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The Battle For East Fremont

Can a street known for drugs, prostitution and violence be turned into a clean Downtown destination? Damon Hodge reports from the front lines.

Damon Hodge

When Bill comes to East Fremont Street, he brings a gun. But the South Dakotan is more nervous tourist than vigilante—the pistol's never loaded. "It's for show," he says between swigs of beer and video poker at Atomic Liquors, East Fremont's oldest watering hole. "To scare the f--k out of those co--suckers."


Those, ahem, co--suckers, would be the hookers, drug dealers and gang members who, nightly, turn East Fremont, from Sixth to 15th streets, into an open-air drug and sex market, the highest-crime area in the city and what Sheriff Bill Young calls "the toughest place in town to [do police] work."


Still, when he comes to Vegas, Bill prefers Downtown to the hyper-expensive Strip. And he's developed a routine—stay at Binion's, eat at the Western, casino-hop on Fremont. If he's lucky, he'll end the night between the legs of a loose woman. Over numerous visits, Bill has gotten used to East Fremont's sordid nightlife. When dope peddlers ask, "You OK? You straight?" he gives them a polite "yes." He's also patented a no-look response for the solicitous hookers. However, the occasional violence has taken some getting used to. Two brothers recently scuffled in front of the Ambassador Hotel across from Atomic Liquors; one was stabbed.


"There was blood everywhere," Bill says. "I couldn't even get to my room."


Fremont Street is Las Vegas history. It was the city's first paved street, the first one with a traffic light, the first to have a hotel with an elevator. It is Downtown, as synonymous with Glitter Gulch as Vegas Vic and Benny Binion. And Downtown, as many know, is important to our mayor. He strokes it incessantly. Thinks every new announcement—Cleveland Clinic is Finally Ready to Likely Announce Probable Plans to Consider Possibly Building a Medical Clinic Downtown—warrants front-page play. Talks of it one day supplanting the Strip.


So the mayor has a right to be proud of the progress of this redevelopment experiment. Investors have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Downtown and produced tangible, usable, sales-taxable results (Icehouse Lounge, Las Vegas Premium Outlets), and have further plans to Manhattanize (with lofts and swanky apartments), energize (a $17 million revamp of the Fremont Street Experience; new, young owners of the venerable Golden Nugget), modernize (more Class A office space) and civilize (a pumped-up arts district, world-class furniture center) the area into livability and respectability.


Make no mistake, this is an experiment. Downtown has never worked like its live-work-play counterparts in other cities.


Any experiment can go awry. For all of Downtown's kinetic revivification, it continues to avoid the portion of Fremont that most needs new life.


East Fremont is Las Vegas misery.


Stand at Fremont and Ninth and look east. Once your eyes dart past the neon signage on the Western Hotel (which reads "West" this night) and the A Motel, the street takes on a darker countenance. Two men sleep under the canopy of what used to be U.S. Royal Tires on 10th Street. Watch how you look at folks; illicit commerce is initiated with head nods and quick glances. Be very alert when you walk East Fremont: Crevices between motels often serve as sleeping quarters. And note the interactions: At midnight, 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., Eighth through 15th streets, you'll see whites and blacks and Hispanics, old men and young women, touristy-looking folks, vagrants and the sports-jerseyed and urban-appareled, cornrows and scruffy beards, tight-fitting clothes and shredded threads. No one seems to have anything in common. Yet when they pass each other, conversations often ensue. Sometimes, they disappear into alleys or go into motel rooms together.


Down near the Blue Angel motel, a young, bald Hispanic man in gray pants and gray-and-black-striped shirt sits on a bike chatting with an older black man in a silk shirt. There's nervous banter, then a quick hand-to-hand exchange. The young man disappears behind a U-Haul center; the black man darts east toward Eastern and disappears behind Hollingsworth Elementary.


