Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: The fine line between problems and progress

The inside of the Huntridge looks rough, but it’s far from a lost cause.
Photo: Sam Morris

One person’s gentrification is another person’s progress.

It all depends on who you talk to, of course, a fact that became more evident over beers in Downtown Las Vegas last weekend.

Saturday night, two touchstones refired the debate, which generally focuses on Downtown Project as both culprit and savior. They were the fundraiser to renovate the historic Huntridge Theatre and the temporary closure of the Bunkhouse. How those two places fit into the gentrification equation is as interesting as the places themselves.

As a Huntridge fundraiser worked through the heat last Saturday, inside the air conditioned theater, one man declared that the Bunkhouse will never survive without bar-top slots and smoking, two things Downtown Project said it would eliminate. A few feet away standing at the bar, a Downtown Project employee took the prediction in stride, saying new and better programming of music and food are on the way.

But the Huntridge was really the focus of the night. Can it be saved? Will enough money come in? Will investors want to be a part of it?

One former longtime owner of the theater got a tour of her old love last week. Ninety-two-year-old Edythe Katz didn’t say much as she was wheeled down a steep incline to the floor of the theater, but she said enough: “It’s awful,” she declared.

During my tour, some 200 mattresses, piled eight high, were stored on the theater floor, giving it the look of the warehouse in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A former recording studio upstairs was stripped of soundproofing, with holes punched in the walls where it looked like wiring was torn out.

Of course, the heat inside the building, the black walls and black ceiling probably made it seem dustier and even more oppressive. But it’s far from a lost cause. Most of the building’s ugliness, inside as well as out, appears cosmetic. You stand on that concrete floor and realize it’s doable; it can change.

Will it? That’s another question.

It’s not just money at issue. It’s the chorus of those who growl about Downtown Project whenever the Huntridge is invoked, despite the fact that DTP isn’t the group responsible for its redevelopment. The theater has become a lightning rod for those who don’t like what DTP is doing.

In the minds of some, nothing Downtown Project is doing is any good.

Maybe they should talk to Sheri “Sugar” Vogel, executive director of the Southern Nevada Senior Law Program, which provides free legal service to 2,000 seniors each year.

Vogel has been with Senior Law since 1986, and until last year, the organization received aid from the city of Las Vegas. Times are tough, however, and the city ended its support in July 2012.

At the same time, Senior Law’s office was being taken over by Downtown Project because it’s in the same building as the 9th Bridge School, an early education private school DTP is opening in August.

So, is “the Man” pushing them out?

Not quite. Downtown Project is offering Senior Law free rent and paid utilities for five years. In addition, they’re moving them into one of the few Class A office buildings Downtown at Las Vegas Boulevard and Bonneville Avenue. In addition to that, DTP is paying for tenant improvements to the space, in essence taking responsibility for something our local government—funded by taxpayers—has given up.

You have to hear Vogel’s voice to understand her excitement and gratitude: “They are giving seniors such a professional space. They are ensuring the survival of the program. They’re great.”

This won’t matter to some who believe Downtown Project embodies the same old redevelopment tactics that crush the old and the poor to make way for Starbucks. But I wonder how they’d feel if they had no money, were elderly and needed legal advice.

More Joe Downtown: Huntridge Theatre discussion leaves Facebook for face-to-face answers

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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