January 2012, investing $350m (£288m) in revitalizing the area — particularly the dining and entertainment sectors in Fremont Street and East Village. The shabby Old Lady Luck casino has become the gleaming Downtown Grand casino and hotel, while the Downtown Container Park open-air shopping center has opened its doors. Cheaper accommodation and entertainment being available has meant that visitors needn’t break the bank to get a feel of Las Vegas. Even though Downtown lacks the showy commotion and hospitality numbers of the main strip, I’m still in the city home to more hotel rooms than all of Europe combined. The city’s non-gaming income has recently surpassed its gaming revenue, and Vegas seems keen to appeal to more than just gamblers.
I’m now at Fremont Street Experience, a five-block entertainment arena. A girl is squealing uncontrollably as she zip-lines past the neon signs and fast-food joints enclosing the 24-hour mall. A giant American flag hovers above, brash outlets are advertising two star-spangled hats for $9.99 and a stall is selling multi-colored Mardi Gras beaded ties. Steakhouses, gift shops and casinos abound, but it feels less ostentatious than the Strip — less sashimi and dry Martinis, and more over-stuffed burritos and giant neon cowboys dangling from the ceiling.
Outside again, a hawker offers me a jumbo hotdog. I decline and head north towards Stewart Avenuwe. I pass by El Cortez Hotel and Casino, the city’s longest-running hotel and casino. The low-rise building, which after several renovations over the years bears the same vaguely colonial Spanish facade it did in 1952, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
‘GAMBLING’, shouts the ubiquitous neon sign, while a red and white marquee sign is awfully proud of a slab of prime rib for $10.95. I pass a brick wall on 6th Street spray-painted with vividly colored fish, the street bordered by near-empty car parks. There isn’t a soul around, and a sea of hotel vacancy signs cross over each other in the distance. The streets here conjure up images of a sepia-toned Vegas, when mobster Bugsy Siegel laid the first brick of his gambling empire by opening The Flamingo, one of the first casino hotels on the strip, in 1946. His life, and the history of organized crime in the US, can be probed further at the nearby Mob Museum on Stewart Avenue, housed in a former federal courthouse — a must-see for those with a taste for the darker side of this neon-bright city.
My next stop is the Neon Museum on North Las Vegas Boulevard. The development of more cost-efficient LED lights has meant that retro neon signs, once an integral part of Las Vegan pizzazz, were either scrapped or relegated to the Museum’s centerpiece, the Neon Boneyard. Here in this sprawling outdoor lot, vintage signs with peeling paint and broken light bulbs sit tightly packed together, under the punishing Nevada sun. Among the retro pieces are the Stardust Hotel’s colossal spiky letters, Moulin Rouge Casino’s flowing script, and Green Shack’s placard, a relatively unassuming green and white sign that catches my eye.
“It belonged to a lady called Mattie Jones, who owned one of the longest-serving restaurants in Las Vegas,” our guide Giselle tells me, squinting as her droopy blue hat fails to keep the 30C sun out of her eyes. Green Shack, which sat on Fremont Street until its final days in 1999, originally served the passing traffic. It’s just one of many historic outlets that failed to survive the dawn of the millennium, and the relentless development of the main strip.
I admire Downtown for keeping the city’s old-fangled legacy alive. It may not be the backdrop to Hollywood blockbusters or at the top of visitors’ Vegas must-see list, but it’s still giving the main drag a run for its chips. I come full-circle to the Golden Nugget, where I spot the scantily-clad lingerer once again, and, for a fleeting moment, our eyes meet in recognition. Ah, Vegas.