SMITH: F Street ceremony chips away at neglect

Sledgehammers large and small were swung with enthusiasm early Tuesday evening, but they didn’t make much of a dent in the concrete monstrosity that blocks F Street.

Chips of concrete scattered into the yellowing light, and a crowd of area residents cheered above an annoying September wind. They had assembled to celebrate the symbolic reopening of a street that never should have been sealed off from the rest of the community.

Some officials and neighbors received chips of concrete in a small plastic display box to commemorate the reopening. It wasn’t an appropriate time to mention that the locals here could use more than a rock in a box from their government.

Residents of this beleaguered area seemed just glad to have won one for a change. That doesn’t happen often on the alphabet streets.

The symbolism was acknowledged by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and others. It was as heavy as the wall itself.

“This is better than taking down the Berlin Wall,” Goodman said to generous applause.

A stranger watching the scene might have wondered whether the residents were trying to bust out of their blighted neighborhood, or attempting to reopen F Street to allow the light of a little progress into the economically exhausted traditionally African-American area of town.

The real heavy lifting on F Street will take months and cost taxpayers millions as officials attend to the costly do-over after irresponsibly moving to close the road in 2008 during the widening of U.S. Highway 95.

The price of fixing this screw-up: $3.6 million.

Assemblyman Harvey Munford represents the area and lives nearby. He worked against the grain at the Legislature to help make the reopening a possibility. Then-Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, who these days gets his mail in Congress, assisted with the necessary arm-twisting.

Munford was pleased with the result, but he keeps the victory in perspective. A group of citizen activists raised their concerns about the impending closure, but were steamrolled by bureaucrats.

“All of a sudden, it was closed,” Munford said. “Our original intent was to stop the closing of it.”

Then came the litigation, and after that the legislation.

“The problem was, they had buried it at the bottom of a stack of documents this thick,” attorney Matthew Callister said, holding his thumb and forefinger two inches apart. He is the former legislator and city councilman who helped ramrod the F Street lawsuit. “So nobody on the City Council caught it. Nobody reads those documents, and they had literally buried it.”

Tuesday wasn’t the day to rehash yet another bureaucratic hustle that victimized West Las Vegans. It was a moment for cheers and guarded optimism.

Marietta Whitaker was among neighbors who worked to reopen F Street. She was grateful for the victory, but she pointed to neighboring homes that were damaged by the road construction. Those homeowners weren’t compensated for their losses.

“They didn’t direct any money to them,” she said.

Will the reopening of F Street become an empty symbol?

Real estate is plentiful and relatively reasonable here. If the big dreamers of downtown redevelopment want to make a breakthrough difference in our community, they should find a way to include care-worn West Las Vegas in their grand alchemy.

Even small victories in this depressed area are meaningful.

“We as a community did rally behind it to stop the closing, and that’s gratifying,” Munford said amid the clink of hammers and the speakers’ wind-swept voices. “But there’s also some needs that are not being met. Our small businesses need some way to get some support to keep them so they can be viable, so they can continue to function.

“Once they reopen it, what’s down the road for us?”

Will a developer at last see the area’s untapped potential and acknowledge that F Street will run both ways?

Those who live nearby know you can’t feed a family with symbolism, and good intentions do not pay the rent.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.