East Fremont has been a criminal outpost for 20 years. For more than a decade, Los Angeles gang members have burrowed in its abundant motel rooms—hiding out by day, selling drugs by night. Last month, the 25-million-visitor-drawing Fremont Street Experience, a few blocks to the west, got a taste of East Fremont-style mayhem—its first murder. So troublesome is the area from Sixth to 15th streets that Metro launched its Downtown Area Command Strategic Initiative two years ago, marshalling support from a wide range of departments in order to fight rampant crime. Last year, cops made 1,300 arrests in six-months on Fremont. Among those nabbed were chronic offenders responsible for thousands of offenses. And still crime has risen. Residential burglaries are up 38 percent in a year-over-year comparison of data from late January to early April for areas including East Fremont and Main Street.


Which can't bode well for repurposing the area into an entertainment district (roughly from Sixth to 12th streets), a necessary move if Downtown is going to be the live-work-play area city leaders envision. Since blight has had a 20-year head start, be advised about prognostications of when Downtown will be our version of San Diego's Gaslamp District. Much has to take place beyond the current dolling-up. Who's to say that if cops oust the crime, and absentee landlords become responsible, that the land barons will actually come? Or that there will be a communal change in resident attitudes, the affirmation—followed by action—that East Fremont is worth saving. Redevelopment has never been a static, one-solution-fits-all process. It's a puzzle. Even done the right way, it's a gamble—hit, miss or skim the mark.


But there is one certainty: It'll take more than the mayor chanting, as he did during a Neighborhood Watch-style march in September, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, drug dealers got to go."




Ill Street Blues


Jay-Z says he raps hardcore because, "the streets is watching." It's 10 p.m., at Sixth and Fremont, and the street people are watching me.


A fidgety black woman in a tight red dress ping-pongs from El Cortez to the closed-for-the-day Metro substation, glaring into passing cars. Unblinking. Her eyes dare me to solicit. A Hispanic guy, spider-web tattoo on his bald head and loitering in the parking lot of the Downtowner motel on Eighth Street, glares at me until I leave. Jesus apparently isn't the answer for an argumentative couple (a pimp with his ho?) in front of a church on Fremont and Maryland Parkway; they stop bickering just long enough to scowl at me. You get the feeling that people down here practice looking like menaces.


Another night: In front of graffiti-tagged Society Cleaners on 11th Street, a man screams at a cowering girl between drags on his cigarette. Five minutes later, he's squaring up with her, as if they're about to go 12 rounds. Two minutes later, they're kissing.


Yet another night: A man walking back and forth to all four corners of East Fremont and Eighth Street. Loiterers in front of Fremont Mini-Mart yammering.


There's no telling what you'll see on East Fremont on any given night. People outside for seemingly no reason, traipsing from the 7-Eleven at Fremont and Las Vegas Boulevard to the 7-Eleven on Fremont and 15th. Only they are there for a reason. Explains a cop I flag down in front of USAHostels: They're shopping for customers—horny johns or drug addicts in need of a fix. Many of the roamers are from Los Angeles, drawn here by free-market forces.


"What we hear is that there are so many people selling dope in California that the prices have been forced too low," the cop says. "Here, they can get a lot more money."


Bill says the criminals work in shifts. Drug trafficking and prostitution are light most mornings; noon-day business is scant, if nonexistent—"too hot and too many cops." Nighttime, well, that's party time. He doesn't party much, partly because he doesn't do drugs but mostly because of bad luck. "I can't find a good-looking hooker."


East Fremont hasn't much changed in Lt. Steve Herpolsheimer's 12 years on the force; the same areas are bad (Fremont and 15th) and the same drugs are in vogue (cocaine, marijuana). Part of the problem is that the area's reputation precedes itself. It's known as an illicit Amsterdam. (Remember the mayor floating the idea of turning it into a mini Red Light District?) A veritable Motel Row—from Eighth to Eastern—with rooms as low as $29 a night, East Fremont draws criminals en masse. Once there, they find value-added plusses: dense population (large customer base) and nearby freeway access (mobility).


And as long as there are homeless facilities nearby and the city and county jails are a hop-skip away, authorities say crime is almost a genetic trait, like red hair or big feet. Since it's the first stop for many detainees freed from weekend lockup, Lt. Pat Charoen says East Fremont might always be a troublemaker's paradise.


"We just have to deal with it," he says. "We don't worry about things we have no control over."




