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Walking tour explores downtown Las Vegas’ past, present, future

Updated November 4, 2017 - 7:43 pm

Just because you look around doesn’t mean you see — or understand — what you observe.

Unless, of course, you have someone to help sharpen the focus.

Enter Richard Hooker of Urban Adventures. An artist — and former urban arts coordinator for Las Vegas’ Office of Cultural Affairs — Hooker leads walking tours that examine a different side of downtown Las Vegas.

“Interpreting the Urban Landscape: A Cultural Walking Tour of Downtown Las Vegas” explores 10 downtown blocks — from Main Street to Las Vegas Boulevard, along Fremont and other connecting streets.

Of course, it’s still Glitter Gulch — and Fremont Street, with its neon-bedecked mix of casinos, bars, restaurants, panhandlers, street performers, street art, wide-eyed visitors and more, is as freewheeling as ever.

But the dozen-plus participants on this particular walking tour aren’t just visitors seeking some afternoon diversion. They’re arts professionals from around the state — in Las Vegas for the Nevada Arts Council’s two-day “Arts at the Heart” conference, which wrapped up Friday.

Some wear sneakers, others high heels. Some hail from Reno, Carson City and beyond.

Shari Bombard, tourism and events coordinator for Tonopah, cheerfully acknowledges that she’s there to “represent the rurals,” she says. Yes, it’s “the middle of nowhere — or the middle of everywhere, we like to say instead.”

But a variety of Las Vegans are also along for the expedition, including “lover of architecture” Cathy Allen, who teaches at UNLV’s dance department — and is looking for “inspiration.”

‘A city of reinvention’

As the tour members introduce themselves, Hooker introduces one of the tour’s main themes: “I like to think of us all as storytellers.”

And the story he’s telling follows Las Vegas history from its 1905 beginnings to its status as “an outdoor museum of American pop culture.”

Most of all, however, Las Vegas “really is a city of reinvention,” Hooker says. “We’re reinventing ourselves all the time.”

One example of that reinvention: what used to be the Las Vegas Club on Main Street, which is being demolished for a future hotel-casino.

More examples: multiple murals adorning downtown walls, from one of the most recent — one by artist Shepard Fairey, completed earlier this year at the Plaza — to “Pyramid at Red Rock Canyon,” at Third Street and Ogden Avenue, in which artist Ozzy Villate augments the red rocks with tumbling red dice.

Completed as part of Las Vegas’ centennial celebration,“this seems really quaint and charming” compared to some of the newer, larger murals, Hooker says.

‘They haven’t imploded everything’

His affection for Las Vegas’ past also prompts a stop at Ogden and Casino Center Boulevard, which he describes as “one of the great midcentury urban corners you will ever see.”

One reason: the geometric exterior of the Fremont Hotel, designed by architect Wayne McAllister (whose credits include the El Cortez, the tour’s final stop, plus the long-gone Strip landmarks El Rancho Vegas, the Desert Inn and the Sands).

“When it opened in 1955, it was the tallest building in Nevada,” Hooker points out. “And it’s got one of the most magnificent neon signs.”

Across the street: the tower at Binion’s, which formerly belonged to the Mint. Visitors can “do something really classic Vegas” by visiting the erstwhile Top of the Mint on the 22nd floor, “just like back in the Rat Pack era,” he suggests.

For Allen, whose family moved to Las Vegas in 1969, visiting the tour stops is “reconnecting with my youth,” she says. “I’m glad they haven’t imploded everything.”

From to the now-dated video technology of the Fremont Street Experience’s VivaVision canopy to Main Street Station’s collection of Victorian-era antiques, Hooker offers running commentary on Las Vegas’ past, present — and future.

But he still hasn’t figured out a way to talk about the Oct. 1 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival.

Perhaps there’s a clue, however, in the showgirl mural artist Tristan Eaton painted on the El Cortez garage, which Hooker points out as the tour heads for Container Park.

“Everything Vegas is in her headdress,” he says. And that includes the words “FEAR NO FATE.”

Cultural landmarks in downtown Las Vegas

Leading a “Cultural Walking Tour of Downtown Las Vegas,” artist — and Urban Adventures guide — Richard Hooker points out more than a dozen “touchstone stops” illustrating, among other things, Las Vegas’ capacity for reinvention.

Among the notable stops on the tour:

“Monument to the Simulacrum”:Sculptor Stephen Hendee’s stainless steel mountain dominates Las Vegas’ Centennial Plaza, on Fourth Street adjacent to the Historic Fifth Street School. At its summit: a light, one that reflects “how electric architecture has played an important role in the personality of the urban environment” in Las Vegas, Hooker says. As for the sculpture’s title, “simulacrum” means “a slight, unreal, or superficial likeness or semblance,” according to the dictionary. (And what could be more Vegas than that?)

Fremont Street Experience: Hooker describes Fremont Street as “the greatest performance street in America,” ticking off attractions including the VivaVision video canopy, riders on the Slotzilla zip line and zoom line, downtown performance stages, flair bartenders and dancers atop the bars, along with the “neon signs that animate the whole environment. Everything is kinetic and electric.”

Main Street Station: Chandeliers from opera houses in Paris and San Francisco. Stained glass windows from Victorian-era mansions. Winston Churchill’s billiard table (on the mezzanine). And a graffiti-covered slab of the Berlin Wall, installed behind a line of urinals in a men’s restroom. Main Street Station abounds in conversation pieces — perfect for “a storytelling town,” as Hooker notes. If the Berlin Wall segment “were in the Mob Museum or the Atomic Museum, it would just be another artifact.”

Vegas Vic: Still smiling at Fremont Street visitors, the vintage neon cowboy, “built as a mascot of downtown,” predates the Strip’s “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign by eight years, according to Hooker. As for the other half of “the royal couple of downtown,” the high-kicking Vegas Vicky was removed from her Fremont Street perch earlier this year to make way for construction of a new hotel-casino. “The hope is she’s coming back.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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