In his office on West Sahara, all that's left of Bob Bailey's dreams for redeveloping Jackson Avenue, the one-time heart of black Las Vegas, is a videotaped proposal narrated by the late Mission: Impossible actor Greg Morris. Bailey got rid of everything else—the renderings of a New Orleans-style jazz alley, the written agreements between his nonprofit development company, local merchants and the city of Las Vegas. "It's gone."
It's fitting, too. The story of Jackson Avenue, its vibrancy, its thriving nightlife and bustling business, where black stars and black Las Vegans worked and lived and partied, does not adhere well to the records. Photos are scarce. There are a handful of oral histories at the library. The street lives in the memories of an older generation, where it is subject to a sometimes-hazy hagiography. (Most longtime West Las Vegans refer to Jackson Street rather than Avenue, for instance.) But the story of Jackson's heyday pulses like a swaggering horn section when it comes from the lips of those who remember.
When Bailey moved to Las Vegas from New York in 1955, he was 28 years old. He went to work as an emcee at the Moulin Rouge, on nearby Bonanza, which had just opened. He hosted a variety show that featured dancers, showgirls and singers. Black stars of the day, from Dinah Washington to Lionel Hampton, played there. The Moulin Rouge was briefly the epicenter of black Las Vegas nightlife—some say it was as exciting a place as any Strip casino, the only place in town where blacks and whites mingled, and more than mingled. Just as important, the casino employed hundreds of people who lived and played on nearby Jackson Avenue, which had a half dozen of its own clubs and casinos, plus stores, bars, markets, shops. "It had everything you'd look for in the other side of town," Bailey says.
Bailey eventually moved on to work in broadcasting and later, real estate. He started the Nevada Economic Development Company, which provided entreprenuerial support to small businesses in the community. In the early '80s, he turned to Jackson Avenue, now shriveling away, with a plan to transform the street into a pedestrian mall along four blocks, from C Street to G Street. He planned to remake the streetscape to match the vaguely Moroccan influences of the Town Tavern, one of two casinos left. Parking would go in on Van Buren Street, one block north, and an entry corridor along D Street would be dressed up in palm trees to beckon visitors under the freeway. Bailey also wished to form a holding company comprised of property owners that would lease land to private developers.
Bailey's video is long on '80s-style graphics and Morris' spot-on impersonation of a stentorian news anchor. Local politicians, former Mayor William Briare and former State Sen. Joe Neal among them, talked about the need to redevelop the street as if they're reading from cue cards. Bailey's nonprofit received $35,000 for a marketing study and also convinced the city to open up $700,000 in federal revolving loan funds—money that, according to Ernest Fountain, a partner with Bailey on the project, would total $1.4 million with matching funds from local banks. The money would have gone to property owners to renovate their land. Bailey traveled to Atlanta and New Orleans to line up investors, convinced that Jackson Avenue could tap into as much as 7 percent of the Vegas gaming business.
But the city pulled the plug on the loan fund, and the investors never materialized. I asked Richard Blue, a former city official, whether the revolving loan fund was used. "I think you can answer that question if you drive down Jackson Avenue," he said.
Bailey says that city promises to beautify the street never materialized, either. "I was torn up," says Bailey. "My assumption is they never expected the project to go forward. Give them a little money to diddle-daddle and they'll go away.'"
Bailey and other longtime area residents believe that the ideas for Jackson Avenue were the prototype for the Fremont Street Experience. "If we would have had private-sector dollars without having to deal with the political system, the project would have flown," he says. "We were constantly dependent on federal funds, and they're controlled by the system, not by the people those projects are supposed to benefit."
Twenty years later, that remains the best effort anyone has mustered on Jackson Avenue.
Jackson Avenue works hard to dispel tales of its former greatness. Its desolation is so complete—so much has been wiped away—that it's as if the street itself is trying to make liars out of all those who remember it as something else.
Probably every city in America has a Jackson Avenue. In Houston they call the road Dowling Street. In Denver it's Welton Street. In Kansas City it's 12th Street, or 18th Street, or Vine Street. Some cities had whole such neighborhoods. Bronzeville in Chicago. Harlem.
