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September 16, 2019

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Foundation lays out ambitious plan to preserve, revitalize Las Vegas’ Westside

Historic Westside Neighborhood

Miranda Alam/Special to Weekly

A house at 1220 Cunningham Drive in the Historic Westside of Las Vegas on Monday, July 29, 2019.

Historic Westside Neighborhood

Berkley Square in the Historic Westside of Las Vegas on Monday, July 29, 2019. Launch slideshow »

The 1940s in Las Vegas was an exciting time of growth and possibility. But not all residents could share in the excitement.

Just as Las Vegas’ black community was growing in size and prominence, city officials delivered a major blow to the Westside, virtually the only area of the city where African-Americans were permitted to live at the time. Citing concerns over substandard housing, the city in 1944 and 1945 razed approximately 375 makeshift homes and shacks in the neighborhood, displacing some of the thousands of people who had recently come to Las Vegas for work.

Residents were not compensated for their destroyed dwelling units, said Heidi Swank, executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation. Some of the vacant lots in the neighborhood today, she added, still date to that ugly period in the city’s past.

As the historic epicenter of Las Vegas’ black community, the Westside and its residents were subject to countless racist local and federal policies and neglect from city officials, beginning in the 1940s and extending even after the formal end of segregation in 1971. But the Westside, an area just blocks northwest of downtown Las Vegas where some homes date to the 1920s, is nonetheless full of stories of triumph, innovation and success.

The Nevada Preservation Foundation now hopes to identify, highlight and preserve some of those stories. The nonprofit plans to survey properties, an effort made possible by a $50,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It’s the first step in a long-term plan to maintain historic sites in the area and revitalize some of them for the benefit of residents, Swank said.

“The goal is to give upgrades (to) properties in that Historic Westside area and be able to put current residents back into those properties. Not only to preserve the property, but also preserve the population in that neighborhood and lift it back up,” explained Frank Woodbeck, who serves on the Nevada Preservation Foundation’s board of directors.

The Westside was selected in part because of the Preservation Foundation’s own commitment to the neighborhood. The foundation is housed on Washington and D streets in the former Historic Westside School, which opened in 1923 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the National Trust grant is designed to help the preservation of historically black neighborhoods that have long been neglected.

“We also think there’s some really great stories over here on the Westside that not a lot of folks know,” Swank said.

Mostly homes and churches will be surveyed, the latter of which played crucial roles in Las Vegas’ civil rights movement in some cases, Swank said.

Most of the abandoned homes in the area — there are at least 80, Swank said — are owned by the city of Las Vegas or Clark County, and upon being preserved and refurbished, could be developed into affordable housing.

“We’ve been talking with the city about how we can make that relationship work so that we can get the houses and revive them,” Swank said. “These are usually ones that the market doesn’t want because they cost too much.”

Another grant, for $24,000 from the 1772 Foundation, is to help the Nevada Preservation Foundation conduct a feasibility study that will recommend ways to establish a threatened properties program to save some of the abandoned properties in the neighborhood. The foundation hopes to secure additional grant funding to cover the costs of preserving properties’ historic qualities and original architectural features, refurbishing them and eventually selling them at an affordable rate.

“It all kind of plays together in that in order to figure out where we would focus the work of the threatened properties program, we need to do a survey to figure out where those places should be,” Swank said.

In addition to single-family homes, the survey could include housing projects in the area, notably Marble Manor, circa 1952, as well as Jackson Avenue, commonly referred to as the Jackson Street Strip or the “Black Strip.” Much of the area’s commerce during the segregation era of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s took place on Jackson Avenue, home to numerous black-owned clubs at a time when other casinos didn’t allow black card dealers.

In addition to the Westside School, properties already on the National Register include the Harrison House, one of the few lodging options for black entertainers visiting town in the segregation era, and the Berkley Square neighborhood, designed by the renowned architect Paul Revere Williams. But there are probably many more properties and parts of the neighborhood worthy of preservation, said Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at UNLV.

One historically significant home is the Christensen House, built in 1935 by the Christensen family, she noted.

“(The Christensens) were businesspeople. They owned horses and they taught riding lessons to a lot of people in Las Vegas,” White said. “And there’s probably lots of other history that has never been researched that goes along with that family.”

Even in Las Vegas, a city that tends to implode older structures rather than revitalize them, historically significant structures can be found, Woodbeck noted. The long-forgotten stories behind those structures can also be uncovered. But the history of people of color here is particularly muted or ignored, Swank said.

That is part of why the Preservation Foundation, as it identifies properties to preserve, is soliciting input from longtime residents of the area who might have knowledge of the neighborhood absent from the historical record.

“We really try to engage with the neighborhood a lot,” Swank said. “A lot of those folks have lived here for generations.”

Given the Westside’s proximity to downtown, the area could be subject to gentrification and further displacement of existing residents at some point, White said. But unlike traditional redevelopment, which might entail demolishing buildings and replacing them, the efforts undertaken by the Preservation Foundation are specifically designed to keep people in the neighborhood and potentially bring back some former residents who were forced to abandon their homes during the Great Recession, Woodbeck said.

“It’s a basic idea, but what you get away from is the gentrification,” he emphasized.

The Preservation Foundation will select a consultant to conduct the property surveys soon. But for the most part, the organization has not set a firm timeline for the project, Swank said. That is somewhat intentional.

“There have been a lot of promises made to the Westside, and we don’t want to be another group that makes promises that don’t come through. So we’ve been taking our time,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.