Exploring New Orleans Square, the unexpected cultural hot spot of Commercial Center

Photo: Wade Vandervort

Commercial Center is not a mall. Nor is it a strip mall, even though in a 2016 Vice article, writer Steve Friess dubbed it “The weirdest, queerest strip mall in Vegas.”

We can’t call it these things for the simple reason that this nearly 60-year-old collection of retail centers—configured, in a near-perfect square, around thousands of unshaded parking spaces—is owned by several different landlords. It’s actually a bunch of strip malls, just hangin’ out. Conveniently, Vice also called Commercial Center a “district,” and at a whopping 38 acres—sure, why not?

Vice was also right about the diversity of Commercial Center. Here you’ll find Lotus of Siam, a Northern Thai restaurant of international renown (though still temporarily closed for renovation); the Green Door, an 18,000-square-foot swingers’ club with “voyeur” areas and “orgy beds”; the Vegas and Nevada Rooms, twin showroom-supper clubs; a huge variety of casual dining spots, from a Colombian bakery to a Mediterranean bar and grill; the Sahara Event Center, a cavernous roller-skating and events space where Led Zeppelin and the Doors once played; and, as Vice promised, a goodly number of LGBTQ businesses, including the venerable Spotlight Lounge and Badlands Bar.

Then there’s New Orleans Square, the property at Commercial Center’s southwest corner. It’s visually different than the other retail complexes—two stories, with its own interior courtyard, Big Easy-inspired wrought iron flourishes and wall murals by local artists including Recycled Propaganda and Gear Duran. And, somewhat inexplicably, this self-contained retail plaza, independent of even Commercial Center itself, is rapidly becoming the hottest arts and culture neighborhood in the Valley, with multiple galleries and performance spaces, a 1990s-style coffeehouse, a 1970s-inspired bar and much more, all thanks to a father-daughter trip to Black Rock City.

“My dad was a big commercial real estate business guy for 30 years,” says Chelsey Kelly, operations director for McMenemy Investment Services, current owners of New Orleans Square. Her parents, Ron and Judy McMenemy, bought NOS in the mid-aughts because of its courtyard, Kelly says. “They loved the fact that it had its own little private area where things can happen, and things do currently happen.”

Those courtyard events—film screenings, art walks and other locals-friendly cultural events—are happening because, about five years back, Chelsey took Ron to Burning Man, and he was completely wowed by it.

The front of New Orleans Square.

“He fell in love with the arts world and was like, ‘Wow, this is what we’ve got to do,’” Kelly says. “So we started flipping everything around, getting more of the art community here, creating what we call a family. It’s not just a place for artists and tenants to come and have a great place to hang out; it’s a place to get involved … to enjoy being around your neighbors, working together and building something better than just ‘hey, my shop is here.’”

The McMenemys’ drive to pull in arts-friendly tenants coincided with rising rents in the Arts District, which attracted a number of galleries and arts-driven businesses that couldn’t find affordable properties amongst Downtown’s proliferating brewpubs and upscale restaurants. New Orleans Square, with its Downtown-adjacent location, abundant and easily adaptable spaces and arts-friendly ownership, could scarcely be a better fit.

“I couldn’t afford the square footage in the downtown area, and I really can’t afford it now,” says Nancy Good, whose Core Contemporary gallery occupies a large space on NOS’s second floor. “And this is such a unique and historic property; this was the place to be and be seen. You know, there was art, there was designer clothing, there was furriers and jewelers, gourmet restaurants and all this stuff. And what place in town has a thousand-plus free parking spaces? It was the place to be years ago, and I look at it as the place to be now.”

Core Contemporary Gallery

Core Contemporary Gallery

When visiting NOS for the first time, the galleries are actually an excellent place to start. Core Contemporary (corecontemporary.com) features Good’s detailed, trippy works—in fact, when you visit, she’ll probably be working on several at once—and works by other local artists as well. A small stage accommodates performance art pieces, like Clarice Tara’s 2018 Dissonance. And performance is the primary driver of The Truth Spot, a “poetry gallery” that features the Spit Your Truth open-mic Sundays at 7 p.m., and has been known to present occasional music showcases; the website has details at thetruthspotlv.net/events.

Available Space Art Projects, or ASAP (availablespaceartprojects.com), is a small gallery that hosts offbeat pop-up shows by established local artists such as Pasha Rafat, Jennifer Henry, Alisha Kerlin, Nima Abekenar and Krystal Ramirez, experimenting with stuff they don’t usually get to try. Formerly located in the Arts District, Photo Bang Bang (photobangbang.com), the studio of endlessly creative model photographer Curtis Joe Walker, displays dozens of its surreal, sexy photos in its windows.

