Monday, Dec. 1, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In 1968, more than 300 residents of West Las Vegas marched on City Hall to keep D, F and H streets open.
Led by Ethel Pearson, known as “Mother” to her friends, they got those streets reopened so residents could maintain easy access to points south, including downtown and the Strip. A few years later, they persuaded state officials to install a ramp from Interstate 15 to D Street.
The protesters contended the government had been trying to bolster the old West Las Vegas “Iron Curtain,” the inaccessible street design that had kept residents isolated in their historically black neighborhood north of Bonanza Road and west of I-15.
History is repeating itself.
The community has recently been organizing, this time over the state’s closure of F Street just north of I-15, to allow for a highway widening project. The closure, residents say, took them by surprise and unfairly shuts them off from the commercial and government centers just to the south.
Neighborhood businesses were primed, they say, to take advantage of the easy access from the rising, multimillion dollar Union Park project. And residents want easier ways to travel out of their neighborhood.
“The problem is access out of the west side. We don’t want to be closed in or boxed in like that,” said Barbara Crockett, who’s lived in her home near Washington Avenue and I Street for more than 50 years.
Over the past two months, residents have met several times. More recently, they’ve retained an attorney who soon will be filing an injunction in U.S. District Court to try to reopen F Street.
Trish Geran, a locally based writer and activist, has led the organizing effort.
“It seems like some of the decisions being made are not conducive to the needs of the community,” said Geran, who is working with the assistance of the National Action Network, a civil rights group led by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
A top state transportation official said he’s sympathetic to the residents’ concerns, but that it’s likely too late to alter the plans.
“It would be very difficult for (the Nevada Department of Transportation) to change course now because of the price involved,” said Rudy Malfabon, the department’s deputy director for Southern Nevada.
In an Oct. 6 letter from state Transportation Director Susan Martinovich to Jorge Cervantes, Las Vegas’ public works director, Martinovich said reopening F Street could cost $20 million to $30 million — not to mention prolonged traffic hassles.
“What the delay will mean is the continuation of the two-lane traffic control on I-15 that affects 180,000 vehicles a day, for an estimated 12 to 16 months,” Martinovich wrote.
According to Malfabon, F Street could be reopened if the city came through with the funds, a scenario he conceded is unlikely given the current economic climate.
F Street was closed at the corner of McWilliams Avenue on Sept. 7. The area underneath the I-15 overpass, where F Street used to be, has been filled and closed to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
The corner has become a dead end.
The City Council voted in 2006 to close F Street, as part of the project to widen I-15 from the Spaghetti Bowl to Craig Road in North Las Vegas. The vote also called for a connector to be built between F and D streets, south of Bonanza Road, so that the neighborhood wouldn’t be entirely shut off from downtown. That new roadway will be called City Parkway.
City officials note that the connector, which will open by August 2010, will maintain access between West Las Vegas and downtown.
Residents counter that D Street doesn’t run south of Bonanza, as F Street did before the closing.
James Chapman, an official with the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, near F street and Jefferson Avenue, said the F Street closure was short-sighted, given that the neighborhood could be a prime spot for redevelopment and investment when the economy bounces back.
“They’re only looking at what’s happening now,” Chapman said. “Is that ignorant, or what?”
Ward 5 City Councilman Ricki Barlow held a community meeting on Oct. 2 to address neighborhood concerns. Since then, Geran said, she’s held four community meetings, with another scheduled for Dec. 8.
Barlow could not be reached. But in a city news release announcing the Oct. 2 meeting, a spokesman argued that there had been a fatal accident several years ago involving a cement truck and a moped, presumably on F Street, as well as complaints from neighbors.
The release also noted that there have been hearings that have mentioned the closing since late 2005, and that a map showing a closed F Street was mailed to residents within a 400-foot radius of I-15 near D and F streets.
The attorney for the West Las Vegas residents, former City Councilman Matthew Callister, said the closure of F Street is an example of how the government’s actions have amounted to racial discrimination against West Las Vegas residents. They’re prepared to fight in court to regain their rights, he said.
One longtime resident put the issue in more practical terms.
Ora Bland has lived in her yellow brick ranch home at the corner of F and McWilliams for half a century. She’s 74, doesn’t drive, and needs to catch a bus on Bonanza to get to the grocery store and her doctor’s office.
Her walk to the bus stop has grown from two blocks to seven.
“I think it’s terrible,” Bland said. “I know they need progress, but leave a way for us to get around.”