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September 22, 2017

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Joe Downtown: Copious festivals bring about a Bourbon Street feel


Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau

The South African team gathers at the Gold Spike to announce the 2013 World Food Championships in downtown Las Vegas from Nov. 7-10, 2013.

2013 World Food Championships

Competitors Michael Poyiadjis, left, and Sarel Van Sabie, both from South Africa, sample some chicken and chat with Elliot Aquila from the Texas Social Club during the World Food Championships on Fremont Street Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. The competitions continue through the weekend. Launch slideshow »

“There’s so much going on down here all the time,” said a man at Fremont and 6th streets last week, noting the streetscape. "Now what’s going on here?”

Roadblocks had been put up to keep traffic off East Fremont Street, and aluminum poles were being hitched together to create booths for chili cookers, barbecuers and other chefs contributing to the World Food Championships, which stretch over several blocks of Fremont and end today.

Now, think back a week.

Friday night was the monthly First Friday art walk in the Arts District, which draws 25,000 to 30,000 people. The night before, the fourth annual Halloween Parade traveled down east Fremont for the first time and drew as many as 30,000 people, according to parade organizers.

The weekend before last heralded the first-ever, two-day Life is Beautiful festival, which drew some 60,000 people to East Fremont Street and the several fenced-in blocks around it.

Getting the picture?

Downtown Las Vegas — largely East Fremont Street, the Fremont Street Experience and the Arts District — has turned into a center for festivals and events, especially when compared with downtown events, say, 10 years ago. Back then, you’d see the traditional Helldorado Rodeo and obligatory parades for St. Patrick’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Helldorado, but little else.

The list today includes more than parades. There are fundraisers, runs, events celebrating cultural pride and food fests.

Here’s a partial list: Chinese New Year Festival; Color Run; Mint 400 gathering; Race for the Cure; Fiesta Parade/festival; Glow Run; Heart Run; Halloween Parade; Veterans Parade; Rock and Roll Marathon; Martin Luther King Jr. Parade; Helldorado Rodeo and Parade; Pride Parade; Downtown Brew Fest; Red, Wine and Brew fest; Las Vegas Bike Fest; Vegas Valley Book Festival; Life is Beautiful; Punk Rock Bowling fest, Helldorado; the Sprinkler Run; the Santa Run; and the monthly First Friday art walk.

Smaller events are sprinkled throughout, such as Fashion Alley, the informal Llama Parade (walk with a llama from Fremont to a Las Vegas 51s baseball game), and the twice-a-year Blinking Man bicycle ride.

That comes to 39 events in one year.

2013 Life Is Beautiful: Day 2, Part 2

The Killers close out Day 2 of Life Is Beautiful on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, in downtown Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Cory Mervis, who began the Halloween Parade four years ago, is a strong believer that festivals and events such as the parade “make a stronger community.”

“It brings people out of their houses to be among their neighbors,” she said. “We have our TVs and computers and we’re losing the human touch, and that’s where I think festivals come back into it, strengthening bonds of a community.”

Longtime resident and local historian Brian “Paco” Alvarez said the increase in events that draw people to downtown “reminds me of what they had in the 1950s, when downtown was truly the center of the city and the Strip was not what it is today.”

“Never forget,” he crowed, “that the Strip is still an expansion of downtown.”

For about 50 years, politicians have attempted to redevelop downtown — the near-empty Neonopolis being one of the biggest tries — and, some say, there have been mistakes. (The parking garage in the basement of the three-story downtown cube was city-funded.)

Only after the city took the uncharted step of eliminating the fee for liquor licenses in the specific Fremont East Entertainment District did business operators take note and begin to trickle in. By now, everyone knows about the bigger boost from the move by Zappos into a new headquarters based in old City Hall, just a few blocks from Fremont Street.

“Nothing really stuck until the city created the Arts District and the Entertainment District,” Alvarez said. “Now? It’s party after party after party after party. And even if some don’t want it to be Bourbon Street, it’s becoming like that.”

Bourbon Street is the famous tourist destination in New Orleans. Locals there take their gumbo and jazz less on Bourbon Street and more in eateries and ramshackle but venerated tenements elsewhere.

Fremont Street and the Arts District, on the other hand, were envisioned as havens for locals. Sure, tourists wander in from the Fremont Street Experience, but the dividing line that is Las Vegas Boulevard seems to keep many more at bay.

So when the runs and festivals and food championships and other things happen on East Fremont Street, tourists are among the crowds. But, so far at least, you can’t walk too far during those event without waving to someone familiar, especially if you live downtown.

To urban sociologist and UNLV professor Michael Borer, that’s an important distinction. He used the Life is Beautiful festival, whose 60,000 patrons were estimated to be 30 to 40 percent local, as an example.

Borer said if the festival continues to cater to locals, it is a reflection of “the maturity of the city.”

However, he added, “One of the potential problems is if it adopts the same logic as Las Vegas has always adopted when catering to tourists versus the local … then it becomes more of a tourist event and less a reflection of the community.”

For the time being, events downtown possess a distinctively local feel. Terry Murphy, president of the Downtown Las Vegas Alliance, says that’s a sign of Las Vegas' maturation.

“Communities create festivals; festivals don’t create communities,” said Murphy, who has a master's degree in sociology, a field that has generated studies about the connection between communities and festivals.

A Brooklyn native, Murphy said where she grew up, “there are festivals all the time.”

“Festivals are disruptions and experience, so when you have a festival, you close the streets and do things and celebrate a culture or an experience or the community,” she said. “We’re growing as a community, so the number and frequency of those events are growing. … The more community we have, the more celebrations of it to come.”

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