Las Vegas Tourists And The Downtown Project Antidote

 Who Killed Las Vegas?

freemont_experience
I’m the one with the shirt on

I recently stayed at a hotel and lost money at the poker tables in Las Vegas[1] situated squarely in the downtown monoculture of the Fremont Experience.

The Fremont Experience is as you would expect – flashing lights, zip-lines, elderly men in Borat-style mankinis – and good for the 36 hours (maximum!) that you plan to be there.

Which is to say, after a short while, it’s impossible to enjoy. If I lived in Las Vegas, I would avoid this place at all costs.

Just a few blocks away from the Fremont Experience, the Tony Hsieh-led Downtown Project has curated, funded, and purchased real estate for a number of locally-oriented businesses. Businesses catering to actual, real live, Las Vegas residents.

Each of these locations independently represents a glorious reprieve, a gulp of oxygen, apart from The Las Vegas Strip or the Downtown Fremont Experience.

I visited the Downtown Project locations with two questions in mind.

First, how does part of a city die?

freemont_experience
It’s the tourists and conventioneers, dammit

Second, how do you revitalize a city downtown?
I already know what’s killed the popular parts of Las Vegas, just like I know what’s killed downtown San Antonio (where I live.) For all the money that it brings, it’s also what makes the place unlivable.

It’s the tourists and conventioneers, dammit.

Insect on a Dead Thing

David Foster Wallace most devastatingly explained the problem of tourism in places like The Strip or the Fremont Experience in Las Vegas, or in my hometown of downtown San Antonio, in a footnote to his essay “Consider The Lobster.”

“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all…To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

Obviously we’re not going to print DFW’s views about tourists on the buttons of San Antonio Ambassador Amigos anytime soon, but I feel his pain.

Since Las Vegas represents the ultimate monoculture problem, a problem many times bigger than San Antonio’s, I was intrigued to see what Tony Hsieh’s vision and money has wrought, despite the odds.

If you’re curious as I was about what’s there, here’s a quick guide to highlights of the Las Vegas Downtown Project.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project

Eat – After the oversized Las Vegas buffets and the bland celebrity chef chains, the palate cries out for better food. In the morning after a night of poker I wandered off Fremont Street, seemingly past empty or underutilized buildings. It felt like out of nowhere that I found this bustling breakfast/lunch place, and nobody in there gave off a tourist vibe.

You get the sense of a brunch place responding to the vision of a single person or chef.[2] For San Antonians, think Liberty Bar on Alamo Street, or Il Sogno in the Pearl. Real food, prepared fresh. Very un-Vegas.

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An awesome kids/adults game in Container Park

Eat was my first Downtown Project destination, and it set the right mood. I didn’t realize it until I finished eating, but I was around the corner from Container Park, the most completely integrated part of the Downtown Project.

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The Preying Mantis from Burning Man at the entrance to Container Park

In Container Park, reused shipping containers provide the architectural motif for a self-enclosed ‘shopping mall,’ with unique stores, a kid-friendly tree-fort, a playground with hula hoops and giant toy building blocks, and a performing arts stage.

Over the course of two days in Vegas I visited Container Park three times. At night, a country-music band played while children gamboled in front of the small stage and parents drank beer. The kid-friendly nighttime scene reminded me of a large-scale Friendly Spot in Southtown, if The Friendly Spot had a flame-throwing preying mantis straight from Burning Man out front.

During my first visit to Container Park, I wandered in to Kappa Toys.

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Kappa Toys in Container Park

The owner, Lizzy, (with dyed-purple hair, a Cosplay-dressing style, and named for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice heroine) comes from Austin by way of Brooklyn. She seemed to have carefully selected every item in her store. She knows where her items are manufactured and how they’re made. Like many owners who are part of the Downtown Project, she was recruited personally by Hsieh to bring her unique business to Las Vegas.

Lizzy – a compelling evangelist for the Downtown Project – recommended to me THE hangout place for a combination of coffee, cocktails, lawn games, and local party-scene – The Gold Spike.

Fully hooked on checking out the Downtown Project places, I headed that way immediately.

Here’s your first clue about how The Gold Spike differs from the casino monoculture: At the street level, the entrance has a blank, almost speakeasy type entrance.

I mean, I knew I was at the right address, and I had seen a large “Gold Spike” sign above the building from a distance, but the reflective doors to enter suddenly seemed forbidding. Was I allowed to go in? Will I need a special invitation? Is this even the place?

If I was a random tourist off The Strip or if I had wandered a few blocks from the Fremont Experience, nothing at the Street level of The Gold Spike made me welcome to come in.

Which. Is. Brilliant.

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Gold Spike life-size chess set

Obviously this is a calculated move to attract local clientele, and break away from the tourist casino monoculture. Presumably that is the way you can get Las Vegans to go there.

In addition to the essential draws of caffeine and alcohol, The Gold Spike offers board games, and semi-curtained private spaces indoors for playing them. Outdoors, in a walled-garden area, there are bean bag toss games like cornhole, plus grown-up frat-style games like lawn-size Jenga, life-size Chess, and soccer-ball pool (which looks just like it sounds.)

At The Gold Spike I also saw my first Bitcoin Teller Machine (I do not approve!) and watched some young gentleman clearly in the drug trade make a withdrawal (I do not approve!) from this BTM.

bitcoin_teller_machine
I frown disapprovingly upon this BTM!

I spent many happy hours here. If I ever return to Las Vegas, I will only ever stay at The Gold Spike hotel.

For my last stop of the Downtown Experience, I walked down Fremont Street to The Writer’s Block, a quiet, serious, small-scale, bookstore. But not so serious that they don’t keep their fat pet bunny in the back room in a cage, and, on the day I visited, host a writer’s workshops for teens.

