Downtown Las Vegas has seen a huge change over the past century; from its humble beginnings as a railway town to its hourly light show complete with a zip line, Fremont Street sure has seen it all.
Fremont Street’s destiny was laid out when in 1905 the local Senator, together with the Union Pacific Railroad, auctioned off the Las Vegas Townsite. Back then the railroad built a mission-style depot at Main and Fremont, thereby designating that intersection as the center of the small town of Las Vegas. Eventually a restaurant, the Beanery, was added, which fast became a favourite dining spot for locals.
The intention was that this downtown core would be the central business district of Las Vegas, but with the railroad company banning liquor sales outside of Block 16 and Block 17 things were taking a different turn. A loophole allowed any establishment with a hotel room to sell alcohol, thus construction of several small hotels and liquor stores commenced along Fremont Street and on surrounding avenues. This left the bar owners of Block 16 with hardly any regular customers, and so they turned to prostitution to compete for business.
Gambling became legal in Nevada in 1931, and the first small casinos began to appear; the first casino licensed was the Northern Club at 15 East Fremont. During the 1930s and 1940s casinos and hotels seemed to prefer a predominantly Old West-style, with names such as Boulder Club, Apache, Frontier Club and Pioneer Club. In 1946 the now legendary Golden Nugget opened at the corner of Second and Fremont and in 1951 there followed the other downtown legend of Binion’s Horseshoe, which was on the ground floor of the Apache Hotel back then and the Four Queens opened its doors in 1966.
For a long time, downtown Las Vegas was where the action was at, but then along came Interstate 15, and, as in so many North American downtown areas, thereby moving travelers straight passed the downtown core. The stretch from the Sahara to the Tropicana, now known as The Strip, replaced the downtown casino district as the favourite stop over for travelers driving from southern California.
The effect on Fremont Street was quite severe; it turned this once glamorous area into a seedy place. The casinos were older and smaller and homeless people started to move into the streets. The once thriving street of the downtown core, which also included residential areas and local shops, suddenly found itself no longer to be appealing to the elite population.
Eventually the decline of Fremont Street and surrounding streets became a concern for the various Las Vegas mayors and they, together with political and business leaders, embarked upon finding a way to revitalize the area. One suggestion, from Steve Wynn, was to turn downtown into Las Venice, piping in water to create canals and have boats cruising around. Another suggestion was to turn it into Little Amsterdam complete with legalized vices as are popular in the European city itself and once common to Block 16.
In the end they settled upon the Fremont Street Experience as we know it today. It was a $70 million project and was designed by urban designer Jon Jerde and was debuted in 1995. It features a canopy which covers the first three blocks of Fremont Street, contains 12.5 million lights, 550,000 watts of sound and every evening on the hour has the most amazing light show. Additionally, visitors can enjoy free concerts, shopping, and the famous old-time classic casinos, which are said to have better odds than those on The Strip. During the light show the casinos dim their neon lights; which apparently was a hard-fought negation to make this happen.
The revitalization of the area also includes Neonopolis, a $100 million center with a 14 screen movie complex, restaurants, shops and a performing arts center. If you want to look at the once glittering neon signs from the days when this area was known as “Glitter Gulch” you need to visit the Neon Museum where they have found their final resting place.
For most people a trip to Las Vegas has to include a visit to Fremont Street and try to experience some of the old glamour that made this city so famous. Be warned though, whilst it is an experience to see the light show and perhaps gamble a little in one of the old classic casinos, the feeling downtown is one of staged tourism rather than a feeling that you may have stepped back in time a little. And whilst there is nothing wrong with that, it did disappoint me a little.
On my last visit to Fremont Street in 1999 the light show was far more amazing than the one we watched in January this year. Back then it featured all kinds of things, from moving through space and past planets to a flight over flowery meadows; this year it was a Bon Jovi special. I like Bon Jovi, but the light show was nothing spectacular to be honest.
The old casinos looked amazing with their neon lights, and we did visit a couple, but they certainly have not been able to recreate the perceived glamour one associates with the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack times.
Despite all that though, I highly recommend a trip to the downtown area and wander along Fremont Street, take in the neon lights, take in a free concert, gamble a couple of dollars in one of the casinos and just enjoy the variety of different people you will see down there.