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Joe Downtown

[Joe Downtown]

Prostitutes, anthrax and ‘real’ bars: 12 years of Downtown living

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Work in progress: Joe Schoenmann has seen a lot of change during his 12 years living Downtown.
Photo: Steve Marcus

I moved from the “tony” west side of Las Vegas, near Rampart and Charleston, to Downtown a little more than 12 years ago.

Married at the time, we moved into a rental home near 15th and Charleston owned by a Republic Services trash picker who paid for all the paint, wood, fixtures—anything we needed to fix the place up—so long as we put in the labor.

On one side of the house lived a religious family who forbade their children from talking to us, believing we were “drug dealers,” as their little girl told us. On the other side was a local rock ’n’ roller who lived a life unimaginable. We once saw a limo full of the female lifeguards from Baywatch streaming into his home for an after-hours party.

A year later, we moved closer to the Arts District, near Las Vegas Boulevard and Charleston. We were told ours was the 11th-oldest still-standing house in Las Vegas, a place with carved wood beams, hardwood floors, a basement and massive yard. It is one block from Hartland Mansion on Park Paseo, the street a vampire was filmed running down in the made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, which led to the early ’70s TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

In those years, people determined to turn Downtown around lived in our neighborhood. UNLV professors, lawyers and some people who simply had lived there a lifetime and refused to move.

But signs of degradation were apparent. Almost every weekend, some homeless man or woman would knock on the door asking to do something around the yard for money. One guy who washed our car every other weekend for a few dollars said he was a University of Michigan grad who lost everything to gambling.

Soiled condoms in the street gutter in front of the house were a typical sight, the remnants from apparently safe-sex-practicing prostitutes who tossed the safe part of a business transaction out the window of a car.

Prostitutes even went door to door. One night shortly before Christmas, a woman walking down the street stopped to watch me plant an African sumac in the front yard. Dark and cold, I warmed my hands on the heat from a floodlight pointed toward my digging. With an air of Blanche Dubois that said she depended upon the kindness—and money—of strangers, she tried to strike up a conversation. I kept digging.

Later came a knock on the front door.

“Who’s that at this hour?” asked my mother-in-law, a Catholic school principal from Buffalo visiting for the holidays.

It was Blanche, asking if I needed company.

Then there was the stalker who left a fake bomb and fake anthrax on the porch on Halloween. Donning bright hazmat gear, Metro officers sealed off the area and removed the stuff. Kids thought it was all part of some strange Halloween show. Or just more of Downtown.

Time passed. I got a divorce.

I’d heard of some new bars opening on East Fremont Street, a mile or more to the north. I’d written about this same stretch of street years earlier: a female tourist having been led through it by an apparent drug dealer. She was later found dead. It wasn’t a place to walk at night.

But the street and its locale immediately felt “real” to me. Dad had owned a bar, and the Downtown Cocktail Room, replete with drinking and drunken lawyers, had a familial feel closer to my dad’s old place than anything I’d ever visited in Las Vegas.

Three or four years ago, I was mugged by two guys as I left DCR. I survived. They got $8. A year after that, my car was towed from a Downtown lot, and it cost me $300 to get it back the next day.

I kept coming back.

Then, Tony Hsieh of Zappos showed up in 2010 with promises to invest in Downtown’s infrastructure with the long-term goal of transforming it into a place that all Las Vegans want to live in, or at the very least visit.

Now, it feels like Downtown is just beginning. The shock of the new is pushing hard for a foothold in an area where much of Las Vegas’ underbelly has perched for decades.

A reader once commented that all the Downtown activity “should be fun to watch.”

There might be no better show in Las Vegas.

Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
Tags: Opinion, News
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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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