Off the Beaten Track

Our daily Downtown walking tour is generally oriented to the historic blocks on Fremont Street. It’s a spirited narrative based around my own lived experiences of having worked Downtown for 20 years, most of that time as the Urban Arts Coordinator for the city in the Office of Cultural Affairs. Seven years ago, I opened with my business partner, Babs Daitch, Las Vegas Pop Cultural Tours – the first daily cultural walking tour of Fremont Street, providing one of more original narratives of Downtown. 

I don’t work from a written script but provide a series of stories about Las Vegas, its history, social fabric, pivotal events, the role of gambling, the Mob connection, larger than life characters, insights into art, culture and architecture, impact of tourism, the environment (Vegas being an oasis in the desert), visitors &locals, demographics, the relationship between the Strip & Downtown, and other intriguing themes. It’s a narrative that’s triggered everyday by just walking around Fremont and, because our tours are premium small group (six people maximum), I can often customize the tour to the interests and experiences of tourgoers. Often, a visitor’s experience can help us to see this place in a new way, in a different perspective, through their own eyes.

With all that said, it is good to go “off the beaten track,” beyond the core of Fremont. In fact, Downtown is comprised of a cluster of neighborhoods arranged around the Fremont Street corridor – neighborhoods that are cultural, residential, public, commercial, mixed use, civic, and historical.        

Going off the beaten track can include a trek through these Downtown neighborhoods with these episodic encounters:

The Cultural Corridor, now 30 years old, is one of the oldest arts neighborhoods Downtown. Located on North Las Vegas Boulevard, it’s more like a museum district that features the Neon Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Old Mormon Fort State Park.

The Neon Museum Boneyard, about 20 years old, is a 2-acre site featuring hundreds of vintage electric signs from Downtown, the Strip and around the Valley. Local sign designers created an innovative and spectacular commercial art form that gave Las Vegas a visual language on the world stage. Much of Vegas sign history centers around singular iconic signs but artist-designers created detail, nuance, and pattern in the fabric of sign composition, like this 1960s bullnose street-corner sign from Binion’s Horseshoe featuring interlocking “Hs” from the casino’s name. When Binion’s sold the rights to the Horseshoe name, this corner sign was moved to the Neon Museum and is part of an entry portal to the Boneyard. 

Museum curators have the daunting task of strategically and thoughtfully arranging artworks for public display. Imagine the task of a curator at the Neon Museum arranging hundreds of signs in the outdoor Boneyard, some signs almost as big as buildings.  Every time we visit the Boneyard, we see something new or get a different perspective on a vintage sign that we’d not seen before. On a recent visit, we liked the way these signs seemed to tumble together at this corner turn, one sign informing the other, or maybe unintentionally colliding, expressive of how things sometimes work in this city. 

The Las Vegas Natural History Museum, the oldest museum Downtown, hosts a variety of exhibits and displays: animated dinosaurs (Nevada was part of the Jurassic Park Era), our native wildlife from bighorn sheep to rattlesnakes, a live shark exhibit, and there’s a unique historical exhibit built around the discovery of King Tuts Tomb in Egypt that was originally at the Luxor. This museum is one of the best places for families to visit when they come Downtown.  

If there is any place in Vegas where historical time seems to stop, or maybe begin, it is the Old Mormon Fort State Park on Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue. Walk 6 blocks from the glitz and bustle of Fremont Street to this quiet, spacious, and rare spot. The 2-acre site featuring a remnant of the original Las Creek, first attracted Paiute people, then become a Mormon settlement, and later it became the 19th century Vegas Rancho known as the Stewart Ranch.  Here is the primordial true-grit earth patch upon which the city was founded.

The 18b Arts District at Charleston and Main was founded about 20 years ago and is home to art galleries, restaurants, bars, shops, and lots of murals. It includes an amazing Vintage Vegas Antiques District and a developing Brewery District. 

One of our favorite places to visit in the neighborhood is the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum. Some time ago, our group staged a t-shirt review in the museum lobby, shirts emblazoned with some of the famous Burlesque dancers of the era, Lili St. Cyr, Sassy Lassy, and Candy Barr. Burlesque has thrived in Vegas since the 1950s, first in places like the Dunes, Silver Slipper, and the Aladdin. As a generator in the development of classic striptease, Burlesque found its way into productions like strip clubs, go-go girl reviews, and even more recent theatrical works like Absinthe. We reviewed the lobby/gift shop narratives, stepped into the museum’s main exhibit gallery, and checked out a display of artist-created pasties, the small decorative nipple coverings worn by Burlesque dancers. Burlesque can be an underappreciated cultural tradition, but its story came into view this day at the museum. 

Tooling around the Main Street Bar scene our group popped into ReBAR for drinks and refreshment. You gotta love this place, it was one of the first bars to open when the 18b Arts District started getting up to speed. Being in the middle of a famed vintage Vegas antiques neighborhood, ReBAR followed suit, combining a cozy bar with an antique-shop-setting where the displayed collectables are for sale. We made our toasts for the day, looked around at stuff, and walked out with two stylish mid-mod parlor chairs, showcased now, in our tour office studio. 

The neighborhood hosts a variety of murals and street artworks, many in the alley ways. Walking Main Street, we were greeted by a mural portrait of Frieda Kahlo on the patio sidewalk of Casa Don Juan, one of the oldest restaurants in the neighborhood, an establishment that even precedes the founding of the 18b Arts District. We have our favorite spot inside, the Our Lady of Guadalupe booth, to whom, on this day, we offered a hearty toast. 

The Fremont East Entertainment District began over 15 years ago and comprises about 40 blocks from Las Vegas Boulevard to Maryland Parkway. As a counterpoint to the historic Casino District, it has been a redevelopment area – an entrepreneur district of bars, restaurants, shops, murals, small businesses, and festivals, the biggest one being the Life is Beautiful Festival held annually in the fall. There is much to see and experience in Fremont East, and it is always a contrast of the old and the new.

Lower Fremont is filled with mid-mod history – charming vintage motels (mostly vacant) and their classic roadside neon signs. A recent visit prompted us to think about the 1970s in Vegas. Elvis was performing his legendary gig at the International Hotel. Charo, Wayne Newton, lounge acts, and 99 cent breakfasts were the order of the day. The Mob was in decline. Downtown was on the upswing with the new Union Plaza and the Golden Nugget makeover. We weren’t in Vegas then, but we see relics of that time and have heard lots of stories of what the city was like.  As an expression of the era, we’ve always liked the Western Hotel and Casino on East Fremont with its intense orange plastic sails – light architecture with a jazzy geometry of the 1970s frozen in time.

Touring around Downtown neighborhoods takes us through familiar streetscapes, but we’re always on the lookout to discover new or unseen things at the margins of a place, and sometimes it’s a visitor who asks, what’s that?  Recently on lower Fremont we came across a small homemade shrine just off the sidewalk: perhaps a tribute to a companion, “SPARKY, 2011-2021, Best Alarm System.” A public remembrance of a private life Downtown.

A trek to lower Fremont always involves a pilgrimage to The Golden Goose (the one that laid the golden eggs), an iconic statue relocated on the corner of 9th Street that was once part of a neon sign for a 1970s casino in Glitter Gulch. Atop her clutch of golden eggs, she happily twirls round & round, and she is a reminder that Las Vegas is known as the newest city of the 20th century, always looking forward, rarely looking back. And she carries a timely message, a parable of sorts, a call to value the things and places that give special meaning to our fair city. 

We don’t always have to go off the beaten track to be reminded of our city’s broad and intriguing history, but sometimes getting away from all the glitz and the buzz can add different and interesting insights into understanding Las Vegas.