The Diss-trict


The city's plan for Downtown is set forth in its 77-page Centennial Plan. The area is dissected into seven districts, of which East Fremont is its own:


The East Fremont District is the logical extension of the Fremont Street Experience eastward and includes El Cortez Casino and other small casinos, and supporting commercial, motel and residential uses. ... The East Fremont District will present future opportunities for new commercial ventures and the integration of medium density, mixed-income residential neighborhoods.


The plan talks of specifics with regard to what should be done on other streets: Lewis Street should be developed into the primary east-west pedestrian corridor for the revitalized Office Core District. The intense concentration of new public and private developments along this street warrants the City's commitment to rebuild this street ...


And:


Third Street, from Bonneville Avenue to the Fremont Street Experience, should be developed as a major pedestrian linkage to unite the Office Core District with Casino Center. Widened sidewalks and a greatly enhanced pedestrian experience will contribute to the revitalization of this central downtown area.


Page 55 outlines design goals for "urban form" in Downtown, advising city leaders to capitalize on "recent development momentum created by the opening of the Fremont Street Experience, the proposed Regional Justice Center, the Federal Courts Building, Neonopolis and the potential expanded City Hall complex," all in hopes of creating a place that will "redefine Downtown Las Vegas as an attractive, safe, economically vital regional center for business, commerce, government, entertainment and the arts."


Little ink is given to defining what urban form East Fremont will take. One theme recurs—an urban park on East Fremont, near 15th and Maryland Parkway. There are no specifics about what the park would look like or what would become of Motel Row.


(Death is already becoming part of it. The Fisher, StarView and Las Vegas motels are closed; the former two are fenced, furniture and appliances cluttering the parking lot.)




The Gang's All Here


"You've got cold-blooded killers walking the street," up and down Fremont," the law-enforcement source says. "Sixteen and 17-year-olds with bodies on them."


This source attends Rock Pile meetings at Metro, weekly gang-intelligence gatherings during which law-enforcement agencies throughout the Valley share information.


Depending on who you listen to, gangs are either a big problem or one of East Fremont's lesser worries. What's indisputable is that they're here. They have been for awhile, and they're not all homegrown. A 1998 Los Angeles Magazine article noted the migration of California gangs to Las Vegas.


The past 10 years, East Fremont has become turf-away-from-home for California gang members, and Metro Gang Unit Sgt. Don Sutton has witnessed much of the migration. Vegas is a favored haunt of thugs eager to escape LA's violent gang wars, three-strikes laws, RICO-enhanced prosecutions and corrupt cops. Authorities say East Fremont is a popular destination for the same reasons hooligans are drawn to the Sierra Vista and Cambridge, hardscrabble housing neighborhoods near the Boulevard Mall. Like subsidized housing, motel rooms are plentiful and easy to get.


"Women and children get the places because they don't have records, and they give the gang members a place to stay," Sutton says. He couldn't quantify the number of LA gang members who come on the weekends; the Rock Pile source suspects 150 to 200. (The Los Angeles Police Department denied requests to interview gang unit officers about the exodus of LA gangs to Las Vegas).


A five-month sting, conducted by Metro cops and federal Drug Enforcement Agency personnel and focused on gang members operating Downtown, resulted in the arrests of 40 people for narcotics and firearms violations. Police seized 28 firearms, $54,251 in cash, 12 pounds of powder cocaine and 3 pounds of crack, 11 pounds of marijuana, 10 grams of heroin, 5 pounds of methamphetamine and 4 ounces of Ecstasy. Among those booked were several members of the Avalon Garden Crips, a violent gang from South Central Los Angeles.


"Fortunately," Sutton says, "we haven't seen a lot of violence related to the weekend migration of gang members."


It's hard to tell the gang-bangers from the other hoodlums. One night saw nearly a dozen 20-ish black males, most in what appeared to be neutral colors—no red, no blue—or other telltale signs of gang affiliation like throwing signs. They walked up and down East Fremont, dipping in motels, using pay phones, talking up women. Another night: An equal number of scraggly white men and pudgy white women sauntered up and down the street.


