To understand what a big deal it is for me to live in Downtown Las Vegas, you first have to appreciate what a big deal it is for me to live anywhere. Five years ago, I sold all my possessions and began an experiment to discover whether it’s possible to live cheaper in upscale hotels around the world than it is to pay rent in London. The answer was an unequivocal yes. The freedom afforded by virtual living — the frequent travel, the constant flow of new friends, the 24-hour room service — prompted me to write a book espousing the joys of nomadic living.
Last year, pressed by my publisher to find a way to promote the book, I decided to spend a month in Las Vegas: staying a single night in each hotel on the Strip and writing about my experiences. To differentiate from the hundred billion Gonzo-wannabe travelogues to come out of the city each year, I spent my days away from the Strip, meeting the lawyers and schoolteachers and, yes, the strippers and escorts who call Vegas home. I wanted to understand what it’s like living in such a transient city — fewer than one and a half million people live in Clark County, compared with the 32 and a half million who visit annually.
I expected the people of Vegas to be interesting. I didn’t expect them to be so damned nice. Every cliche of small town America can be found here: the shopkeeper who remembers your name; strangers cheerfully greeting strangers on the street. Perhaps it’s what happens when almost everyone has spent time working in the hospitality industry. Certainly it couldn’t be the quality of life that makes everyone so cheery: until very recently, life in Vegas could be pretty damned bleak.
Take Downtown Las Vegas. Centred around Fremont Street, three or four miles North of the Strip, the central business district of Vegas is home to classic old hotel-casinos like the Golden Nugget and the Plaza. Until a couple of years ago it was also home to violent crime and dive bars. It’s easy to blame the development of the modern Strip (starting with the opening of the Mirage in 1989) for pulling tourists away from Downtown and hastening the area’s de-gentrification, but the classic casinos of Fremont Street have always been an oasis of light in a desert of poverty and misery. As one local responded when I asked about various efforts to revitalise the area: “You can’t revitalise a place that hasn’t ever been vitalised.”
So when Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer Zappos, offered to give me a tour of Downtown and to share his own bold plan for breathing new life back into the area, I was there like a shot. It’s always fun writing about people destined for certain failure. And yet…
“How are you going to write sarcastically about all of this?” Tony’s question at the end of the hour-long tour was rhetorical. He knew he’d sold me. Whereas previous attempts to ‘vitalise’ Downtown Vegas had been based on a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality — ‘it’ being a condo building, or an arts centre, Tony had a different approach. Staking the hundreds of millions of dollars he made from selling Zappos to Amazon in 2009, Tony had established The Downtown Project to encourage young, entrepreneurial people to relocate to the area around Fremont Street. He wanted to help build a city.
His first step was to convince the mayor to allow him to relocate Zappos from Henderson — 25 minutes out in the suburbs — to the former city hall building two blocks from Fremont Street. The move will deliver 2,000 young, employed people to the heart of Downtown by 2013. And of course all those have to eat, drink, play, shop and sleep. When I visited Tony’s apartment, the walls were covered in dozens of Post-it notes laying out the to-build list: library, Thai restaurant, school — the Downtown Project is also providing funding for hundreds of trainee teachers to live and work in the city.
“You should move here too,” Tony suggested. I laughed. Las Vegas has more hotel rooms per capita than anywhere else in America, so the idea of a hotel dweller renting an apartment was slightly ridiculous. I did, however, promise to come back in a month or so to see how his grand plans were playing out. Four weeks later, I was astounded: Tony’s wall of sticky notes had already turned into two new restaurants, an arts festival, the library, plus an investment in a private jet service to shuttle people in to Vegas from California.
The emotion I felt coming back to Downtown was much like that of being away from a newborn baby for four weeks — so much had happened since I’d been gone. I decided to check into the Plaza for a week — just to keep an eye on things, and maybe to try out a couple of the new restaurants. That was four months ago. My girlfriend and I just collected the keys to our new Downtown apartment, a couple of blocks from Fremont Street. And I’ve taken delivery of the first van-load of office furniture for my start-up publishing company, funded in part by Tony Hsieh.
Don’t laugh. You should move here too.
Paul Carr is a British author and columnist. His most recent book, The Upgrade: A Cautionary Tale of a Life Without Reservations, tells the story of how he spent five years living in hotels. He is also editor-in-chief of Not Safe For Work Corporation. www.nsfwcorp.com
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)