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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Seedy or Seedling?

“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Samuel Johnson

Waiting for Something to happen
Cities and towns are not pristine. We all know that. 

We also know that -- for the most part -- these are the parts of towns best kept hidden and not transited by the well-heeled "tourist". Watts is not a beautiful part of Los Angeles. Likewise The Bronx in New York.

But sometimes seedy parts of towns become the object of our attention. Sometimes seediness itself is what draws the tourist and traveler alike to a spot where they can, essentially, let their hair down and traffic with their inner transient. Bourbon Street is a famous example. It's pretty much party town every naught, with dozens of decidedly unswank bars and clubs lining its sidewalks. Times Square during the seventies was the epitome of tourism seediness. Tijuana has a solid reputation as a place college students, sailors and other young would-be risk-takers search for mayhem. Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard both have their sections for seedy revelry.

And Las Vegas, of course, has its Downtown. Fremont Street.

After a decade or so of trying to upgrade its image, including building the massive Fremont Street Experience canopy and turing the street into a pedestrian boulevard, The hotels lining the street tidied themselves up and safety was the watchword. Sadly, after significant effort and no small aesthetic success, Fremont has returned to its seedy roots. (And that may not be a bad thing for travelers.) The economy of the last half decade, which wreaked havoc on much of Vegas, has taken its toll here as well. 

There is a distinct echo of Bourbon Street here, with partying college students being a major occupier of the street. Unlike the Strip resorts, where motion comes in waves and generally is a rush of crowds from one thing to another, there is a lazier, more relaxed tone on Fremont. The night we were there a street party with a DJ and GoGo dancers raged on the doorstep of the Golden Gate, while at the other end a large street stage held an enthusiastic if slightly tone-deaf rock band. (Maybe it was just the singer who hit a few clinkers, but it sounded as if the band itself needed some guidance. Enthusiasm they had in spades, however, and the crowd certainly seemed to enjoy it -- and frankly, that is all that matters.)

The "Back Alley" behind the zipline
The flow of Fremont has been disrupted any number of ways, the most blatant being a massive zip-line installation at the East end. While looking to me like a really fun activity -- racing along above the crowd, passing the neon brilliance at a high rate of speed -- the receiving end of the line completely breaks up Fremont into two separate sections. While offering a very cool, very fun looking attraction, it completely blocks the flow of traffic -- the human kind -- from a large swath of the street. If you're detouring to the North side of the zip line there's almost a feeling of back-alley as you wander along next to the Fremont Hotel and Casino..

Another impediment to the flow is the addition, since my last visit which was, admittedly, a few years ago, of a handful of sales kiosks hocking jewelry, souvenirs and other things. It isn't the product or the appearance of the kiosks (for the most part). It's the presence of them. They have been set up in ways which block the direct and easy walkways of the street -- and while blocking the way may slow down a visitor and force them to look at the wares, this also requires the visitor to dodge  a series of large more immovable objects in addition to the more-than-occasional oblivious tourist. When it first opened, the Experience was an open pedestrian mall, which greatly enhanced the walkability of the place, encouraging the visitor to spend more time. Given that the supposed objective of the complex is to attract visitors, the cluttering up has driven them away.

Then there is the Experience itself, which is a blocks-long canopy of light and sound. We visited several times during its first few years, enjoying what was pretty impressive spectacle of computer images and energetic music. It was an attraction unlike any other in Vegas and I will attest to the fact that the crowds under that canopy were far larger than what we encountered on this last visit (Super Bowl weekend, which should have been packed). Instead of one large, cohesive show, the canopy display, like the walkway below it, was broken up into a handful of sub-presentations (if any at all…several spots were off completely). The original intent of the complex seems to have been lost in the shuffle over the years -- which is sad in many ways. The Fremont Street Experience had "classed up the joint" as the old move cliches would have said. It made downtown cool, and it brought a respectability to the area which it badly needs.
Party at the Golden Gate!

I am certain economic necessity drove a lot of the changes. I can understand that, but have to lament its effect nonetheless. The economy hurt downtown, perhaps more than it did the Strip. Several of the hotels lining Fremont have changed hands, gone bankrupt or are completely changing their branding. The Lady Luck has closed and is in the process of becoming The Grand. The Golden Gate and The Plaza have completed major renovations of their property and may be the anchors Downtown needs. (And I have to give a tip of the hat to the Golden Gate. The old girl is one of the very founding hotel casinos in Las Vegas and, despite rough times over the years it's a thrill to see her thrive.)

I love a good down and dirty, somewhat seedier vibe. It can actually be a hallmark of a place, such as the aforementioned Bourbon Street. It can certainly be part of the fun. And while it looked like there were quite a few people having exactly that, I cannot say that the Fremont Street Experience is as good as it used to be. It's my hope that the new hotels, the renovations as some of the stalwarts, and the improving US economy in general sets the stage for an uptick and return to what it was and could be again.

There's always room for that sort of fun -- and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But if it's going to be a bit more seed, it should be a bit less sad.


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