Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Is Downtown too insular for its own good?

Josh Ellis says technologists used to work on big problems, “sending humans to the moon, ending poverty, ending disease. And they didn’t do it because it was gonna get them a big, badass IPO.”
Photo: Sam Morris

It was stunning to watch a local creative look over both shoulders before talking to me about what’s going on Downtown.

“I don’t think they really want to hear anything negative,” he said, sitting at the bar of the Beat coffeehouse.

“They” referred to the new influx of energetic Downtown residents and workers. His perception, he went on quietly, is that the Downtown community Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and the Downtown Project want to create is exclusive to like-minded people—people in tech who dress the same, who aren’t offensive to the senses. There’s an emergent community Downtown, he said, but some are beginning to think it’s only for people who speak fluent Ruby on Rails and quietly genuflect at the utterance of “delivering happiness.”

Josh Ellis has that sense, too. Ellis is a former CityLife columnist, self-described “coding ninja” and a recent author. Large and burly, you’re not likely to find him in a pair of skinny jeans. He looks as “Downtown tech” as a blackjack dealer. Ellis has also lived hand to mouth, check to check—sometimes check to no check—a prospect some in the neighborhood would find hard to fathom.

Yet, Ellis’ speech to a large room full of Downtowners and startup founders last Saturday night ended with a standing ovation. And he wasn’t exactly praising his audience.

“A few months ago, a startup developer friend said to me, ‘I don’t understand why poor kids, ghetto kids, don’t do startups to get out of poverty,’” Ellis began his talk. “The blunt truth is that he’s absolutely right. He doesn’t understand.”

Ellis’ talk was part of something that deserves praise­: Downtown Project’s monthly series of talks in the Construction Zone near Seventh and Fremont streets.

He chastised “what passes for innovation” in 2013—“apps that let you hire a private car … without all that tedious horror of actually hailing a cab,” for example—as less innovation and more just ways to get rich quick.

“Technologists used to work on big problems—sending humans to the moon, ending poverty, ending disease,” Ellis said. “And they didn’t do it because it was gonna get them a big, badass IPO. … They did it because technology is about improving the human condition.”

If they wanted to make money, he told the audience, show some flesh: “Go start a porn site. Seriously. Low overhead, high revenue. Make porn if money is your sole interest.”

But that’s not supposed to be the sole interest of the powers trying to remake Downtown. Indeed, the site for VegasTechFund, a tech investment group whose partners include Hsieh, includes wording to the effect that it won’t work with businesses that don’t intend to help improve Downtown’s community.

“Community” also shouldn’t be considered as confined to the cleaned-up areas of Fremont at Sixth and Seventh streets, Ellis contended. It should include some of the darker reaches of Fremont, which Ellis encouraged his audience to visit to “see how (people there) interact with each other and their environment. Talk to them … then ... use your amazing minds, your resources, your power to make their lives better.”

He gave a raft of ideas, including smartphone apps that tell when the bus will really arrive or teach tech classes at low cost to the poor. Might even Downtown Project use its collective mind to figure out innovative ways to improve the lot of the poor, the homeless and others who have known Downtown as “home” for decades?

Summing up his audience, Ellis said: “If you’re sitting here listening to me, chances are you were born with a set of resources and opportunities that 95 percent of the humans on this planet can only imagine. … But that position, those same resources and opportunities, can often make a very effective set of blinders.

“We can be better. We can be amazing. We can be heroes,” he concluded.

The audience stood and applauded. People offered their heartfelt thanks after his speech.

But talk, as Las Vegas knows, is cheap. Perhaps Downtown movers and shakers possess the kind of energy it takes to turn it into action. Maybe one of them will take those first steps east beyond the bubble.

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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