Las Vegas' Historic Westside revitalization plans are gaining momentum

August 6, 2020

 

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Las Vegas was once known as the “Mississippi of the West” for its racist and segregationist policies.

Red-lining was rampant starting in the 1920s, with the city only allowing African Americans to live and own businesses on the west side of the Union Pacific train tracks.

Even with segregation as the law of the land, the community was vibrant and progressive - creating so much history in what is now known as the Historic Westside.

The Historic Westside spans about 450 acres, sprawling north and west of the I-15 to Martin Luther King and Owens boulevards.

However, the area is currently dotted with vacant lots and dilapidated buildings - a far cry from the neighborhood's heyday in the 1950s.

"Anybody who was here in the Jackson Street era has only good stuff to say about it," said Katie Duncan, president of the Ward 5 Chamber of Commerce. "They said we had the Strap and we had the Strip."

On any given night in the 1940s and 1950s, the Westside was brimming with Black excellence.

"This is Sammy Davis Jr's silk shirt," Duncan said, pointing to a framed beige shirt, worn by the famous crooner. "I like to think he wore it in this house. It was great because it came back to the same color as the walls."

In segregated times, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and other African American artists headlined shows on the Strip. But they weren't allowed to stay in the hotels, or even walk through the front door of the casinos.

After performing, they'd cross town to the Westside where they stayed at the Harrison House on F Street.

"Stars happened to stay in the community," said Courtney Haywood, a local artist and entrepreneur. "It created an energy here that was like family, where ordinary people could actually see the stars on the porch and just enjoying that community."

The Harrison House was once in Haywood's family, owned by his grandfather in the 1980s. Katie Duncan bought the house in 2009, with the goal of restoring and revitalizing it for public use.

"What this house does is it allows us to talk about segregation in a non-threatening environment, so by coming to the Harrison House, we can talk about how we got to this space. The conditions we're in today and our individual responsibility for eradicating racism in the future," said Duncan, who's running for Assembly District 6 in November.

With about $120,000 in grant funding, Duncan has overhauled the electrical and plumbing systems and started working on the exterior and interior. But in the early stages of the process, she realized to see the dream come to life, she would need to cut through some red tape.

"We worked toward making it a library, a museum and we thought, wow it would be great if it were a coffee lounge but you can't serve the public in a private residence. So, we were looking to get the house zoned," she said. "We realized there were a lot of other neighbors and residents in the community who also had similar situations and they wanted to do something different with their homes as well and all of us were going for rezoning individually. And when we went to the city, they said, we're going to be coming through your neighborhood and looking to rezone anyway. So, hold off and we'll do it as a unit instead of one by one."

What followed was a series of fits, starts, and conversations had. Plans formed but were ultimately shelved.

In 2016, with ongoing input from neighbors in the area, the HUNDRED plan was created - a kind of master plan envisioning a livable, walkable, modernized but culturally-rich Westside.

"What I wanted to do is not to come in and change what's in there but to execute on what's in there because it's community-driven," said Ward 5 Councilman Cedric Crear. "Now, the next question is, how do you execute on the plan?"

Putting the HUNDRED plan into action is personal for Councilman Crear, who was born and raised in the neighborhood. His father, the second black doctor in the city.

When Crear ran for office, one of his top priorities was bringing development to the Westside.

"I say that we're moving at government lightning speed," he said, with a laugh. "I've been in office for two years and here we are sitting in a brand new building already within the community and I think that's amazing."

At the corner of Washington Avenue and D Street, the Historic Westside School recently underwent a multi-million dollar restoration project. The building is now home to several businesses, with room for more.

And if you walk north along D Street, there's a brand new building that will soon house workforce training programs. Councilman Crear says he sees the stretch of D Street as an education hub.

"We're working with the College of Southern Nevada to fill out that parcel that's here and we're finalizing an EDA grant that we think is going to come in," Crear said. "They're going to build a facility that will have construction, manufacturing and trades as well."

Just north on D Street, Councilman Crear said the city recently purchased the lot where the vacant New Jerusalem church stands - the idea is to build a mixed-use building with retail on the ground floor and mixed-income housing above.

"Making sure we don't displace the residents that are in this community," he said. "The goal is not to kick anybody out. The goal is to bring everyone along with us."

While the drafting of the HUNDRED plan was largely community-driven, not every member of the community is waiting on the city to set the pace.

"We actually are working on a building right now on Jackson, 407 Jackson, that we're making a coffee shop - traditional coffee shop - on the bottom and a rooftop juice bar," said Haywood.

Along with two partners, Haywood recently founded the Historic Westside Development Corporation to spearhead projects, attract investors and make sure residents are seen and heard. He says he also wants residents to have an opportunity to participate in what he calls a positive kind of gentrification.

"If they need help to develop their property to the liking of the plan that is already implemented then they get an education and they get a chance to make an honest decision," Haywood said.

Like many who grew up in the neighborhood, Haywood says he draws inspiration from its history.

So, while many Las Vegans may see the Historic Westside as vacant lots and dilapidated buildings, there are pockets of passion. And that passion translates into a vision for a neighborhood that's just across the train tracks from a bustling downtown.

"We have to work toward creating a historic district," Duncan said. "So, we can bring back those glory days."