Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: A Downtown Project death leaves many questions unanswered

Bright light: The loss of Ovik Banerjee is a tragic blow for his Downtown family.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Many tears were shed Downtown last week at the passing of 24-year-old Ovik Banerjee, who was found dead outside his apartment building on January 6. He appears to have fallen from a height, according to the Clark County Coroner’s office, which is treating the death as a suicide but has ordered a toxicology test. Friends, however, say he did not drink or do drugs.

Banerjee was a key employee with the Downtown Project, Tony Hsieh’s $350 million redevelopment operation, and once described himself as “a Swiss Army Knife for the Downtown Project.” Those who knew him said Banerjee was a very smart, very sweet young man.

After Banerjee’s death, grief counselors were made available at Zappos and Downtown Project, whose employees often intersect and know each other as friends. Banerjee crossed paths with many as he not only made himself indispensable to the Downtown Project but was one of the few people from inside the “bubble” who actively reached out to groups and entities beyond Downtown. Part of his job dealt with programming space in the Learning Village, a large collection of trailers on Fremont Street used for classes and meetings.

As news of his death spread, more than a few who knew him recalled the January 2013 suicide of Jody Sherman, 47, who moved his company,, to Las Vegas in late 2011 as one of the first tech investments of VegasTechFund, a branch of Downtown Project. People also asked what everyone asks after a suicide: Why?

Downtown is truly one of the few places where you continually say “Hi!” to people you genuinely know as you walk down the street. For those who live and work in the neighborhood, there’s a level of ease and comfort you won’t find almost anywhere else in Las Vegas. I hate to use the word, but what has transpired down here is “community.”

Someone put the hard question to me after Banerjee’s death: If Downtown is such a great community, why didn’t he feel comfortable enough to reveal his inner anguish to someone? A Downtown lawyer asked: “Is it that everyone’s so actively talking about how good it is, and how everyone is delivering happiness, that those who feel unhappy can’t tell anyone about it?”

It stops you cold to think of the unhappiness that leads someone to commit suicide. Decades ago, I had a brother who struggled with psychological demons and took the same route as Banerjee and Sherman. For all those decades, I, my siblings and my parents struggled and wondered how we might have stopped it, each thought wracked with anguish and guilt. It was many years before my mom could enter her church without weeping.

Banerjee’s family will go through their own grieving. So will his acquaintances and friends Downtown. In the end, there’s one thing they can all know: They didn’t cause it. They couldn’t have stopped it.

There is community Downtown. There are many, many people who care deeply and would drop everything they were doing to help even a stranger. I know them. I see them every day.

A wizened business operator connected to Downtown Project said Sunday that “no one really knows” what’s going on in the minds of other people. She also said there’s a point in life when you learn that no matter how bad things get, they always tend to get better.

That’s not something you can tell people, unfortunately. It’s something you learn only by dealing with the struggle, asking for help when you need it, and moving on.

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Joe Schoenmann

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