Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Photographer sees parallels between Downtown Las Vegas and LA

Ed Fuentes sees similarities between Downtown Vegas and LA—starting with street art.
Photo: Leila Navidi

Photographer Ed Fuentes moved here three years ago for romance. But it’s the street art that has made Las Vegas feel like home.

As much as he misses Los Angeles, Fuentes is finding the thought of leaving Vegas less appealing these days. That’s not just because of the woman. It’s because he’s found in Downtown Las Vegas a place so much like downtown LA, where he lived for 13 years. Shortly after moving here, even before the Tony Hsieh-inspired “VIPsters”—Fuentes’ slang for Vegas hipsters—movement toward Downtown Las Vegas, Fuentes noticed the street art.

“I can deal with being here. This,” he says, looking at the people coming in and out of the Beat coffeehouse on Fremont, “is a very downtown LA kind of place. I didn’t know any of this existed when I moved here.”

Though he lived in Riverside until he was 34, Fuentes moved around the country and settled into downtown LA in 1997. In the early 2000s, he began writing about public art and downtown’s redevelopment. To this day, he writes about street art and murals for LA’s KCET, the nation’s largest independent public television station, and is pretty well known in LA art circles.

Fuentes, 53, believes a city becomes a community through public art, an opinion driven home by what he saw in LA.

“I watched it happen in downtown LA,” he says. “Street art and murals help people feel engaged in the streets. And that gray line of what is legal and illegal will never be agreed upon, but the art attracts people and allows them to experience a city as a city.”

He’s such a believer he’s taking Integrated Studies courses at Nevada State College in Henderson to focus on the connection between public art and economic growth.

So as he drove around Downtown Las Vegas almost three years ago, his eyes were already attuned to murals and street art. While it barely exists in the suburban cul de sac he now calls home, Fuentes found art in the form of homemade stickers or wheat pastes and murals everywhere Downtown.

That’s where he started to hang out. In the few years since, the similarities between what he saw in LA and here have made him chuckle.

“First, you’ve got a Frank Gehry building that looks like [LA’s] Disney Hall,” he says, referring to the similarities between the metallic Walt Disney Concert Hall and Las Vegas’ Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “You have people who want parks Downtown. You have these green bicycle lanes Downtown that just happened in LA about a year and a half ago, so you have people who want to be part of the cycling culture.”

LA’s Downtown Art Walk went through fiscal issues and almost shut down—a similar story to what happened with First Friday, before it was bought out by investors that included Hsieh.

“Then you have an area that’s attracting a creative urban crowd, the Vegas hipster, or let’s call them VIPsters,” Fuentes says, “because the guys here can’t really wear black skinny jeans. It’s too hot here; they look like they’re suffering. So they wear shorts.

“And, you know, half the people look like they’re from somewhere else, too.”

To this day, downtown LA residents are also going through some angst about gentrification, an issue that is only beginning to be talked about in Downtown Las Vegas. Fuentes doesn’t expect as much of an issue here, however, because Las Vegas has so many fewer downtown residential areas than LA.

“It’s always going to be shaping and evolving, and it should be, because that’s organic growth. You’re going to have the people with tattoos and Fran who wears black and serves coffee with a certain amount of coolness,” he says, as one of the Beat’s baristas wipes down a table.

“I don’t have any tattoos,” Fran smiles, playing along, then moving to the next table.

Fuentes chuckles.

“Downtown Vegas will be its own thing.”

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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