A Pioneer, Uptown
Liz von Till Warren and the Historic Westside of Las Vegas
The bell rang inside the service station as a young woman pulled her white Plymouth Valiant up to the gas pumps. As the attendant approached, she signaled him to fill it up. With gas pumping, he moved to the front to wash her windshield, and noticed the woman had kids in the car. The four of them were silent, but the woman was crying.
"What's the matter, Ma'am?" He asked.
"Didn't you hear?" She replied, "Martin Luther King was shot."
"Oh, please," the man scoffed, "That n****r got what he deserved."
The woman slammed the three speed column shifter into first gear, laid on the gas and popped the clutch. The sedate station wagon burned rubber over the pavement, tearing the gas hose out of the pump and dragging it behind the car, leaving the slack-jawed, racist pump jockey in a pool of fool's fuel. It was late morning, April 4th, 1968 in Santa Barbara, California, and Elizabeth von Till Warren had heard enough.
As the youngest of her four children in that car, I was about to turn four years old and would have very little memory of that day. But I've always been able to see it, because my sister Suzy told me the story, over and over. The vision of my mother, this educated, white, middle class mother of four, making a violent exit that day, told me exactly what not to tolerate. She had told us all, in no uncertain terms, without saying a word. That incident has always been a source of family pride.
A year later we had moved to Las Vegas. School integration was the topic raging in the press. Mandatory busing of white public school students to black schools and vice versa was triggering anti-integration protests. The blowback spilled over into the classrooms as the fight came to teachers and school administrators too. The quality of education in Las Vegas suffered as a result.
That's when a pilot project was announced, promoting integration to just about anyone who would accept busing, before it was mandatory. The idea was to see if it would catch on. Several progressive teachers and administrators were attracted to these magnet schools, including the one I attended, CVT Gilbert, in North Las Vegas. It was a torn up black school, in a neighborhood of board-ups.
The experience would have a lasting affect on my siblings and me. It was tough, and challenging. But we treasured those exciting, tumultuous years, the lasting friendships and uniqueness it added to our own history. Among the teachers the magnet program attracted were the best in town. Our education was enhanced directly, as well as indirectly by the environment itself.
About a year after we started at CVT Gilbert, a 38 year-old UNLV professor of anthropology walked into a meeting with the University Board of Regents in Las Vegas. He anticipated a negative response to his request that the university system allow him to begin a Black Studies Program. Thus it was no surprise when the Regents told him they didn't think it was a good idea in the political climate of the day. "OK," my father replied, "But I think you should know that the Black Student Union is going to launch a public protest if the program is denied."
Suddenly the Black Studies Program, later called African American and African Diaspora Studies, was a wonderful idea of the Board of Regents. Professor Claude Warren left that meeting and went straight to deliver the news, to all of the members of the Black Student Union. Both of them. Though he was no poker player, Liz's husband knew how to bluff when the need arose.
Almost forty years later, I was part of a group of investors to whom I promoted the viability of a nearly abandoned stretch of road which had once been home to segregation-era black nightlife in Las Vegas. Others began to agree with my theory that this avenue might make a nostalgic comeback, attracting a diverse, modern audience interested in the experience and commercial viability of black American culture. Jackson Avenue had once been the main drag for black enterprise in a segregated downtown Las Vegas. The imagery brought nostalgia and a feeling of a coming renaissance to many, But it was 2003, and I was about twenty years too early.
One night, at dinner with my parents at the Bootlegger Restaurant in Las Vegas, I discussed the concept of re-branding historic black Las Vegas. The area had been called "the west side" since 1905, because it lay just west of the railroad tracks. The streets there had in fact been plotted and filed by a hustler of the era named J.T. McWilliams, who had hoped, in 1904, to get the railroad to pay him when their tracks hit his newly mapped town. Instead, the railroad, then led by W. A. Clark, pulled up the rails and re-laid them to the east of JT's planned town, placing the McWilliams Township literally on the wrong side of the tracks. It was destined to be a shanty town.
Later freeway construction, in the era of Jim Crow laws proudly supported by Las Vegas Mayor Earnest Cragin, together with aggressive racial separatist actions taken by the City at that time, ensured the area became a slum. This surrounded the dice joints, bars and card rooms of Jackson Avenue, curtained-off by the concrete barriers of US95 and and I15. The souls who lived in the hovels, or visited the area to experience the vice in area clubs like the El Morocco, the Cove Hotel, the Cotton Club, the Peoples Choice, the Brown Derby or the Town Tavern, could wash away their sins at any of the twenty-two churches within the area's two square miles. There were enough religious institutions to establish Las Vegas as having the highest number of churches per capita in the USA.
