For decades, downtown Reno was a thriving, exciting district where crowds of tourists and local residents mingled amid busy streets chock-a-block with casinos, retailers, bars and restaurants.
From the mid-1930s to the 1970s, the city’s core was the vital, beating heart of the Biggest Little City.
“It was wonderful,” said Joan Arrizabalaga, who grew up in Reno and attended the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1957 to 1961. “In my day, there was so much to do downtown. We went to all kinds of places from one end of Virginia Street to the other. There were so many shops and storefronts, all open doors and windows you could look into from the street.”
Things have changed—and not for the better.
“The thing I notice when I drive through downtown now is that there is no sign of life,” Arrizabalaga said. “We have the big casinos and pawnshops, but not a lot of stores or restaurants. There’s a lot of dead space. I don’t know how you’d get that life back. Nothing feels good down there. It’s like a bomb went off. … It’s not inviting now; it’s repelling.”
Reno native Neal Cobb, who, with Jerry Fenwick, co-authored two Reno: Now and Then books, noted that the advent of “dead space” preceded the creation of The ROW, the three interconnected hotel-casinos that now dominate downtown Reno. Cobb and Fenwick’s books contain historic images contrasted with modern photographs of the same areas. After Harrah’s Reno built its second hotel tower, Cobb and Fenwick wanted to capture an image showing the change in the streetscape, but there was nothing to photograph.
“It was just a bare wall where stores had been,” he said. “(The photo) could have been taken anywhere. We didn’t use it, because it just didn’t show any activity downtown.”
Cobb also waxes nostalgic about the people, places and popularity of the city’s core in its heyday. “Downtown was bustling back when there were plenty of doors you could go into, whether it was restaurants, bars or shops or whatever. People wanted to be there. That started to change when Las Vegas started growing, and then gaming spread to other parts of the country.”
When downtown was a popular destination, locals would regularly head to Virginia Street to have dinner at the Waldorf or one of the other restaurants, and attend movies at the Granada or one of the other movie houses. In between dinner and a movie, there were plenty of other things to do and see.
“It was a wonderful place,” Cobb recalled. “You could walk over to the Mapes Hotel and run into the people and the bands that played there back then. … Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr.—the list of celebrities just went on and on. They walked up and down Virginia Street with the rest of us, and we’d wave and say howdy. We didn’t make a fuss over famous people. We were used to it.”
Both locals and out-of-towners would flock to downtown to go shopping, especially at Christmastime. The lineup of retailers included local stores like Parker’s Western Wear, many shoe stores, a furrier and stationary stores. Chain stores included JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, Sears and Woolworth’s.
“There were people all over the place,” Arrizabalaga remembered. “The hustle and bustle, people carrying armloads of packages. Downtown was all decorated for the holidays, and there was music everywhere. … There was so much to do and so many people. Just walking around was exciting.”
Reno officials have commissioned a “placemaking” study with recommendations expected in February about how to redesign the downtown core area and attract more residents and businesses. That’s a tall order, Cobb said.
“You go there today, and you see some people with serious mental problems walking around,” he said. “You’re sticking your neck out when you go downtown. It’s no longer the three things that it was all those years ago: It’s not clean; it’s not safe; and it’s not friendly.”
Arrizabalaga also lamented the loss of a vibrant downtown district, when the casinos were smaller, and the private owners were active in the community. “People like Harold Smith (who owned Harold’s Club) and Bill Harrah were very involved in the town. Their properties were open to the streets, and they cared about the city and the community around them. We don’t have that with the corporations. It’s soulless now.”
Cobb said the success of revitalization efforts along the Truckee River shows that previously neglected areas can be again become vibrant districts. “I used to brag to people about downtown; now I brag about the kayaks,” he said. “Downtown can be vibrant again, but the streets have to be safe, and you’ve got to have some places for people to go and to shop, places other than the casinos and convenience stores and liquor stores. Until you have pedestrian traffic down there, until downtown is a safe, clean, friendly place again, it’s just a no-go.”
Arrizabalaga said Reno, once world-famous as a quickie divorce and gambling capital, ought to embrace its history.
“(Planners) seem to want to forget that,” she said, “but it’s a big part of who we are. We were once world-famous as a sin city; why don’t we play off of that? It seems we’re trying to erase that past. Why not have a museum that celebrates the way we were?”
History should be one of the town’s selling points, she said.
“It’s sad that people don’t know what it was like, and it’s sad that’s it’s gone,” Arrizabalaga said. “It was a rare place. (Corporations) care about the money, but we need to care about what really makes a city vibrant—what connects people with a city’s soul.”