As salacious, dramatic and headline-y as it sounds—Violent LA Gang Members Set Up Shop On East Fremont!— Capt. Ted Moody says gangs are but one of East Fremont's problems, certainly not the biggest or most pressing. Only occasionally do cops bust someone who claims alliance with an LA gang. Narcotics and prostitution are far more worrisome and far more troublesome. In fact, he says, drugs are the well from which most problems spring.


In response, police created a specialized narcotics team of half a dozen highly trained cops who focus solely on defusing drug-related crimes and work out of a centralized Downtown unit.


"Drugs are at the epicenter of every problem we have here … robbery, fights, violence, prostitution," Lt. Herpolsheimer says. "We want to tackle narcotics and help defuse the crimes associated with narcotics."


What's kept LA gangs from turning Fremont Street into Vegas's version of gang-and-drug-riddled Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles is economics. There's enough money to be made from drugs and prostitution to go around. Herpolsheimer assures there's been no cease-fire agreement among rival factions.


"It's all about the Ben Franklins."




Business as Unusual


Bibiso, owner of BB Market at 715 E. Fremont St., could only take so much. How many times were the loiterers going to ask, "Are you OK? Are you straight?" Often, it turned out. Morning, noon and night. When he came and when he went. "I couldn't walk without getting solicited." Operating a business Downtown was a headache.


Things began changing two years ago. Metro created a strategic initiative that focused on East Fremont Street crime. Police asked business owners to report suspicious activity. Downtown hotels and motels began using an identification program that ran background checks on their guests. Some entrepreneurs were given phones that dial directly to cops' cell phones. Businesses like Atomic Liquors took part in nuisance abatement programs—the venerable, 50-year-old bar started closing earlier, scattering gang members who'd used it as a hub. Metro turned up the heat, arresting several people in a surprise sting in September. Cops pulled the patrol car up to the back door to prevent escape.


Years ago, there'd be packs of eight or 10 people stationed around Atomic, says Duke Beckett, who's bartended there for nine years. "When I used to come to work, from Eastern on up to here, there were people everywhere. After awhile, they stopped bothering me because I've been here too long."


Police also targeted chronic offenders via program where cops posed as drunkards. There was a crackdown on a convenience store that sold the components of a crack pipe. Metro units joined forces to patrol (the weekend of April 17-18, the gang unit teamed with Downtown officers and cops from tourist safety, robbery and vice to patrol the Fremont Street Experience). It's part of the Downtown Area Command Strategic Initiative. It's made an impact. Year-over-year comparisons from late January to early April show 15 percent and 18 percent drops in auto thefts and commercial burglaries; however, robberies and auto and residential burglaries are up 13, 33, and 38 percent, respectively.


Auto-shop owner Doug DiMasi used to have to chase off riffraff, mouthing any threat he could think of. Someone had to fight for East Fremont, he says, because, he says, at the time, the cops weren't.


"People would be selling drugs right in front of my shop and the cops would pass by and wouldn't do anything," he says. "They would say they didn't have support for their supervisors."


DiMasi and others made sure they got it, hammering Metro supervisors, and notifying prosecutors and judges who they felt were soft on crime. The message became: Either do something to help us or we'll help you out of office.


Even the motel workers, who see criminals daily, say they've had fewer problems. The front-desk guy at the Ferguson Motel throws out troublemakers as fast and as soon as they act up. His biggest problem is the slew of married men who routinely rent rooms.


"A lot of them bring hookers," he says. "By the time the cops arrive, they're finished doing their thing and they leave, leaving the woman there and nobody to arrest."




East Fremont—Not All Good, But Certainly Less Bad


It's a Wednesday and an impressive crowd is at Jillian's for the Downtown Business Operators Council's mixer. Downtown's biggest cheerleader, the mayor, is absent. (He didn't respond to a media request for comment.)


A sample of the banter: Some half a billion dollars will be invested by year's end. There's a need to educate hotel, motel and apartment owners on ways to better manage their properties and on beautification measures. The council has grown from six to 30 participants. Cops and federal Weed and Seed funding and community interest and civic-minded business owners are doing their part.