These streets are on the lips of older residents everywhere. Streets that were full of black businesses, shops, restaurants, clubs, districts full of black doctors and lawyers. For the generations that came after, it's a particularly rose-colored view, this image of stable black neighborhoods, with goods and services, middle and professional classes, not a whole lot of money but no crushing perception of having nothing. It is probably a mistake to romanticize these marginalized communities, which were tightly knit as much from necessity as desire. Yet it's tempting—with black middle-class Americans spread to the four winds and much of the rest of black America struggling in rundown neighborhoods, streets like Jackson Avenue have become more than the point of entry for old memories. They have become like sepia photos, signposts for a nobler time.
Today the street is windswept. Downtown is tantalizingly close, though Interstate 15 runs belt-high to block the way. Empty lots of asphalt or gravel or dirt are only occasionally interrupted by a storefront or a house. Most of those storefronts are barred up and empty. The canopy of a shuttered Husky gas station, painted green and white, shades one lonely, icebox-shaped gas pump. Many of the nearby houses are also boarded up. They bear messages like KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING spray-painted across their broadsides. Bicycles pass by here and there, and the people are friendly. The liveliest, and saddest, part of the street is the lot across from the Town Tavern, on the west end of the street, where people loiter, chatter and buy drugs. A man in a thick jacket sings a melody, while another leans against the large light pole, his feet propped up on an overflowing trash can.
Mostly the street is wide and empty. It's possible to drive through and miss it.
What's past is prologue; sometimes it's prophetic.
When Sarann Knight Preddy moved to Las Vegas in 1942, the town was "absolutely nothing," West Las Vegas even less so. Some migrants and new arrivals slept out by the train station Downtown, where there was plenty of open land. "Everybody came here to work, and everybody was working, and they were making a decent salary. They had plenty of money, just no place to build or to live."
African-Americans, barred from frequenting the Las Vegas Strip, migrated over the Union Pacific tracks to West Las Vegas because that was the only place, she says, where they could "build a shack or put up a tent." But it was hardly paradise. There was no water or sewage in West Las Vegas, and Jackson Avenue was, in her words, dinky. "Whenever it rained, mud would be up to your ankles," she recalls. "They'd be pushing cars." There were no buses, and residents had to cross back to Downtown to go to the post office.
But within a few years the area had come to life. First there was the Harlem Club and a few storefronts. Then the Cotton Club opened, and other spots—the Brown Derby, the Louisiana Club, the Carver House—opened. Black entertainers stayed and performed on the west side when they came to town to play the Strip. In 1947, Preddy went to work as a keno dealer at the Cotton Club, making $4.50 a day. With tips she could net as much as $300 a day.
Hazel Geran, another longtime resident, also was a keno dealer at the Cotton Club. "I was just saying the other day how happy we were to get a new outfit to go down to Jackson Street." All the entertainment was there. She and her cohorts used to talk to them. "Believe it or not, we sometimes slept with them."
The names of the stars drift by like ghosts—the Mills Brothers, singer Pearl Bailey, Frank Sinatra, though none so often named as Sammy Davis Jr., who seems to evoke a collective memory for the time when black nightlife by and for black people had yet to go mainstream. (Even Sammy Davis Sr., "Big Sam," came down to Jackson to play poker all night.)
The Strip integrated in 1960, after the NAACP threatened to boycott casinos there, and the '60s saw a wave of anti-discriminatory legislation, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Nevada passed a strong open-housing law in 1971. Doors once closed now began to open, and once open, countless communities across the United States suddenly became small to millions of black Americans. Why stay put in tiny West Las Vegas when there was an entire city, an entire valley, an entire country to try to discover? Geran worked at the club three or four years before she met a barber from San Francisco and got married. She later went to work for the Clark County Economic Opportunity Board, which was started as the local arm of President Johnson's War on Poverty.
There is no exact date on the deterioration of Jackson Avenue—many of the people we spoke to for this story had a different timetable in mind—although 1960 is as good a date as any. Still, for virtually everyone, there was a period where Jackson Avenue and the surrounding community were comparatively vibrant. And then there's now.
