A view looking north on Virginia Street, circa 1960, when Reno’s downtown was a thriving hub of tourists and local residents. Photo courtesy of Neal Cobb

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.”

“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?” Joan Arrizabalaga, who grew up in Reno and attended UNR from 1957 to 1961

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.”

Join the Conversation


  1. There’s not one plaque downtown memorializing Harold’s Club. Man talk about history! “Harold’s club or bust” helped put this town on the map. How about the Mape’s??
    Hey, I’m all for change but it’s nice to note significance and enterprise. I saw those Harold’s Club or Bust back in Northern Indiana along US 80.

  2. I remember the Reno of the 50’s and 60’s and I loved the city then. So vibrant and alive. When they tore down the Mapes I knew it was the beginning of the end and I don’t think Reno will ever get it’s groove back.

  3. Something that the author may have forgotten is that what funded Reno’s growth in the 50’s – 60’s was gambling. At 64 I was born and raise in Reno and it is my belief that the city would not have grown the way it did nor achieved the population numbers it enjoyed without gaming. That said, to try to revive a community that no longer has the monopoly of it’s most important industry, won’t work, IMHO, without large basic infrastructure changes (I.E. since there is little grain production left, tear down most of the empty silos (rather than trying to repurpose them)). Sadly Reno outgrew me (cost versus quality) so I now live in Fernley :). I’m still rooting for the Reno city planners. Good luck. Cheers

  4. Years from now all Reno will be known for is warehouses and the blank concrete walls hiding the surrounding beauty.

  5. Tragic. Look at the webcam pointing down at Virgina St & the Arch or at City Plaza. It’s Sat 1pm and I count 7 people, 1/2 a dozen cars and and equal amount of drunks sitting against walls or laying down on the sidewalks. Looks like Chernobyl 10 years later. The area needs a lot more then political rhetoric if it’s ever going to revitalize. With bureaucrats and politicians involved, you can expect downtown to come back sometime in the 2040’s.

  6. It dissolved into a ghost town simply because they eliminated the core. All the interesting was taken out; had they left the old REno, it would have held interest, and it would have been unique. Now it is one big area of crap, of ugly, of nothing,

  7. It’s truly sad what Reno has deteriorated into. My wife and I went on Father’s Day weekend and downtown appears almost post-apocalyptic; it was like a video game similar to Resident Evil or a ghetto of Grand Theft Auto, but you could smell it. Run down buildings, very few businesses are open, the streets haven’t seen renovations in years. The only thing they seem to care about is the iconic arch. The rest of Virginia street downtown looks like a tornado spun through it.

    My family and I used to take an annual trip to Reno in the 80’s when I was a child and it was booming, vibrant and full of life like a futuristic utopia. Lights galore and people everywhere! Now, most of the local shops are closed, only 4 casinos (Eldorado, Silver Legacy, Whitney Peak, Sands renovated into “J”) remain and a once bustling town is riddled with litter, the stench of cigarettes and homelessness. It’s like driving into a dystopic state, which is really sad considering what it used to be.

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