And there’s more to say about Jessica Oreck’s quietly sublime Office of Collecting and Design (officeofcollecting.com) than can be said here. Suffice it to say that there’s absolutely nothing else like it in this city, nothing at all. Anyone who owns a copy of Atlas Obscura should plan a visit immediately. (The gallery is largely appointment-only, though Oreck does keep regular Wednesday hours; visit the website for details.)

New Orleans Square’s retail offerings are just as arty as its art. The Sci Fi Center (thescificenter.com), an institution that casts a wide enough cultural footprint to have made the Weekly’s cover in 2015, isn’t just a comics and toy shop; it’s an explosion of judgment-free science fiction, superhero and horror fandom that fits around its proprietor, William Powell, like an exo-suit of sheer enthusiasm.

HellBound Horror Collectibles

Speaking of horror, HellBound Horror Collectibles (hellboundhorror.com) stocks it in abundance, with a deep selection of dolls, art and other genre collectibles for the discerning fan. Everyone from Beetlejuice to Freddie Krueger to Baphomet is here, and eager to be unleashed on your suburban home.

Recently featured in the Weekly, specialty bookshop Avantpop (avantpopbooks.com) surprises you at practically every turn, yielding treasures in the form of offbeat art books, subculture titles and even obscure zines. (Avantpop even publishes its own titles, which they bind in-house.) Blooming Memory (bloomingmemory.com) is a family-owned, full-service local florist and gift shop that offers same-day local delivery. And Anthology Puzzles (anthologypuzzles.com) offers truly one-of-a-kind gifts: bespoke wooden jigsaw puzzles created from customer-submitted photographs and art.

Fort Bedlam

But the thing that makes a place worth lingering in is its drinks and dining, and New Orleans Square boasts two of the Valley’s most interesting new-ish hangs. Fort Bedlam (fortbedlam.com), a Seattle-born coffeehouse that relocated to Vegas in the midst of the pandemic doldrums, is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon, an evening or, hopefully, a lifetime; anyone with fond memories of long-defunct Vegas cafes Copioh, Enigma or Espresso Roma will feel immediately comfortable here amongst the weathered tables, board games and quirky art. The coffee’s pretty darn good, too. And the Sci Fi Center now holds many of its screenings here, including the upcoming viewing parties for Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon. It is known.

Square Bar

Square Bar

You can genuinely feel the love that went into creating Square Bar (squarebarvegas.com), a space that strongly evokes New Orleans Square’s mid-1970s opening. It’s what Nancy Good calls an “it takes a village” project: the McMenemys conceived it, Good painted its geometric indoor and outdoor murals, and Phil Kotler, whose celebrated local improv troupe Bleach is reportedly eyeing an NOS space, is the bar’s entertainment director, bringing a mix of comedy, burlesque and musical acts to Square’s intimate stage. The kitchen serves up bar bites and “Wake n Bake” breakfasts around the clock, an old-fashioned booth provides take-home reminders of your visit, and the gender-neutral bathrooms are covered in wild murals. (Both Kelly and Good personally painted stalls; they’re Instagram-worthy.) Square Bar feels grounded—both in its historic locale, and in the collective of like minds that are neighbors to it.

There’s still more to New Orleans Square—the offices of Gender Justice Nevada; several health and beauty services; and various other galleries and arts organizations that I didn’t have time to visit, including the home of the Vegas chapter of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

(Between the Sisters, Fort Bedlam and the gay bars in nearby plazas, it could be argued that Commercial Center is a scaled-down simulacra of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, or at least the way it was before gentrification. )

And Sista Kim’s Kitchen (sistakimskitchen.com), a brick-and-mortar version of the popular Southern-style food truck, should be open soon.

Hopefully, what’s begun at New Orleans Square these past few years will continue. It’s completely rational to worry about what happens to rents—and to these buildings themselves—when Commercial Center achieves Arts District-levels of commercial success. And another, immediately pressing worry has surfaced: As I began this story, word came down that NOS, the entire plaza, is now on the market. It’s an unfortunate inevitability due to the heartbreaking loss of Ron McMenemy last May, and the passing of Judy McMenemy almost a year before that.

Regardless, Kelly says she’ll keep her Square Bar stake, and is hopeful that whoever buys NOS will keep her on as an operator.

“That’s very important these days, to have a management that cares—that likes be there as part of the community,” she says. “I hope to keep leading this [New Orleans Square] family.”

NEW ORLEANS SQUARE 900 E. Karen Ave., nosvegas.com.

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