A City for Everyone—Where Everyone’s Got a City

Without thriving ethnic neighborhoods, can Las Vegas truly be world-class?

Damon Hodge

When it opened in 1995, Chinatown could've been called Chinablock. Conceived as a way to make Asian tourists feel at home—a place where they could shop for on-choy, dine on Shanghai cuisine and celebrate their culture—Chinatown Plaza fit snugly into a southeast corner on Spring Mountain and Wynn roads. At 85,000 square feet, James Chih-Cheng Chen's creation was a pan-Asian mini-me compared to its more grandiose namesakes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Chen called it America's first master-planned Chinatown; the Wall Street Journal lumped it with other "instant Asia shopping centers" sprouting nationwide. Mostly suburban and totally commercial, these mini-Chinatowns blended old (window displays of roast ducks, overcrowded sidewalks) and new (chain stores such as 99 Ranch Market and chain eateries like Sam Woo Restaurant).

"The neighborhood," WSJ scribe Barry Newman wrote last year, "is the only thing missing."

It still is.

A decade after its creation, Chinatown is bigger than ever, stretching from Valley View to Jones and crossing to the north side of Spring Mountain. Yet the pumped-up commerce hasn't created a real Asian enclave—Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Laotians and Pacific Islanders living, working and playing nearby. Census data shows less than 2,000 Asians living in the vicinity. "We live all over town," notes James Yu, executive director of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, which has more than 1,000 member businesses. "Because we can afford to."

That our city's most ostentatious example of ethnic enterprise remains a cultural island unto itself is an aftereffect of integration. Sounds weird, even heretical, to say—King's utopian dream of brotherly love an impediment to maintaining (or creating) culturally vibrant neighborhoods. According to the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at Albany University in New York, ethnic minorities in Las Vegas have integrated better than in most of the nation's large cities. Which means that while our neighborhoods are generally ethnically diverse, there are no thriving ethnic neighborhoods the likes of which exist in New York (Harlem, Little Italy), Chicago, (Greektown) and LA (Koreatown).

Once we get pro sports, the mayor tells us, we'll enter the municipal major leagues. A soon as the nearly $5 billion hotel/condo/gaming/retail City Center opens, MGM Mirage execs told us last week, we'll be a "proper city." But, as we supposedly "Manhattanize" our town, what does it say that we still lack the type of ethnic vibrancy that defines not only Manhattan itself, but almost every other major American metropolis? What does the growth of our core industry really mean if we can't manage to reduce the unemployment rate in predominantly black West Las Vegas (five times the state's 4 percent average), prevent predatory crime in Hispanic neighborhoods on the east side, and foster an atmosphere where immigrants can not only assimilate but celebrate their cultural identities? What does it say about Las Vegas that we're even asking these questions?

East Side Story

Driving north on U.S. Highway 95, near the Eastern off-ramp, the sign beckons, "99 Mudate Ahora"—$99 moves you in. Moves you into the careworn Elmwood Village Apartments at 28th Street and Cedar. Moves you across from a government housing subdivision that resembles piled-high blocks of bleached Legos. Moves you inside a predominantly Hispanic portion of East Las Vegas known for drugs, gang activity and violence.

The scene is far different at Bonanza and Eastern, whose four corners are rife with Hispanic commerce, along north Eastern Avenue, where many of the businesses' names are in Spanish, and at Lamb and Washington, where cars fill the parking lot of the new Plaza Las Americas—including a white truck belonging to Rizo Lopes Foods, Inc., and emblazoned with a picture of smiling Hispanic entrepreneur Don Francisco. A recent afternoon at the plaza saw families stroll into the Liborio Markets grocery store ("Polleria, Cocina, Panaderia, Tortilleria"), peruse Viva Furniture and shuffle in and out of the Banagricola De El Salvador, a subsidiary of El Salvador's largest bank.

