Downtown Las Vegas. The Past, Present and Future of Fremont Street.
Fremont Street has been a dirt road, a parade route for bull riders, a circuit for cruising teens, the Gambling Capitol of the World, a bustling tourist mall, and home to the world’s largest electric sign.
Too often, Downtown Vegas is frowned upon as little more than a destination for low-rollers and bargain hunters. Many Vegas visitors seeking the jittery, glittery opulence of the Strip will never be satisfied with the old-school charm of Fremont Street, but it should be noted that the area has much to offer, both as a destination and as a starting point for anyone interested in the history of Las Vegas.
Named for explorer and politician, John C. Fremont, the street dates back to 1905. Long before it became the first paved street in Las Vegas, hotels sprung up along the dusty thoroughfare in an effort to capitalize on a loophole that permitted the sale of liquor in these establishments. Located between the Union Pacific Railroad Depot and the red light district, Fremont soon became the central business district of old Las Vegas.
In 1931, when gambling was legalized, the address on the first gaming license issued in Clark County was 15 East Fremont, quietly sparking the evolution of the town into a destination for gamblers, speculators and libertines. When the Las Vegas Strip was nothing more than a thirsty stretch of U.S. Highway 91, Fremont Street was the place to go to not be seen. By the 1940s, shadier elements were moving in, lured by the marginalized nature of the town’s main industry, and the peripheral components of marketable vice. The opening of Nellis Airforce Base facilitated the closing of the popular red light district, moving prostitution deeper into the shadows and the clutches of organized crime. The 1940s also saw the opening of the Pioneer Club and the Golden Nugget, as well as Bugsy Siegel’s first Vegas venue, the El Cortez Hotel and Casino.
In the 1950s, while the Strip was witnessing the opening volleys of a major construction boom, Fremont Street continued to coast on its reputation. Benny Binion blew into town and opened the Westerner. The Pioneer Club welcomed the addition of Vegas Vic, a looming neon cowboy who quickly became a laconic, crudely animatronic symbol for the city. In 1956, the Hotel Fremont opened, and three years later, an underage Wayne Newton made his first Las Vegas appearance in the showroom.
By the time the Four Queens, the Mint and the Lady Luck opened in the 1960s, interstate highways had created direct routes to the Strip, bypassing Fremont Street altogether. A pervasive cultural abandonment of downtown centers in general added to the problem, and by the 1970s, a proliferation of locals casinos began dotting the landscape of Las Vegas Valley, deflecting even more customers. Without much warning, Fremont Street had become a smaller, less impressive version of the Strip.
For the next two decades the area continued to lose its luster and appeal to the majority of Vegas visitors. For many, it simply fell off the radar. The Rat Pack’s Vegas was the Strip, and pop culture mythology had indelibly solidified the dominance of iconic properties like the Sands, the Dunes, Caesars Palace, the Desert Inn, the Stardust, and the Sahara. By the time the second Vegas boom transformed the Strip once again in the 1990s, Fremont Street was in deep trouble.
In 1995, the $70-million Fremont Street Experience debuted, and the second most iconic street in gambling history was covered with a canopy and closed to vehicular traffic. After sunset, gamblers, tourists and panhandlers wander into the street--every hour on the hour--and gaze in wonderment at the spectacle blocking out the desert sky. Over one million lights display state-of-the-art digital animation while 550,000 watts of sound expel a torrent of popular music. This transformation, along with vendors, street performers and free concerts may have pulled Fremont Street back from the brink, but its troubles have continued.
Neonopolis, a $100-million retail space remains predominantly empty, as do the high-rise condos of Streamline Towers. The future of Fremont Street is tied to the future of Las Vegas and the economy. The elaborate plans and projections of a few years ago are laughable, especially considering the specious credentials of many of the speculators.
Downtown casinos have closed, defaulted and struggled, but the surviving properties continue to attract a loyal clientele … and Friday night on Fremont Street is still a hell of a party. Several casinos have pumped millions into renovations, and the nervous, brisk walk between the Fremont Street Experience and El Cortez has been transformed into a leisurely stroll through Fremont East, home of Emergency Arts, The Beat Coffeehouse, The Beauty Bar and the Griffin, a locals-approved bar where old-school meets grad school, and bottle service is nothing more than a punchline.
Rooms are cheaper on Fremont Street, and things move a little slower. One can walk from a casino to its neighbor in a matter of seconds, and the ambiance resonates a bit closer to home. There is more here than meets the eye. The history of the town seems to loom just beyond your peripheral vision, and your hotel room shares ethereal airspace with more than a century of fellow travelers.
As long as people flock to Sin City, there will be a need for alternatives to the more obvious allure of the Las Vegas Strip … and Fremont Street will endure.