Jackson was more than a street for nightlife. The community used to host the D Street festival—a block party with singers where kids could come and get toys. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade used to come down Jackson Avenue but was moved to Downtown years ago because of crime. The faraway tone of residents—bittersweet and a little resigned—is the clearest indication of the state of affairs now. "I don't think it will ever be revived back to what it was," Geran says.
The irony of Jackson Avenue is that as its casinos and clubs have drained away, the churches have risen up to take their place. At first they sprouted up much like any other social service—a necessity to a community with limited mobility. Now there seem to be more churches in the area than people—no fewer than 15 churches, plus one mosque.
Victory Missionary Baptist Church, just a block off Jackson, started 40 years ago with help from Evergreen and Zion. "I don't think you can have too many churches, especially the way society is going today," says Pastor Robert Fowler. "The more people we have speaking on a moral level, about moral decency, the better off we are. No one complains about all the casinos that go up."
Fowler came in 1996 from Oklahoma. His congregation has grown from 250 to more than 15,000 members. He sees the churches as economic engines: "I make no bones about it." It shows. Fowler's church, along with the nearby Second Baptist Church, are the healthiest-looking structures in the community. While some of the churches are small and appear more a part of the street's past than its present, these two are big buildings.
Reverend Marion Bennett came to Las Vegas in 1960 from South Carolina to run the Zion United Methodist Church, about a mile north of Jackson. "It was a shock," he says. "It was a big shock." He hated Las Vegas at first, but people were enthusiastic, and he saw the opportunity to build an organization from the ground up. A lot of the early black migrants came from the South, and Bennett says the community was tight-knit. There were a lot of floaters, too—nonprofessional people drifting through and around town, looking for a chance or a break. People could be important here. Preachers could start their own churches.
Over the years, Bennett expanded the church and began a day care. His congregation grew from 30 members to 600. At the same time, Jackson Avenue "went from being a prosperous business street to being almost nothing." He says residents "didn't realize they could go Downtown and still support their own. They lost site of their own self-esteem." He retired eight months ago, and promptly started a new church.
Some people suggest that if the avenue is to return to its former glory, then the churches have to go. "We got more churches here in West Las Vegas than they got in the whole United States," says Elijah Green, the longtime former owner of the Town Tavern. "Every time a business closes they make a church out of it. Half of 'em have five, 10, 20 members. That ain't right. Be real."
Still, Green understands the interconnectedness of church and sin in black culture. They nourish one another. Green remembers dealing craps to a priest at the Fremont. The priest laid down $500 in chips and put his cross on top for good luck. It didn't help. "You have to be lucky, that's all," he says.
The heart of West Las Vegas has long since shifted to Owens Avenue, where retailers like AutoZone and agencies like the Clark County School District have taken root. The long cinderblock wall of a giant new shopping center rises just beyond H Street, where Jackson ends, though it's distinctly not part of the street. But Jackson still has some life left in its old bones. The sign on the window for Pearl's beauty salon is green, but everything inside is pink—the blinds, the chairs, the ceiling. The place was empty the morning I entered, except for Pearl Robinson herself, who was catnapping. The TV was turned up loud to the soaps. Then one eye curiously opened and she looked around. She has a warm smile and a foundation of white hair that shoots straight up—as if electrified—into gray waves.
She's had the shop since 1977, but nowadays business is not all that good. She rattles off the names of old beauty-shop owners who have all come and gone from the street. "It's all mixed now. We can do white hair. They can do black hair." Women can go to Wal-Mart to get their hair and nails done, and without an appointment. "I need to be out of business, anyway," she says. "I'm ready to hang it up."
A few doors down, inside a bright orange storefront, Darwin Hooker, a.k.a. Hook, First Lieutenant at Arms, welcomes me into the Soul Brothers Motorcycle Club. Above the bar in the dimly lit space, dozens of $1 bills hang from the ceiling, calling cards from motorcycle clubs that have passed by Jackson Avenue on their way to and from the rest of the country.
Hook grew up in the neighborhood and has been riding since he was 12. He brought the club to Jackson Avenue four years ago, and the sign just inside the door emphatically spells out the rules:
- No Drugs
- No Gang Members
- No Fighting
- No Cursing
- No Weapons
- No Beggin'
- No Stealing
- No Bitch Ass Niggas
- No Bullshit
Hook and his comrades are trying to give young men in the community an outlet to be a part of something positive. "Our main goal is to turn the attention from gangs and drugs. We strongly promote nonviolence." The group puts on two giant picnics for the community a year, and even escorts funerals.
