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[Coolican's Neon Eden]

Is Downtown Las Vegas in danger of gentrification?

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Will the arrival of Zappos employees gentrify Downtown?
Photo: Leila Navidi

A recent article by my colleague Joe Schoenmann in the Las Vegas Sun discussed a few Zappos employees feeling uneasy about their new Downtown digs. The first 200 of what will eventually be nearly 2,000 employees have moved from the suburbs to Downtown, and a photo accompanying the story showed employees walking to the parking garage, in daylight, with a security escort. At Preview Thursday last week, everyone snickered about needing a security detail.

The article raised legitimate questions, however, about Downtown safety, which I’ll address in a future column—short answer: It’s not unsafe—but the arrival of Zappos workers got me thinking about another phenomenon that can’t be far behind: gentrification. Rich people in, poor people out.

Las Vegas, as a newer Sun Belt city that sprawled ever outward, has never quite seen the classic gentrification that most other American cities have witnessed during the past two decades. Here’s how it goes: In the early ’90s, people who grew up in the suburbs hated the ’burbs and wanted to live in the urban core. Due to the crime wave and general social unrest of the previous decades, cities were cheap. The move often started with gays who sought refuge in an accepting neighborhood. Artists and other urbanophiles joined them. They brought funky used furniture stores and vinyl palaces and good bars with Yo La Tengo on the jukebox and interesting restaurants. The street life made the area safer, and the virtuous cycle began.

First it was the cool place to be, and the next thing you knew, yuppies moved in, and there was a Starbucks and a Gap and baby strollers and you just wanted to punch someone.

As a waiter in Portland and Chicago and then a badly paid reporter in Seattle, I saw this firsthand. I chose neighborhoods that were cheap and supplied what I needed—walking distance to food, alcohol and a used bookstore. Then I’d watch it all change before my eyes. My neighborhood north of Wicker Park in Chicago is hardly recognizable from when I lived there in the ’90s. Same with Ballard in Seattle, which was a sleepy fishing village with some great dive bars but now has artisanal cupcakes. Most major cities experienced this during the past two decades—Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Mission in San Francisco, Silver Lake in LA, Dupont Circle in D.C.

Here’s the fear, aside from the annoying ironic mustaches and skinny jeans that come with gentrification: The poor people who lived in the neighborhood for years or even generations get pushed out. While understandable, that fear is a little overblown. To begin with, terrible “urban renewal” projects and freeway construction in the post-war era displaced far more people than gentrification ever has.

Next, Lance Freeman of Columbia University compiled data that blew up the whole idea, showing that poor people in gentrifying neighborhoods are less likely to move than poor people in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. As the New York Observer noted, wouldn’t you like to stay in an improving neighborhood?

Finally, Brookings-Mountain West Director Robert Lang, who in the 1990s correctly predicted the re-emergence of cities, notes that unlike San Francisco or New York City or Boston, Las Vegas doesn’t have a large stable of white-collar workers to push up rents. Let’s remember that many of the Zappos crew work in the call center. Unless and until Las Vegas has more people with college degrees, i.e., people with more money, landlords won’t be able to command the rents of those other cities and thereby push out lower-income residents.

Finally, if we have to choose between an empty and depressing Downtown and gentrification, I think we’d choose the latter. Don’t worry, by the time they open a J. Crew store on the first floor of the Ogden, there’ll be some other neighborhood—perhaps farther east on Fremont around the Huntridge—that will be the cheap, up-and-coming cool place to be. I’ll buy you a PBR.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.
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