When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory responded, “Because it’s there.” Maybe that was my motive: because they’re there. Of course, it may have also had something to do with the fact that I was there, living in the depths of this elaborate network and using it occasionally to get to Fremont East, Real Results Fitness or the Las Vegas Library. Curiosity drove me. I wanted to burn some calories. My reasons were varied, I suppose, but when the short man with a nose ring and shaved head threatened to take my trusty steed in Naked City, I questioned all of them.
The past three weeks, I explored the alleyways of Downtown Las Vegas on my bike, focusing on the oddly shaped area bounded by Sahara, I-15, the 95 and Maryland Parkway. Most of these alleys trend north-south. I biked as many of them as I could find, covering more than 20 miles. (Some of the alleys stretch nearly a mile.) I encountered things you might expect—graffiti, homeless camps, sous-chefs on smoke break—and things you might not—history, dazzling murals, aromatic smells.
Mount your steed, or rent one from the nearest Bike Share station, and ride along with me as I recap the expedition. Things didn’t end well for Mallory—it gets chilly up there at night, eh mate?—but the Downtown alleys, though alluring, turned out to be much tamer than Everest.
Photos of Michael Chambers Jr. by Krystal Ramirez
The exploration confirmed something I already suspected: a lot of photo shoots take place in the alleys (especially the accessible, gritty-looking one behind Le Thai and Beauty Bar). Typically, the subject is a pinup girl in high heels who couldn’t make it to the other end of the alley if a modeling contract was waiting for her. She looks uncomfortable, out of place.
Not Michael Chambers Jr. Dressed in an Ecko cap, Calvin Klein T-shirt, black sweats and Nikes, he blended into the alley that juts north from the El Cortez and is lined with murals leftover from the Life Is Beautiful festival. It didn’t appear to be his first time in an alley. In fact, he patrols them by day as a supervisor for Acme security. He’s also a rapper, which explains why he was gesticulating and being trailed by a small camera crew.
“I’m doing a photo shoot to help promote my music and my ministry,” said Chambers, a gospel rapper who goes by the name Mike Chambers_Jr. “Going to church as long as I have, people heard my rapping and said why don’t you put out an album, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Chambers said the album is titled Epoch Muzik, because he’s delivering the word of God over beats and doing so in a unique manner. It’s a new era, he added.
Then, before I climbed back onto my bike, he blessed me with a few bars.
“I’m not a human being/I’m a spiritual one/Nowhere near having Nas’ tats/But I am God’s son.”
Photos by Krystal Ramirez
The City of Las Vegas
Last year, at a City Council meeting, the city of Las Vegas unveiled its Downtown Alley Design Guidebook. The 40-page document is replete with a table of contents with chapter headings including “Benefits to the Community,” “Alley Activation Flow Chart” and “The Alley of the Arts.” The guidebook, in short, asserts that Downtown’s alleys could be transformed into safe, vibrant “urban experiences”—parks, bike paths, dining areas, festival grounds, etc.—with the help of community partners. (Paging Mr. Hsieh.) It also identifies challenges and ranks the alleys that have the most potential for “activation” (i.e., transformation).
The city hoped the guidebook would spark discussion and ideas, and planning director Tom Perrigo indicated it’s an ongoing process. The challenge is many of the alleys serve a purpose: deliveries, utilities, garbage disposal. The plans have not yet come to fruition, he concluded, but the city is working hard to make them a reality.
The line between housed and homeless is blurred in the alleys. Some of the bungalows, apartments and weeklies appear below code and some of the homeless camps are cardboard Taj Mahals. During the day, when the bordering businesses are active, the camps are empty. At night, there are no vacancies.
Steve, who I met behind the Jack in the Box at Main and Wyoming, has lived in the alleys off and on for two years. He explained their appeal.
“It’s out of the public eye. People come to Vegas on vacation, and the homeless tend to get in the way of that, I guess. Here you’re out of the way and the police don’t mess with you. A lot of people get high in the alleys, too, and have sex in them. And they just throw shit everywhere.”
To combat the littering and the backlash it could bring, Steve picks up trash as he makes his rounds. (“I just go wherever my feet take me.”) He said some of the business owners give food to the homeless, and some of the residents give them money. It’s disrespectful to, in return, trash the area. He feels the least he can do is help keep it clean.
Leaning on his cart, which contained plastic bottles, a loaf of bread and a Texas flag (his find of the day so far), Steve told me he became homeless when he left his wife, who was an escort and doing things he didn’t approve of. He has worked in construction and fast food, but is having trouble finding a job because, among other things, he doesn’t have an ID. His goal is to get off the streets and go to seminary school.
“I want to be a preacher,” he said with an ironic smile.
Photos by Krystal Ramirez
Most Downtown businesses use the alleys traditionally (deliveries, utilities, garbage disposal), if at all. ReBAR owner Derek Stonebarger views this as a missed opportunity. He says high rents in desirable areas like the Arts District and Fremont East oblige owners to make the most of every square foot and that, in his case, includes the front sidewalk and the alley.