Bordered generally by Stewart to the south, Cheyenne to the north, Lamb to the east and Bonanza to the west, predominantly Hispanic East Las Vegas is a study in dichotomies, a mix of regression and progression. First the regression. Despite a rapidly rising population (24 percent of the Valley, nearly 38 percent of the North Las Vegas population and half of the 80,000 residents in the city's Ward 3, the valley's first majority-Hispanic ward), Hispanics remain a fractious community—a smorgasbord of cultures (Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, immigrants from Chile and El Salvador), where each group has its own ideals and agendas.

"When I first moved here, no one knew what a Boricua was and if you spoke Spanish, you were Mexican," says Margarita Rebollal, president of the nonprofit East Las Vegas Community Development Corp. "That's why I started the Hispanic parade because we are united by one language but from many different cultures."

Failing to bridge those cultural differences, Rebollal says, has muted Hispanic sway in urban affairs and politics, a problem exacerbated by some immigrants' distrust of our political system. The result has been a diminutive voting bloc and few Hispanic politicians. Rebollal tallied 86 votes (1 percent of the 6,084 cast) in the recent race for a Ward 2 City Council seat. "We need Hispanic politicians because they would think differently about the issues affecting us," she says.

Of particular concern, she says, are apartment-to-condominium conversions. Billed as a way to combat skyrocketing home and apartment rental prices, she says the process is pricing many immigrants out of the American dream. There are too few projects like the 40-unit Mi Casa En El Sol housing development. Championed by the East Las Vegas Community Development Corp., the affordable housing development was the first such project built on the east side of town in 30 years. "Where," says Rebollal, "are all these disadvantaged people going to go?"

As executive director of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, Otto Merida worries that as developers gobble up undeveloped land, attention will turn to East Las Vegas, which has pockets of virgin earth ripe for infill development. "I'm concerned about comments on East Las Vegas' boom potential," he says, referring to published reports about investor interest in the area. "There are lots of small businesses opening up, family businesses in many cases. Hopefully, we'll be able to maintain those businesses because many of the owners are trying to be at the forefront of helping revitalize the neighborhoods. We need them."

West Side Story

A few years ago, city officials came up with an idea: Affix names of prominent African-Americans to the alphabet streets in the heart of West Las Vegas. On C Street—retired Army Brig. Gen. Sherian Grace Cadoria. D Street, entertainer Dorothy Dandridge. E Street, civil rights leader Medgar Evers. F Street, Negro League baseball founder and Hall of Famer Andrew Rube Foster. G Street, tennis star Althea Gibson. H Street, poet-author Langston Hughes. The intent: instill pride. The result: largely ineffectual. If not for a few churches, longtime businesses and dilapidated homes interrupting the blight, the area might resemble a squatters' camp. On one street: a handful of loitering drunkards. On another: prostitutes thinned by drug addictions walk back and forth, some mumbling to themselves. All the street-renaming in the world, says Sandra Blake-Toles, won't improve the quality of life in predominantly black West Las Vegas.

"You've got to build people before you build houses or anything else," says Blake-Toles, president of the Westside New Pioneers CDC, a nonprofit dedicated to building affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families and providing support services such GED programs, home ownership training and money management. "We need to educate people to become all they can be."

A 40-year resident of the west side (generally bordered by Interstate 15 to the east, Rancho to the west, Bonanza to the north and Owens to the south), Blake-Toles has seen periods of more valleys than peaks—investors' reneging on promises, businesses shutting down and government offices and numerous churches going up. She traces all the things that West Las Vegas lacks—affordable housing, plentiful recreational opportunities, thriving schools, no grocery store—to a dearth of jobs. Most West Las Vegans work outside the community and most of what they earn is spent outside the community. In other areas, she says, a dollar is cycled seven or eight times before leaving. "If you don't have a job," she says, "you can't support the business endeavor, no matter what it is."

"West Las Vegas has a bad rap. It's not any worse than any other area. People break into houses in Summerlin," she says. "Entrepreneurs don't feel the area has the capacity to support new business, but they're wrong."

Born and raised in West Las Vegas, Karen Walker lives, works, plays, spends her money and raises her family in the west side; she doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. "I've never really had another job outside the community," she says of her work running Hamburger Heaven, started by her parents in the mid-'50s.

