Fremont East endures: ​​After a year of lockdowns and grief, the Downtown Las Vegas district is regaining its footing

Pedestrians watch the giant praying mantis at Downtown Container Park spout flames
Photo: Wade Vandervort

Look up most anywhere in the Fremont East district and you’ll see the banners. “Serendipity accelerates learning and innovation,” reads one. “Don’t lose the sense that ‘anything is possible,’” declares another. Each one features the same, all-caps headline—“THANK YOU TONY”—and an image of late Zappos CEO and Downtown Project founder Tony Hsieh.

It’s been a year since Hsieh died at age 46. Most of what has appeared in the national and international press in the aftermath of Hsieh’s passing relates to his final days, or to the heated legal battles now swirling around the disposition of his estate. Very few of these stories, if any, spend much time wondering what became of what Hsieh tried to build in Downtown Las Vegas—a kind of extended tech campus mixed with residential, nightlife and retail components, the funky hybrid ’hood where those banners are hanging now.

On one hand, the businesses Hsieh brought to Fremont East are doing just fine. “The fact that [our properties are] doing pretty close to the same numbers that we were doing in 2019 says to me that we might not only be back, we might be better than ever,” says Bill Kennedy, director of marketing for DTP Companies (formerly the Hsieh-founded Downtown Project). “If we continue on the path we’re on now … 2022 could be the best year ever since DTP was founded.”

A quick look around bears out his predictions. The line to enter the Gold Spike, DTP’s indoor-outdoor nightclub, wraps around the building. The bars of Fremont East are bustling most nights they’re open. Diners flock to the restaurants and lounges of Container Park, even on Sunday nights. And seemingly half the city crowds into the shops and restaurants of Fergusons Downtown on weekends; indeed, the indoor-outdoor dining and retail spot was one of the first local venues to bring back live music, through the DTLV Field Trip series.

That said, Fergusons’ co-founder and creative strategist Jen Taler concedes that the Fergusons vibe isn’t quite what it was during the venue’s opening months. (Which, by the way, were only three in number; COVID hit not long after Fergusons opened its doors.)

“We have really strong attendance, but you don’t feel that full [pre-pandemic] energy yet,” Taler says. “Over the last two years, people got really comfortable in their homes, [and] the summer was so brutal this year. I think we’re just taking some time to adjust to the quote-unquote ‘new normal,’ and remembering, ‘Oh yeah, I can go out and do stuff again in ways that are safe and feel comfortable.’”

A mural of Tony Hsieh on Zappos’ Downtown headquarters in February

That might explain why several aspects of Fremont East feel like something is pending. DTP representatives have nothing concrete to say about the shuttered Bunkhouse Saloon just yet. Some businesses, despite fully reopening, still have boards on their windows. Two Fremont East spaces—those formerly occupied by Beauty Bar and Don’t Tell Mama—are undergoing a lengthy refit by Ryan Doherty’s Corner Bar group to add a rooftop patio. And if you wander away from the lights and activity on Fremont, you’ll find people sleeping in doorways or sprawled on sidewalks.

Even the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that leads into Fremont East is in disarray—ripped up for major roadwork that will replace the Boulevard’s utility lines, sewers, sidewalks and landscaping. Visiting Fremont East now feels a bit like going to Disneyland and learning that Space Mountain is out of commission. And though it’s tempting to attribute this feeling to the lockdowns and the loss of Hsieh, the reality is that our city core is … kinda weird.

Architect and developer Chris Gonya—one of the creative partners behind the Lucy residential and retail complex, home to the Writer’s Block—understands that weirdness better than most. This year, he sold off the 19 Fremont-adjacent apartment units he owned, including the smartly-restored bungalows of the Pioneer.

“It just felt like it was time,” Gonya says. “I couldn’t really take the properties, or the neighborhood for that matter, any further up. I did the work that I could do with the tools that I had at my disposal.”

Gonya uses a nature analogy to describe the city core: He calls it a “rain shadow.” Simply put, a rain shadow is a region that has become arid because a nearby mountain is diverting the precipitation that allows things to grow.

“We live in the rain shadow of casino development,” Gonya says. “In other words, the taxable revenue from the penny slots at El Cortez will always be significantly more than the taxable revenue of a renovated, hip new neighborhood.”

The shape of that shadow gets weirder still. Downtown encompasses both low-income apartments and luxury housing, in many cases right next door to one another. It’s home to a federal courthouse, the Southern Nevada headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the city jail. The fact that something as community-focused as Fergusons Downtown—with its artisan shops, green lawn and free local hip-hop shows—exists on the same street as Fremont Street’s yard-long margarita stands and zipline is a testament to Tony Hsieh’s lateral thinking and sheer tenacity.

“One of our biggest goals was to own the daytime [in Fremont East], and to have a place that people can come hang out as a family,” Taler says.

Considering its relative newness, Fergusons’ neighborhood influence is visible. A new restaurant, Peyote, debuted at Fergusons this summer, and a collectibles shop, Fun on Fremont, recently opened across the street. The Usual Place, 11th Street Records, PublicUs, Vegas Test Kitchen, Sure Thing Chapel and Atomic Liquors all remain open, serving pre-COVID legacy customers and finding new ones.

Fremont East will surely never forget Tony Hsieh, even as it moves on without him. But the neighborhood now feels strong enough to acknowledge his passing, which it will do in a big way on December 11. Tony Hsieh’s Community Celebration of Life, a daylong festival centered at Container Park, will feature live music, variety acts, an art car showcase—“Just the kind of things that made him happy,” Kennedy says. “We want to make sure everybody is happy, and that’s what he would want.”

In other words, as far as Fremont East is concerned, we should feel like anything is possible.

“Downtown is bigger than a virus, bigger than just a person,” Kennedy says. “This is a combined effort of multiple people and forces and locals and tourists. And honestly, I do feel good. I feel good where we’re at right now.”

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