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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Tragedy, secrets and the tough side of Downtown development

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Bolt Barbers Matt Berman was found dead in his home on May 20.

The scene at Container Park was straight out of Silicon Valley, the HBO series about that hub of code-obsessed wannabe millionaires.

It was Thursday afternoon, blistering hot and store customers were few at the outdoor mall. Onstage a young man paced back and forth with a microphone, spewing clichéd platitudes familiar to anyone who’s attended any of the hundreds of Downtown Project-sponsored tech talks given over the last two years.

Gazing up—and holding still to keep from stirring up more heat—were about 100 people, most of them attendees of the “Up Summit.”

“Imagine a place that showcases the ideal community that empowers entrepreneurs—it’s Downtown Las Vegas,” reads the Up Summit’s website. “A place dreamed up by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, the Downtown Project is a group of passionate people committed to helping transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world. By bringing the Up Summit to Downtown Las Vegas, you will be able to feel and touch the power that a physical space has in a thriving community.”

Sigh.

There’s a brutal little app out called Secret. Last week, a Zappos employee told me to take a look to see what people are saying about Downtown Project.

Turns out Secret isn’t really about telling secrets. It’s more about anonymous bashing, similar to the stuff you find in the comment section of online newspaper articles. Except this is a site devoted entirely to bashing, without the aforementioned article to set people off.

I found little of value in what I read, though my Zappos contact said Secret gave people a place to talk freely.

“The other side has finally found a platform to share how they feel without retaliation,” the employee said, adding, “I’m too scared to write anything on it in fear that once they are hacked everyone will be outed for things they wrote secretly.”

Two months ago I wrote about the bloom fading from Downtown’s rose—the inevitable fatigue that comes from smiling too often and too largely. It’s gets tiring to hear constantly of some app/factory/toy/restaurant/bar/mall/dome or whatever-else-you-can-think-of that’s going to change the world. It’s especially tiresome when everyone else sees the other side.

Over the last week, several people have contacted me to ask about Matt Berman.

Berman, who looked 20 years younger than his 50, opened a Vegas outpost of LA-based Bolt Barbers in a refurbished caboose inside Container Park last year. He was found dead in his Valley home on May 20.

At press time, police were still investigating and the Clark County Coroner’s Office had not listed a cause of death.

Sources close to the investigation said some people suggested Bolt Barbers wasn’t doing great business. A few Bolt patrons told me stories of barbers there complaining about the poor customer base. One said he was getting a haircut there and saw walk-in after walk-in turned away because there weren’t enough barbers staffed.

Doing business is hard, often dirty work. It’s nose to the grindstone, 24 hours a day, and sometimes it is loss. So many who start fail to finish.

In 16 months, three people associated with Downtown Project have died, the previous two ruled suicides.

There’s a lot of mental illness in the world. A lot of loneliness. Many fall, feeling like failures because they couldn’t live up to an unlivable standard.

I don’t know why Matt Berman died. I do know he was an entrepreneur struggling like they all do to make a go of it.

Maybe the guy onstage, situated a few feet from Berman’s shop, might have served the audience better with that kind of honest talk.

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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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