Reviving West Las Vegas, she says, will take a team effort—city officials luring investors, entrepreneurs facilitating change (that's why she helped create West Las Vegas Citizens for Hope), social service providers pitching in (to reintegrate ex-felons, for example) and more citizens getting involved. Attending the county's free Neighborhood College, she's learned the ins and outs of the political and policy process, "how to go about getting things done ... getting your voice heard."

Sounds simple, getting everyone on one accord. Were it so, the west side would've been vibrant a long time ago.

Count Louis Overstreet, executive director of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, among the pessimists: "It's highly doubtful that this community will again thrive, certainly not based on an African-American presence. The reasons being that too many zoning variances have permanently changed the character of the community, each year the percentage of residential and commercial properties under black ownership decreases, and our failure to organize as a political force all mitigate against such a revitalization."

Chinatown—A Road Map to Progress?

Before the Hispanic community can thrive, Rebollal says it must "learn to care for its neighborhoods ... even if they don't own the property."

Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, thinks the concept of a vibrant black community is culturally valid but physical impossible. "We may go to church on the west side, but we have the income and capacity to live anyplace. On one street in Centennial Hills (in northwest Las Vegas), there are 20 houses ... 10 are owned by African-Americans."

Is the under-construction, 45,000-square-foot Edmond Town Center, on Owens and H Street, a harbinger of economic investment to come, or a one-time, multimillion-dollar shot in the arm to a community trying desperately not to flatline?

This dialogue could easily be extended to other ethnic minorities, of which this city is home to a U.N.-worthy smattering. Witness the celebrations—Italian-American San Gennaro Food Festival, Greek Food Festival, Basque Festival, St. Patrick's Day Parade, Chinese New Year, Oktoberfest, Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. Witness our galaxy of restaurants, where there seems to be something for every culture—Hungarian, Indian, Eritrean, Mediterranean, Colombian, German. Witness the changing ethnic dynamic brought on by immigration—throughout the city, there are pockets of Russians and Pakistanis, as well as a contingent of Sudanese young men who escaped civil war in their country, an estimated 5,000 Ethiopians (Census figures peg the number at around 1,800). Will they, too, assimilate as their economic lot improves? Or will they coalesce in certain locales, building their own slices of home?

East of Valley View, a Starbucks shares a strip-malled section of storefront with the Satay Malaysian Grill—West meets East, the commercial version. West of the original Chinatown Plaza, at Spring Mountain and Hauck, there's rush-hour foot traffic in the aisles at SF Supermarket, which is part of the recently opened Pacific Asian Plaza. Though some UNLV anthropology professors send students there to study the culture, Chinatown may be a flawed barometer. So says the Asian Chamber's Yu, who cautions against viewing Chinatown as anything more than a successful entrepreneurial experiment. In the early going, there were few businesses and fewer patrons. Only in the last five years has Chinatown taken root, powered by wealthy Asians from California pouring in money, hoping to strike it big in this neon land of milk and honey.

"It would be really hard to create something like this in other parts of town," Yu says. (Though Asian Town, U.S.A., in the Commercial Shopping Center between East Sahara Avenue and Karen Avenue off Maryland Parkway, is a smaller version.)

However, Yu's point somewhat misses the point. Thriving ethnic commerce is but part of the cultural equation. The other part, having a vibrant ethnic culture, is arguably more important. Any city aspiring to world-class status should not only want thriving ethnic neighborhoods but also neighborhoods where ethnics thrive. It'd be easier to celebrate the African-Americans who own half the houses on a street in a ritzy northwest neighborhood if black culture thrived in West Las Vegas.

Las Vegas should want to be a community that celebrates differing hues and taboos, ethnicities and idiosyncrasies. This isn't to say that every ethnic group needs a city-sponsored parade running through Downtown, but every ethnic group, if it so desires, should have an outlet (a cultural center, for instance) to promote its unique way of life. Whether minorities assimilate or segregate is up to them, but the resulting cultural interplay would leave us all enriched.

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