Curtis Joe Walker has been a proponent of Downtown’s 18b Arts District for at least a decade. Since 2010, he has owned and operated his photo studio, Photo Bang Bang, out of 224 E. Imperial Avenue, a spot that until recently sat adjacent to the longest-running gay bar in town, Bastille on Third (formerly Snick’s Place, opened in 1976). As secretary of the 18b Arts District neighborhood association since 2013, Walker has seen the area undergo countless changes. But recently, those changes hit closer to home.
In February, Atomic Liquors owner Lance Johns purchased the block of buildings that housed Photo Bang Bang, Bastille, the Las Vegas Ballet School, New Moon Entertainment and 1 Stop DJ Shop. The former tenants were not offered an opportunity to renew their leases and were given a two-month notice to move, according to multiple tenants. Johns did not return requests for comment.
1 Stop DJ Shop owner Rob Alahn operated his business for the past five years there. “We thrived off of each other’s energy and the opportunity to give this city some culture that it desperately needed,” he says. “I’ll be OK, others will relocate, but the opportunity for that synergy in one place? That’s what the city is losing.”
“We’ve been shedding talent for years,” Walker adds. “We lose critical businesses in the Arts District all the time.”
After the building was sold, Walker and Las Vegas Ballet School owner Welthy Silva both looked to New Orleans Square—in the Commercial Center complex—as a new home. New Orleans Square is already home to several galleries, including Core Contemporary,Random Alchemy and Hiptazmic Studio—the latter two of which were also former Arts District businesses. Photo Bang Bang and the ballet school are moving to what is increasingly becoming an arts district of its own within unincorporated Clark County, with more favorable rents and apparent stability.
“I had already considered leaving when I found out [Bastille] was leaving,” Silva says. “I thought, ‘What chance do I have?’ I’m a small ballet school teaching children, mostly. It’s not a lot of money. But I do think an arts district needs a ballet school.”
It begs the question, what happens when a community’s champions are pushed out? “The changes that are coming to the Arts District are going to seem instantaneous,” says Walker, who still sits on the 18b association board. In April, the Urban Lounge at the Arts Factory shut down on the corner of First and Charleston, and in June, Mingo Kitchen & Lounge and Tacos Huevos both closed on the same street corner.
“The thing that makes me sad is that this community of very different people all adding to the same thing is being blown into smithereens,” Alahn says. “Curtis landed here; New Moon is going to land there; I’m going to land someplace else. It’s like shrapnel.”