Doug Lien, economic development manager for the city, talked up achievements: the Las Vegas Premium Outlets have increased bus ridership 40 percent, that the various districts—arts, hotel, courthouse and entertainment districts—are coming along; a New York firm invested $120 million to close the purchase of Jackie Gaughan's properties by Barrick Gaming, showing we're on Wall Street's radar.


Sheriff Bill Young talked of problems: He remembers when Fremont Street was great ... knows that "this is the toughest place in town to work" and clamors for more of, well, everything. More cops (the joint city-county board that funds the department-approved monies to hire 100 cops; Metro officials say they need 300 to keep up with a growing city), more jail cells, more district attorneys. "Our systems are over capacity." In an interview, Young says business owners have been some of the biggest impediments to improving East Fremont. Some just don't help. "We can't do anything without them."


In all the good news, there was but one mention of East Fremont: A 10,000-sqaure-foot rock 'n' roll club is slated for Seventh Street and Fremont; the permits have been signed and the business owners' association are finalizing a design.




Who Will Deliver Downtown?


Beckett doesn't feel like hyping the connotation of East Fremont, mostly because what goes on around him doesn't impact him. Nobody bothers him.


Bill hasn't seen a sea change, nor does he plan to tone down his bravado, which comes off like the boasts of a man securely out of earshot from the very people he's disparaging.


"I'll call them motherf--kers if that's what they deserve. What are they going to do? Hurt me? Kill me?"


To change East Fremont, Lt. Herpolsheimer says, city officials needs to get more involved with properties east of Sixth Street. Properties need to be renovated or put up for sale and respectable owners brought in.


"There are a lot of absentee landlords who are reaping the benefits of the improvements being made Downtown but don't want to participate in helping the area," he says. "The time is right for them to do it now. The [mayor's vision of downtown] is attainable. It's the best time in the last 20 years for the area to change."


Charoen says police efforts combined with the city's vision will make East Fremont safe and Downtown great.


If neither can do either, maybe the God Squad can. Led by Stephen Smith, pastor of Downtown Community Church at Ninth and Odgen, the squad in September began walking East Fremont on Friday nights, vowing to do so until drugs and prostitution are eradicated.


God Squader Earl White routinely traverses East Fremont, as much to check on the apartments run by his company as to let criminals know he's watching them. And they often let him know they don't care. Several leered from balconies in September when he, Smith, Mayor Oscar Goodman and nearly 100 others walked Fremont from 15th Street to Maryland Parkway, yelling "Hey, hey, ho, ho, drug dealers got to go." A few weeks ago, a beer-drinking loiterer heckled White at Fremont and Bruce. He eventually left. White's a big man.


"This type of stuff is a daily occurrence," he says. "You just deal with it. We must change the perception of this area. It is fashionable for people to come down here and get drugs. We have to change that."


Toward that end, White organized the Downtown Business Operators Council, preaching responsible entrepreneurship. Each of his company's properties has a referral desk where tenants can find out about social services. You can avert many crimes, White says, simply by letting people know where they can go to get things like food stamps or bus tokens. The mother who has to prostitute herself to feed her children might change her lifestyle if she knows where to get help. When residents decide they won't put up with criminal mischief, White says, it'll be easier to do business on East Fremont and people will want to live there.


"East Fremont is only as good as we want it to be."


For 20 years, that hasn't been very good, though the self-avowed optimist is betting that "in two to three years, I think you're going a see a big change in the perception of the area."


Two to three years is impossibly ambitious. If the city starts buying out absentee motel owners and razing mini-marts, extends revitalization efforts to Eastern (lest the proposed entertainment district bump up against motels and mini-marts), initiates plans to put an urban park where low-rent apartments now stand, upgrades lighting on sidestreets and secures investors for restaurants, bars and clubs, then perceptions about East Fremont might change.


Working against the city is history: It's never done this before.


History is also working against the police. Despite yeoman efforts, they've not been able to uproot the homeless, the gang members and the hookers.


Moreover, Fremont's a product of its environment, a victim of its own reputation. Repackaging it would be a task for any tourist commission. How do you sell an area where the one constant over 20 years has been crime? Can you sell it?


You can take the reputation out of Fremont Street, but can you can take Fremont Street away from its reputation?

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