The old moniker of "the west side" was unofficial, and in the modern era it made newcomers to Las Vegas think of upscale Summerlin, in the west end of the valley. Historic black Las Vegas needed easier reference nomenclature.
"Las Vegas has a downtown," my mother said at dinner that night, "But it has no uptown. Refer to the whole area as 'uptown' Las Vegas."
Spoken like the native New Yorker she was. My mother knew the similarity to the Big Apple's Harlem was obvious. Both areas had housed black entertainers - often the very same individuals - when the rest of Manhattan or Las Vegas would not. The name seemed perfect to me. I shared it with friends, and it caught on quickly. And so it was that Liz von Till Warren first began calling Las Vegas Historic Westside "Uptown Las Vegas."
There was a lot of excitement about Uptown in those days. Especially when the Mayor's pet project of Symphony Park began to take shape, with it's crown jewel, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, under construction just a stone's throw down F Street. But soon an old friend from the 'hood, who was an engineer working at the I-515 expansion office in Las Vegas, told me off the record that the City wanted to close the F street underpass. F Street was the only double underpass traversing both I-15 and US 95, which otherwise provided the "concrete curtain," making uptown inaccessible from downtown. It was the only direct connection, in a perfect straight line with only two lights, between uptown, and Symphony Park, downtown.
At a charity auction, I bought a lunch with Mayor Oscar Goodman. I brought an investor with me, and City Councilman Larry Brown joined the Mayor as we lunched at Triple George, downtown. They knew my holdings in the area and asked me what was needed to make things move forward. "We don't need money or help. We need you to stay out of the way," I replied politely, "And don't close F Street." Silence. I let my only request hang there in the dead air, with no explanation. The two of them looked floored. They finally spoke up, saying they knew nothing of such plans. I then revealed the official project map of the proposed closure, which I had managed to coax from my informant friend. They assured me this plan had been abandoned.
Proposed F Street Closure obtained from a friend in 2005. Officials denied this would be carried out. Months later, it was.
Not long after the lunch, residents uptown were surprised to find one morning when driving downtown, a wall of dirt where their underpass had been. F Street was closed, its underpass filled in.
Uptown investments lost a third to a half of their value over night. My attempts to get a meeting with City Councilman Weekly and more often later with Councilman Ricki Barlow, who succeeded Weekly to represent the area, were always thwarted. Barlow was eventually ousted and jailed on a campaign finance charge. Whispered in the alleys and board rooms came the explanation that a large developer, who had donated land for government offices in symphony park, had requested the closure of F Street. The concrete curtain was back up, in the 21st century.
It would be years before public outcry brought back an underpass at F Street. But the new replacement was modified so as not to be a straight passage, making northbound traffic, heading uptown, stop and turn left across traffic, right up against the underpass. This stopped traffic on F Street right behind a soup kitchen, in between the two freeways, and added more city sidewalk space. On seeing this I was instantly taken back to a conversation with retired Regional Transportation Commission traffic expert Sam Wright, who told me all along to take command of the traffic proposals. I realized how right he was, as the homeless took up residence in droves on the widened sidewalk with slowed traffic. The now slow-moving, new underpass became a horrific tent tunnel, with anyone driving this gauntlet of despair forced, by the new traffic design, to stop in the middle of the nightmare. Many who ventured to drive it did so only once. A few years later, new City Councilman Cedric Crear would make serious headway in modifying and cleaning up the underpass, but by then the traffic layout was finalized, and the earlier investors had fled.
While the powers that were had done all they could to further diminish the importance of the uptown area, the very scarcity of its remaining landmarks, artifacts, and even lack of access, caused an increase in appreciation and demand. It always works that way. This is the paradox of preservation. People want what what they can't have, they want what is gone.
