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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Metro Lt. and poet Harry Fagel finds inspiration in the area he patrols

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Wordsmith with a badge: Downtown’s resident poet-cop, Harry Fagel.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

It sounds odd to say it all these years later, but Harry Fagel helped me believe in Las Vegas.

I moved here for a job reporting crime, and Las Vegas had a lot of it. In 1996, the year before I moved here, Nevada had the second-highest per capita murder rate in the country, at 13.7 per 100,000 people. Wisconsin—I moved from Madison—had a measly rate of 4.2, and most of that was from Milwaukee. I wanted to experience reporting in a city where criminal mayhem was the order of the day.

Well, I got a bellyful.

From the start, I covered murders almost daily. One of my first, I’ll never forget: a mom and dad rolling on a grass field in agony next to their 16-year-old son, who had been gunned down as he played soccer on a Sunday night in Lorenzi Park.

Police, too, were seemingly out of control. Shortly before I arrived, two off-duty Metro cops committed a drive-by shooting on a teenager. About the same time, an officer was arrested when a couple alleged he forced them to perform sex acts after he pulled their car over. And about two months after I arrived, several off-duty cops brawled at the since-shuttered Drink nightclub. It was an ugly affair with racial overtones. One of the officers called to the fracas was young cop Harry Fagel.

Months later during an initial court hearing, Fagel and other officers did what you hope happens in events like this: They testified as to what they saw. Charges against two non-cops were dropped.

A few years later I saw Fagel again, this time at a coffee shop.

“I know you,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” he barked, softening after I explained that what he did in court helped break my view that it was us versus them: the people versus the police.

Years later, I did a story on Fagel’s poetry and his readings to fellow officers during briefings at the Southeast Area Command. Fagel’s former partner, retired Sgt. Steve Custer, told me in 1999 those poems helped officers “remember that we are human and still caring. And to a cop, that means you’re still alive and haven’t become cold and hollow and crass.”

Fagel has published two books of poetry, soul-searching looks at the dark side of policing with an alert eye toward glimpses of charity and goodwill amid the chaos. He’s done readings at Fremont Street’s Beauty Bar, the Beat and Bar + Bistro. When I got married, he wrote a poem at the reception and did an impromptu reading.

Now he’s a lieutenant and was recently assigned to the Downtown Area Command.

Sitting at the Beat last week, Fagel gives off a big smile and a sense of gratitude for the job and for his wife and kids, who come up often in conversation. Make no mistake: he’s a cop, which means he can’t help scanning the crowd for signs of misgivings that I wouldn’t recognize if they slapped me in the face.

“It’s a joy to be back in Downtown,” Fagel says. “What’s interesting is seeing the caring going into this area from people for whom it used to be just a passing thought. All of a sudden, they really care about this area.”

Fagel loves the character of Downtown and the people who live there. One of his recent poems, available below, is a nod to the area and its changes.

Fagel, who grew up near Karen and Eastern avenues, is quick to note that the neighborhood’s progress isn’t solely due to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project.

“Change has been happening for a long time with the artists, with First Friday,” he adds. “People didn’t just look at this as it was and say, ‘This is neat.’ It’s taken 15 years to move that boulder.”

That sort of institutional knowledge goes a long way toward explaining why his captain, Shawn Andersen, calls him a “great fit” for Downtown. And while veterans I have talked to respect him, it’s easy to see how younger officers—many of them Millennials like so many new Downtown residents—would feed off his infectious love for the area.

“This place has potential, and the reason it still does is right here,” Fagel says, looking around the coffeehouse.

“It’s the people who are down here.”

Downtown 2

By Harry Fagel

The hot air of downtown swirls and

In the dust the ghosts of old gamblers and prohibitioners and Mormon elders

Softly settles

Graffiti hot-washed by vagrant piss

Shines out from wire strewn alleyways where condoms and cocktail napkins

Soak in the brine

Bricks were a-crumbling and like some long lost mammoth

Downtown sunk into the miasma of time like those unfortunate La Breains

Someone has been pouring sand here

Concrete too

Ballast for the weighty history a harpooned whale now healed

Downtown rises from the funk

Mystic hipsters build bars with short cool names

The vibe builds and rebuilds

Young folks with dreams rather than old drunks with broken hearts

Show up more and more on these blistering sidewalks

Surreal the Rangers move among the sunlight

Helping tourists and keeping the vampires at bay

Fiends are becoming cartoonish and wonkian

Pushed back by swank restaurants and gathering spaces

Like every emerging culture the art snaps and billows around the rise

Calling and singing out

Posers and fakes rub shoulders with the dedicated and the talented

It is a melting hand

I cruised down here when it was a carlane

Walked in the alleys as a warrior

Danced with prostitutes and scary ex-cons

Saw blood spill into the gutter

The vision here is good though

It remains to be seen where the ride will go

Tony Hsieh and his thoughts are invigorating and pushing on the old guard

Will he stay?

Is Vegas in his soul?

If he is betting on the people they are a fickle lot but even though the smell of piss is strong

I think I can smell hope

Copyright 2013 Harry R. Fagel all rights reserved

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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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