Tero Medrano sits on his bar stool sipping a cold draft beer, relaxing before he leaves for his midnight bartending shift, something he does a couple of times a week at his favorite bar, the Griffin.
He chats with the bartender when she passes by, then exchanges pleasantries with the friend he runs into unexpectedly. Around him, couples huddle by the two fireplaces in the center of the room while other customers mingle or peruse the music selections on the new jukebox. The atmosphere -- set by the brick ceiling arches, red vinyl couches and art on the wall -- invites people to kick their feet up on the hearths and settle in for a long, mellow night listening to good music and visiting with new and old friends.
A few months ago, you wouldn't find Medrano anywhere near the Griffin. That's because his favorite bar is on East Fremont Street, an area of downtown long considered no man's land, at least for any man who wants to keep his wallet and his health, Medrano says.
What's changed? East Fremont Street.
"I used to hate this area. Now I love it," says Medrano, 30. "It's so much better now. Before, I was kind of afraid because it was obviously ghetto. Now, it's comforting. You don't feel that nervousness."
It's true, says Sgt. Chris Whatley, a supervisor for the Metropolitan Police Department's downtown division. The area has improved, thanks to new businesses and frequent patrols from police cruisers, motorcycles and bicycles.
"It's getting better because the kinds of businesses we're getting (are) driving away some of the criminal element," says Whatley, who has patrolled Fremont Street for the past six years.
The changes started around the time Beauty Bar opened its doors 21/2 years ago, according to staff from businesses in the area. The neighborhood was rough, the street dark. Police told tourists to stay under the Fremont Street Experience canopy, that beyond was a "black hole" because it was so poorly lit and dangerous, Whatley says.
But locals waded through those obstacles to check out the bar, where beauty chairs line the wall and nail demonstrations were once paired with cocktails.
Despite the challenges of being in the "black hole," Beauty Bar has done well, says its manager, Kevin Griffin. And the two bars that opened this year are thriving, managers and owners say.
"We had a stigma attached to downtown but we're overcoming it a bit," says Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Downtown cocktail room. "If you ask the average person what they think of downtown you'll get a much different answer (today) than you would five or 10 years ago."
The perception then was that East Fremont Street was old, dirty and dangerous, he says. It's still old, but it's cleaner and safer, he notes.
Banners advertising East Fremont Street hang from light poles that were installed in September; the area is as bright as the Fremont Street Experience. Security guards from the Fremont Street Experience patrol on bicycles, serving as the eyes and ears for the police, Cornthwaite says. The bars employ individual security, as well.
"The crime here has gone down and it has changed," Whatley says. "We saturate Fremont like no tomorrow, with bikes, motorcycles, cars."
But some customers remain apprehensive about crime on that street.
"It's kind of enter at your own risk," says Melissa Lloyd, 26.
Her father worked at Binion's Horseshoe nearby so she's familiar with Fremont Street. It has long had a reputation of being a crime-infested neighborhood, where drug dealers operated with ease and people were warned to stay away from, she says.
"I remember a few months ago, people were walking the streets and hooking it and slinging dope," she says. "I know what it was so I kind of stereotype it."
Still, Lloyd comes to the bars, several times a week.
Locals have been clamoring for watering holes to call their own, places that aren't dominated by video poker machines, bars where they could connect with their neighbors, Lloyd says. And the Griffin, Beauty Bar and Downtown cocktail room provide that.
They're the neighborhood bars without neighborhoods.
"This place is the melting pot where people can come and just chill," says Lloyd's friend, Josh Jernigan, 29. He frequently visits the bars, even though he lives in the southwest part of the valley.
These are necessary growing pains and things will only get better, Cornthwaite says, calling downtown the "cultural center of Las Vegas."
"I'd characterize it as growing, flourishing," he says. "It's just a baby, really. It's got a lot of development to go but it's certainly on its way."
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 380-4564.