Dozens of people came together in the setting sun Tuesday evening. They patted one another on the backs. They shook hands and they smiled wide and they called out first names.
And then they grabbed sledgehammers and smashed things.
Their ultimate aim was to tunnel under the freeway.
“Doesn’t that seem impossible?” asked the Rev. Samuel Carroll, of Greater Calvary Baptist Church. He gestured toward the giant concrete wall that sprouted up five years ago, blocking off F Street, a main access point to the historic West Las Vegas neighborhood.
“It’s not,” he said.
Taking down that wall did seem impossible at first.
In 2008, the people in the neighborhood began to notice strange things. Machinery. Construction equipment.
Interstate 15 was about to undergo a rehab. Part of that was widening the busiest stretch of freeway in the state. Part of it was closing off F Street where it runs into the freeway.
It just felt wrong, said John Riley, 66, who said he’s lived in the neighborhood his whole life.
“I said, ‘You know. This cannot be,’” he said.
He and many other residents got upset. They felt like they were being walled off. West Las Vegas, which generally includes the area bordered by Carey Avenue, Bonanza Road, I-15 and Rancho Drive, is a predominantly black neighborhood. Some residents wondered aloud if race had something to do with the decision.
They believe access to their neighborhood should be easier than taking either D or H streets. They said they had no easy way to get downtown once F Street was closed.
Thee formed a group, the F Street Coalition, and they began to hold meetings. They pleaded with government officials. They got nowhere. They developed a strategy. They marched along the Strip. They talked to the media. Soon, the politicians began to listen.
Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who was then state Senate majority leader, helped push a solution through the state Legislature. Lawmakers ultimately forced the city of Las Vegas and the state Department of Transportation to reopen F Street, no matter what it took.
A divided City Council approved the plans late last year. The $13.6 million cost will be split between the city and the state. Work began in June. When it’s finished, probably late next year, it will include an F Street underpass, complete with bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. It will also include artwork, including depictions of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Moulin Rouge casino.
“Today is really symbolic,” said Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who was part of Tuesday’s celebration and who supported the rebuilding project.
She said she was thrilled that F Street would reopen, but she wished it had never been closed.
As part of the celebration, city officials and residents smashed parts of the wall with sledgehammers. Officials gathered pieces of the wall that had already been broken off. They passed them out to residents, along with clear plastic boxes the shards could be placed in.
Goodman held one of the boxes up. “This gift from us?” she said, perhaps succumbing to the festive atmosphere. “This is better than taking down the Berlin Wall.”
Carroll, the reverend, said he was just as thrilled as the mayor.
“I’m happy because I see unity in the community,” he said, just getting revved up. He said that’s a powerful thing, the people coming together for a common goal. Next, they could tackle education, jobs, racism. People could fix everything, if they stuck together.
“Thank god they had enough strength and enough unity to get this reopened,” he said, looking out at the crowd. “This should just be the beginning.”
Contact reporter Richard Lake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0307