I took a stroll to the Bunkhouse, a Downtown dive on 11th Street, last weekend because I wanted to hear what Korean punk rock sounded like.
To my surprise, Galaxy Express sounded better than the punk rock I’d heard over the years at this venue. Lots of screeching, sure, but the musicians seemed more skilled instrumentally, and you could often understand what was being sung without a lyric sheet in hand. But that’s not what surprised me about the Bunkhouse, which has always been within a virtual stone’s throw of my various Downtown homes.
The place looks the same as ever, even from the times when former Clark County District Attorney Stewart Bell, now a judge, was part owner. Purposefully browned pictures of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and John Wayne adorn the walls alongside rusty saws and other metallic Western relics of digging, herding or cutting. The stage is still a tiny 1-foot riser in a corner near the front door, and the distance between band and audience is still way too close for the music to be played so loudly. The bartenders are still great — one overcharged me for a beer, then pointed it out and returned the dollar. Something, though, was different about the place.
I stepped outside. Walked a few feet to the corner of Fremont and 11th, looked west toward the Fremont Street Experience, then east to Maryland Parkway. Urban Lofts, a modern complex of condos directly across the street from the Bunkhouse, even looked funny.
Then it hit me: It feels close.
I don’t think that’s because the Bunkhouse was purchased in January by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and others, who have paid more than $100 million for some 30 acres of Downtown property in the past year. (Hsieh, by the way, said this week he has no plans to change the Bunkhouse, a relief to those who find it an urban dive-haven.) It’s because something I never thought could happen happened: Development is moving east.
The walk from Neonopolis or Downtown Cocktail Room to the Bunkhouse at night used to have its urban-made terrors. But I’ve been walking over to the Downtown Container Park — held up for at least a few weeks now, some say, because of the city’s slow, business-killing permitting process — between 7th and 8th streets for months now. Same with the Construction Zone on 7th and Eat restaurant at 7th and Carson. Imperceptibly, those streets have become walkable.
Within a month, the Atomic will reopen at Fremont and 9th streets, and this fall, the Life Is Beautiful festival will take place on empty lots between 9th and 10th. Today, when I look west down Fremont from 11th, it doesn’t feel like as much empty space between me and, frankly, safety.
Some will question whether that’s a good thing. I hear the word “gentrification” almost every day as people talk about the fast-moving redevelopment of Downtown. I’m sure some will miss the days when the process of discovering the Bunkhouse felt like entry into the “real” Vegas; when you no longer called yourself a visitor.
The thing about Downtown Las Vegas, and much of its east side, though, is that there are many more places like this — isolated taverns in areas you might find less than comfortable or where regulars look at you like a journalist at a Korean punk rock show when you stumble in.
If you want them, they will always be out there. But they won’t be the Bunkhouse.