Early this year, the City of Las Vegas and several representatives of the architecture and design firm RTKL Associates invited a few locals to participate in a pair of brainstorming sessions at Downtown’s Historic Fifth Street School. Hundreds of us turned out for a pair of think-tank-style meetings intended to find solutions to the lingering problems of our urban core: a lack of housing, inadequate social services and so on. Our ultimate goal was to help the City shape a new master plan for Downtown Las Vegas, one that will guide Downtown through its next 20 years of “physical, social and economic development.”
Wayfinding is what makes you proud enough of your neighborhood to consider making it a better place. It’s what makes a part of town into Your Part of Town.
Before we got started, an RTKL associate shared some numbers from the firm’s fact-finding efforts. That data could kindly be called “sobering.” They found that Downtown suffers 19.7 percent unemployment (Clark County’s average is 8.3 percent). Some 26 percent of Downtown’s housing sits vacant (Clark County, 8.4 percent). Only 0.2 percent of Downtown is devoted to parks and community gardens (Los Angeles, 23 percent). The $496 million of private and public money earmarked for Downtown Las Vegas redevelopment pales in comparison to the $2 billion to $3 billion that Detroit is spending to fix up its urban core (the same Detroit that went bankrupt a couple of years ago). And, on top of all that, our wayfinding is poor.
The RTKL rep explained that Downtown Las Vegas has only one real, clearly delineated entry point: the baby knockoff of Betty Willis’ “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fourth Street; it’s the only marker indicating you’ve arrived in Downtown. If you approach via Maryland Parkway or Charleston Boulevard, you could conceivably pass right through Downtown without realizing it. “I’m not saying you need another kitschy sign,” the RTKL associate said. “But you need something.”
He’s absolutely right—and not just because I’m worried someone might drive completely through Downtown unaware. Our town is one of the easiest in the country to navigate, with a simple east-west, north-south grid. If all else fails, you can look for the Stratosphere Tower; it’s nearly a quarter-mile tall and located practically at the geographic center of the Valley. No, the reason Downtown Las Vegas—and nearly all of Las Vegas—needs more “welcome to” signs is because they might actually help to change those aforementioned depressing statistics. What our city needs, and has needed for a long time, is identity.
Once you get outside of the resort corridors, our older neighborhoods (John S. Park, Rancho Estates) and our assorted entertainment-focused built environments (your Fremont Easts, your Downtown Summerlins, etc.), Las Vegas skews uncomfortably close to a cowtown. Most of our services, retail and dining are located in strip malls, and nearly all of our tract homes are built in the same style. There’s very little in the way of landmarks to tell you when you’ve arrived somewhere, or that you belong somewhere. Fact is, you’ve been living in Paradise, Winchester and Spring Valley for years, and you might not even know it. Or you could be telling your friends you live in Summerlin when you’re actually living in one of its outlying communities (whose names I’m not even sure I know).
Putting up large, ornate “welcome” signs does more than make it easy to give directions to your next party. The road signs that welcome you to Brooklyn are bursting with borough pride, and that feeling stays with you as you drive by. (“Believe the Hype,” one reads. “Fuhgeddaboudit,” shrugs another.) The giant neon “WALLINGFORD” sign that sits at a supermarket in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood isn’t at all necessary for wayfinding (once you’ve found it, you’re already in Wallingford), but it sure gives residents the warm fuzzies, seeing their community’s name in lights. And while Hollywood would still be Hollywood without the Hollywood sign, to be without it is unthinkable; like our “Welcome to Fabulous” sign, it’s come to mean a lot more than a gesture pointing the way in.
We don’t need these signs everywhere. Summerlin has enough. Green Valley has enough. And the individual neighborhoods within those master plans have their own designations (most of them inexplicably lush or nautical in theme, but whatever). But how about some nice signage welcoming us to our sprawling Chinatown, home to some of the best off-Strip dining in the city? Or around the University District, which seemingly exists only in our conversation? Or a stronger identifier for Spring Valley, whose existence I’m only reminded of when I hit up Google Maps? Surely residents would like to say “I live in Spring Valley,” rather than “I’m just off of Trop. If you pass the Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ve gone too far.” Wayfinding is what makes you proud enough of your neighborhood to consider making it a better place. It’s what makes a part of town into Your Part of Town.
That brings us back to Downtown, and that “Welcome to Fabulous” knockoff. I’m going to take this opportunity to suggest something borderline blasphemous: It should be torn down and replaced with something less common. The original “Welcome” sign serves a purpose; Downtown’s baby “Welcome” sign only reminds people of the big one. I understand that we put it up before we knew what Downtown was going to be, and what kind of people were going to live there. Now that the area is becoming more distinctive, maybe it’s time Downtown created something fresh and forward-looking for itself.
A Downtown sign forged by hard-won neighborhood identity? Fuhgeddaboudit.