Interlopers and opportunists took notice, flying in and lawyering up to steal whatever was left of the commerce, usually by landing slap suits on beleaguered owners or mortgage holders, who couldn't afford to endlessly defend their positions against parasite attorneys, in for a cut. These clueless out-of-towners, deluded in their disregard for the requirements demanded by privileged licenses such as gaming and liquor in the City of Las Vegas, mistook disdain by some local government and other officials for an invitation to throw their own cultural appropriation ball. Rather than invest in local business or with uptown business owners, they tried to commandeer the casino and bar businesses, by elimination of previous owners using any means necessary. It didn't work. This pathetic amateur hour resulted only in the closure of the last of the uptown privileged license businesses.
The local authorities seemed only to watch the dumpster fire, then went into a frenzy of "clean and lien" actions, grabbing the land under the last of the hovels they could demolish and lien, then commandeer for the cost. More scraped lots and urban blight, all just a stone's throw from the massive new construction of Symphony Park, with its $100 million Smith Center.
But during all of the nonsense of these would-be businessmen and their smarmy lawyers, real people uptown came to realize it was time to remind the world where Las Vegas came from. It was time to make a permanent record of the trail of the Las Vegas Pioneers. Former Regional Transportation Commission traffic pattern expert Sam Wright teamed up with long-time pillars of the community David Hoggard Sr. and Barbara Kirkland. Names familiar to any long-time Las Vegan, like Tommy Tomiyasu, and Ward 5 community organizer Katherine Duncan joined the cause, bringing in the Las Vegas Cultural Affairs Office's Bob Stoldal, which even drew County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates and City Councilman Lawrence Weekly into the project. Claytee White recorded much of the inspiration and action, spearheading the Oral Histories program at UNLV Special Collections and Archives, further embedding the history in the permanent record.
If there was ever an uptown matriarch, she was the woman who had owned the People's Choice and Moulin Rouge Casinos. An ally of my mother's for many years, the first and only woman of color ever to receive a gaming license in Nevada. I called her my "uptown mom," Sarann Knight Preddy. The group knew another powerful personality had joined the ranks when this octogenarian took a seat at the table in her trademark hat. She rounded out the founders which included Asian American, African American, Native American, as well as white members. If many of the landmarks no longer existed, and the access was closed off or confused, this group would register a historic trail, to take any who followed it back in time, traveling through the origins of Las Vegas, including the multiple important sites uptown. To create the historic interpretations and landmarks of this oldest section of Las Vegas, they would commit their vast knowledge, experience and assets such as caches of historic photographs, oral histories, documents and more, to consolidate the story and have it told by a trusted historian they each individually knew. Once again, Elizabeth von Till Warren wielded a pen and podium uptown.
Warren's long history in preservation helped to bring funding from State, City and non-profit sources. Durable, photographic markers were put in place at sixteen points along the trail. She drafted the narrative and recommended the marker placements. Forever into the permanent record went the Las Vegas Pioneer Trail.
Ten years on, a new city councilman has made great inroads into preserving what is now officially called Las Vegas Historic Westside. Born and raised in the area, Councilman Cedric Creer has unabashedly thrown his hat into the ring, with a vision of development along cultural and historic lines, and bringing residents back uptown. A successful businessman, former member of the Board of Regents, progressive City Councilman and graduate of all the right schools, Creer's bid for Mayor of Las Vegas in the coming years would put the first native Las Vegan in that office, and could provide the opportunity to turn the tables on the perception of the Historic Westside, where he grew up.
As I consider the prospects and the recent history, I am reminded of what my mother taught me about the area: That any investment which ignores or excludes those who live there is destined for failure; that the culture of the place is not only its history and location, but its population. This is black Las Vegas, two cultures celebrated the world over, but so far ignored, or even paved over, at their very genesis. She summed up demand simply when she referred to an old uptown friend of mine, "You and Chris don't go to Chinatown to see people who look like you two." Point taken.
My mother reminded me that one of the first ranchers to settle in Las Vegas was John Howell, a black man who bought land in the uptown area in 1872. A power play by a competitor upstream on the Las Vegas Creek stole Howell's water, destroying his ranch in a land grab. Howell may have been eliminated, but the area remains black Las Vegas to this day. If you think you may do well bringing something counter to that culture in that place, you might do well to think again. Uptown's nearly ghost town vibe is also evidence of a certain defiant resilience, and I celebrate it. Empty, maybe. A sellout, never.
I remain hopeful that I will one day drive uptown to the Historic Westside, and enjoy much more of the music, food, culture, families and their businesses connected to this historic place. Interlopers will always come and go. Uptown lives.