Stonebarger views the alley and the lot across it as an extension of his bar/antique store and uses them to showcase reclaimed or recycled tables and chairs and for pop-up events, film screenings, live music and First Friday. (A makeshift outdoor theater occupies the lot.)
“One of my goals, as the newly elected Las Vegas Arts District board president, is to develop the alleys,” Stonebarger said. “I’m meeting with city officials and planners to work toward making the alley behind ReBAR, and others in the Arts District, a tier III alley, which means it would be walkable and handicap accessible and have ample lighting.”
Stonebarger hopes to name it Art Alley or Joyce Straus Art Alley, after the longtime artist and art teacher who died in 2013.
“Hey, brother. Can you spare a few dollars?” slurred the short, skinny man with a nose ring and shaved head. It was noon on a Saturday and 85 degrees. He was wearing a camouflage jacket.
I squeezed the brakes at the entrance to the alley, where he stood like a gatekeeper, and straddled my bike. The Stratosphere loomed over my left shoulder. I patted my pockets.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m tight on money.”
He took two steps toward me. “Come on, man! You can give me a few bucks.”
I shrugged, then climbed back onto the bike. As I pedaled past him, he turned toward me.
“What if I took your bike? You can’t come through the ’hood and not give something up.”
I thought about U-turning and telling him that might be a little more difficult than he suspects, but three people were approaching from the opposite end of the alley, clutching cans concealed in paper bags. Plus, the man was clearly drunk or high.
No need to escalate things, I told myself, pedaling casually. Not in a narrow alley littered with blind spots. Not when surrounded by boarded-up buildings and sun-bleached lean-tos. Not where they say “nice bike” with lust in their voice.
Here, in Naked City, it’s best to keep the spokes spinning.
I was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the Atlanta area, so I’m partial to big cities. I’m inspired by their energy and edge and like getting lost in the layered landscape: skyscrapers, parking garages, parks, rail yards, underground flood channels. Alleys, of course, are a defining feature of this terrain, but most of Vegas’ are too safe and sterile to get the blood flowing. Where are the stickered, markered doors? Where are the neon signs reflecting in dumpster juice? And swinging gates at the entrances are a definite buzzkill.
Our alleys find some measure of redemption with their art. “Graffiti Alley” (Utah between Main and Commerce), the alley north of Art Square and the one behind Cornish Pasty Co., among others, are worth visiting at the golden hour with your smartphone or camera. However, the best alley for art is north of Ogden Avenue between 7th and 8th streets. The alley is home to only three pieces, located at its bookends, but they’re all large scale and thought-provoking.
Spanish street artist Gonzalo Borondo’s portrait of a solemn, mustached man in a loose-fitting shirt wraps around the southwest corner of the alley, splitting the subject in two. The man’s right hand rests on his chest; his left is tucked in his shirt (a la Napoleon). His arms, chest and face are dabbed red. The acrylic image, commissioned by Life is Beautiful in 2014, reminds me of a Guantanamo detainee, but, considering the artist’s roots, could be related to the Spanish Civil War.
Across the alley from Borondo’s piece is a more cheerful (at a glance) mural by Australian artist Fintan Magee. The mural, which also wraps around the corner, depicts a man and woman stretched across mountainous terrain, surrounded by rabbits. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? However, the man and woman are holding up umbrellas, perhaps in preparation for some kind of environmental disaster.
Martin Whatson’s 2016 Life Is Beautiful mural dresses up the alley’s north end. The centerpiece of the mural is a uniformed soldier or police officer kneeling behind a riot shield (that’s, probably not coincidentally, shaped like an iPhone). The background consists of riotous graffiti tags, which seem to be bearing down on the soldier/officer. As you turn the corner of the El Cortez’s parking garage, the piece continues: a hand pulling down a gray curtain, revealing more tags. Would you rather look at a drab wall or colorful art, Whatson seems to be asking?
Photos by Krystal Ramirez
While the city and Stonebarger hope to “activate” the alleys, one local newsman and historian simply hopes they don’t disappear.
When I talked to Bob Stoldal and told him I was biking the alleys, he responded, “Great idea! Use them while you can. They will be gone soon.”
Stoldal went on to say he recently visited the alley south of the Fremont Street Experience between Main and 1st, looking for the old Northern Club. He said he discovered that the Northern, which received Nevada’s first gambling license and was Bugsy Siegel’s first operation in the state, had been torn down and the alley was covered with steel plates and traffic barriers.
In a subsequent conversation, Stoldal lamented the fact that the alley north of Ogden between 1st and Casino Center, which led to the infamous red-light district Block 16 and was once the busiest alley in the city, had been filled in with a parking garage.
Stoldal suggested that the alleys, laid out as they were with the roads and blocks of Downtown, house a lot of history, but don’t receive many preservation protections. This, combined with Downtown’s growth, makes him fear the worst.
Which begs the question: What do we lose when we lose an alley? More than we can imagine.