Hook, who is 41, is bullish on the street's prospects. "I believe it will be more than it used to be," Hook says. In the few years he's been on the street, he's seen the area improve. Then again, he's a natural optimist. "I think we're all going to Hollywood," he says. (A few days later, I ran into Hook again as he was loading gear onto his gleaming black-and-silver Honda VTX. He was headed to Oakland, as it turned out, and was looking forward to the series of banking curves near Tehachapi, California, which he planned to attack at 90 miles per hour.)
A block away, on Monroe Street, is the cozy, diner-like Hamburger Heaven. It has been in Karen Walker's family forever. First her aunt and uncle ran it. Then her mother. "I was practically born behind this counter," she says.
Last summer, the family thought about selling it. "My mom got to the point where she said we're not making money like we used to," says Walker, who is 38. The family received some offers. Investors in California offered $750,000. Fowler, whose church is across the street, wanted to buy it for $400,000, she says. But then, unexpectedly, news of the impending sale created a rush of customers, enough to change their minds. "We decided to pretty much stay and see if a different approach would work," Walker says. "I would like to revitalize my building."
In October, Walker took the "For Sale" sign down and applied for a grant from the Clark County Small Projects Fund. With her friend, consultant Lynette Boyd, she created West Las Vegas Citizens for Hope, a collective of local business owners trying to jump-start the area. The group received $3,750 from the county and will use the funds to host a neighborhood beautification fair, on April 2, with free food and guest speakers talking about redevelopment. The city's Neighborhood Services department is providing Dumpsters and water for the event.
"It's gonna take a lot of work," says Boyd. "We're in a process of looking at the life cycle of the community. From what I can tell, we are in the restoration phase. It's gonna take some time to rejuvenate and rebuild the area."
"We feel we all share the common denominator," Walker adds. "We're on our land. We all want to still be here."
The unknown question now is whether anyone else does. "Eventually the city of Las Vegas is going to purchase that land and will provide development that doesn't have anything to do with the people living there now," says Ernest Fountain, president of New Ventures Capital Development Company.
The street is equal parts doubt and hope. Maybe it's fool's gold, but in Las Vegas, change is the order of the day, so what's present may be prologue. At the end of the street stands the Town Tavern, the last of the old casinos. It's a long, one-story building; its white brick walls step down and angle out. The upper portion of its façade is an overhang that curves up. Yellow and red and orange tiles surround the doors. There's a restaurant in the rear.
Elijah Green bought the place in 1969. He brought in blues players like Bobby Bland and John Taylor several nights a week. "The place would be packed." He brought buses full of tourists in from Los Angeles and Arizona.
In 2005, the vibe is decidedly Corner Tavern with Slots. There are only a dozen or so slot machines, two worn tables for poker, a few more for shooting the shit, and a sports book that looks like an abandoned DJ platform. During the week the place is sedate but friendly. "I just come around and sit around and relax and be with some of the old-timers," Green says.
His family, though, is planning for tomorrow. His daughter, Tara Jackson, now owns the casino. In the casino's office is a haphazardly placed bundle of architectural drawings. Green plans to enlarge the space inside, renovate his old showroom and add some blackjack tables. (The showroom, used for weddings and performances, closed in 1998 after heavy rains damaged the roof.)
Renovations will run around $650,000, he figures. He's trying to secure a loan.
"Can you do that with $600,000?" asks his buddy, C.C. Rhodes.
"Hell, yeah ..." Green responds.
Rhodes looks like he doesn't quite believe, but Green is adamant, and his friend relents.
Rhodes is here every day. And what do they do, Rhodes and Green and their circle of friends? Lay down the truth, of course, on a street that's seen it all.
"All problems can be solved right there, no matter how deep," Rhodes opines. "From going to Mars, to the war in Iraq, to the 9/11 thing up there, all right here. With honest opinion, not no jive thing, cause we got a hot line to Washington."