If you like books (I do!) and enjoy talking to hard-core readers (I do!) The Writer’s Block offers a little slice of heaven.

Downtown Project thus far

All of these Downtown Project businesses, by themselves, are worth visiting, although they are separated by emptyish city blocks and are not well integrated with one another. It’s not yet a vital urban core to the casual observer (me). But they form the outlines of a real place within Las Vegas. For a visitor to The Strip or the Fremont Experience who craves something beyond the flashing lights, I recommend each one highly.

 

Please see related posts:

Las Vegas Part I – Stock markets are like a casino, and the opposite of a casino.

Las Vegas Part III – Death by Monoculture, and Rebirth?

Las Vegas Part IV – The limited role of government in revitalization

Las Vegas Part V – Controversies and Elements of Downtown Revitalization (upcoming)

 

[1] At the Four Queens and The Golden Nugget, respectively.

[2] I read about that single person behind Eat later, as Natalie Young blogs about her struggles.

 

 

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Are Stocks Like A Casino? No. But YES!

poker_losses
I hate money

I hate money. Apparently the feeling is mutual.

I know this because I am writing this from a hotel room near the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, following a typical encounter between a poker table and me.

Here’s how this usually goes, and also how it went again today:

I sit down, feeling relaxed and ready to have a fine time with my close personal friend, money. A few minutes or hours later my money – that ungrateful Judas – goes home with someone else.

Gambling is evil

I should stop at this point to state the obvious. Gambling is terrible for you. It’s terrible for society.

When I am finally appointed Lord of all Catan and get to set the rules for everything everywhere, gambling will be outlawed in this country except in tiny pockets of sin like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Like many, I see a big difference between what’s “fair for me” – I personally like to play poker – and what’s “fair for society” – most people should never gamble.

In the same spirit, I deliver the following Public Service Announcements: Kids, don’t do drugs! Also, definitely avoid intimate contact until marriage!

Anyway, like I said, gambling is terrible. (Also, its super fun!)

All joking aside, I have an important message today – a non-hypocritical Public Service Announcement – inspired by my visit to the Golden Nugget.

Market as Casino?

When I taught a course for adults recently called “Get Rich Slow” one of my students asked whether the stock market ‘just represented one big casino.’

stock_market_not_a_gamble
Appears like gambling, but if done right, it isn’t

A retired widow herself, she commented that young people see investing in stocks as a ‘a rigged game, only benefitting the wealthy.’ Is it true, she asked?

She is dead wrong.

Also, she is righter than she knows. I feel very strongly about this, both ways. I’ll explain.

Dead wrong

Investing in stocks is not gambling at a casino.

Investing in stocks for the long run, in fact, is the exact opposite.

Stocks (in particular diversified stocks) held over the long run (at least 5 years, but 20 years is better) will make you money.

Gambling at a casino, in the long run, guarantees the gambler will lose money. In the long run, the more you gamble, the more likely you are to see your money go home with someone else.

I’ve played blackjack, craps, and roulette. I’ve played poker and sat down in front of slot machines. I’m not proud of any of this.

Roulette Board

The casinos understand the odds, and they set all of these up as unwinnable games, over the long run. Casinos simply don’t offer games that lose money for them in the long run.

We can summarize this idea as “the house always wins.’

I’m not saying I haven’t walked away from a roulette table richer than I started, because I have. On any given day, of course an individual gambler can come out ahead. It happened in the Dominican Republic to me once, involved witchcraft, and it’s a long story I won’t recall here. But that just represents the improbable and occasional victory of witchcraft over math.

Just remember, the more you gamble at a casino, the more the mathematics work against you. There’s just no way around it.

Righter than she knows

The widow from my class is right in a difference sense, however, that investing in stocks is a rigged game. Here’s my strongest statement on the topic, addressed specifically to the young person wondering about the stock market:

In our capitalist system, the stock market is a ‘rigged game,’ in the sense that over the long run, stocks always win.

hot_stock_to_buy
Always ignore garbage like this

Let me clarify what I mean by stock market investing for the long run. By “stock market investing for the long run” I don’t mean that particular form of gambling shilled by the Financial Infotainment Industrial Complex that you can watch on MSNBC, CNBC or Fox News after the closing bell. I don’t mean what’s referred to by the nonsense headlines “Hot stocks to buy now!” or “Best Fund Managers 2015!” being sold by Hot Money Magazine or whatever glossy garbage rots on newsstands this week. I really, really, don’t mean the ‘investing tips’ of day-trading e-news updates filling up your browsers on a moment-by-moment basis.

I specifically mean purchasing a broadly diversified, low-cost (probably indexed) mutual fund, and never selling. I mean a holding period of at least 5 years, but preferably for 20 years or more. I mean purchasing diversified stocks with no end date, no sale date, in mind.

pocket_aces

Stock markets go up, stock markets go down. Businesses grow and businesses die. People buy and people sell. It doesn’t matter if you’re the long-term owner of stocks, because you will make your impressive percentage return on your money in the long run, no matter what.

Please understand: If you are a long-term investor in the stock market, you are not the gambler, you are the house, and the house always wins.

 

Please see my post on my visit to downtown Las Vegas and the “Downtown Project.”

Tourists, and the Antidote – Exploring Las Vegas’ Downtown Experience

The downtown monoculture problem – Las Vegas and San Antonio

The limited role of government in curing a downtown monoculture

and an upcoming post, The role of the visionary billionaire in curing a downtown monoculture

Please see other related posts:

Book Review: Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth, by Nick Murray

Book Review: All The Math You Need To Get Rich, by Robert L Hershey

Sin Investing

Interview With Mint.com – I Give ALL The Answers

A version of this post on casinos and stocks appeared in the San Antonio Express-News

 

 

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