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Naked City gets face-lift

Here's a headline about one of Las Vegas' most troubled neighborhoods: "Naked City bares society's ills, but conditions slowly improving."

It was written in 1992.

In the nearly two decades since then, Southern Nevada saw unprecedented growth and boom times. The valley's population surged, new houses sprouted like overfertilized weeds. Casinos, shopping malls, big box stores and new roads sprang into being to serve new residents and tourists.

Consider just the Strip. Since 1992, it has witnessed the openings of Treasure Island, the MGM Grand, Luxor, Paris Las Vegas, New York New York, the Bellagio, The Venetian, Mandalay Bay, the Wynn, Encore and Planet Hollywood.

Growth even touched the edges of the area near Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue known as Naked City. The Stratosphere opened in 1996, and the pricey Allure condominium building was completed in 2007.

But progress has been slow in the neighborhood of beat-up apartment buildings and 1930s-era houses, and it has remained a low-rent haven for crime, drugs and prostitution in the shadow of the Stratosphere tower, one of Las Vegas' signature buildings.

On Saturday, more than 400 volunteers gathered to spruce up the neighborhood. They picked up trash, pulled weeds from vacant lots, painted over graffiti and put fresh paint on fire hydrants and fire lanes.

It's meant to be a first step toward rehabilitating the neighborhood by building on improvements made by police and a handful of property owners there.

"We drive past this place every day," said Milan Sagato, a Stratosphere employee who signed up with several co-workers to volunteer. "People's point of view is there's just a lot of drug dealers back here. But there are families. Good, hard-working families.

"We always talk about how run-down it is. We figured we'd shut our mouths and do something."

The event was the brainchild of Walt Walters, who founded Trinity Security to watch over apartments he owns in the Northern Strip Gateway district, which is Naked City's official name.

"I got so sick and tired of all the crime, the crackheads, all the stuff that goes on down here," Walters said.

He met with city of Las Vegas officials and police to organize the cleanup, and said he's going to use officers from his company to monitor drugs and crime at night. The city also has promised to step up building code enforcement to get out-of-town landlords to stop neglecting their properties.

"I want to make sure that they know someone is watching," Walters said. "We're not going away."

One thing some hope will go away is the Naked City nickname. The story goes that, when the neighborhood was nicer, showgirls lived there, and people liked to cruise by because the showgirls spent time by their pools and didn't like tan lines.

An alternative tale is grittier. "Naked City" is the title of a noirish movie and television series about crime in New York City. When things started going south for the neighborhood in the 1970s, someone adopted the name.

The next event, as yet unscheduled, will be a concentrated effort to cover up graffiti. Some volunteers got a head start on that Saturday by covering graffiti scrawled on a mural on the back of Camille Duskin's apartment complex on Fairfield Avenue.

She and her husband, Gerry, have owned the property for 17 years and have started a nonprofit that pays artists to paint murals on buildings in the area.

The one on her building had been untouched until it was tagged a week ago. She thought about painting over the whole thing and starting over, but "that's rewarding people who created the crime," Duskin said.

This is the second time in recent memory that attention has been focused on fixing the Gateway district, she said. The first effort went off the rails because of the prospect of economic development.

In 2007, a sports arena was proposed on land just north of the Gateway district. Landowners in the area were approached with "telephone-number figures for the value of our properties," Duskin said.

The offers were nice, but it was disappointing to see upkeep efforts abandoned.

"They didn't want to do anything, because they were all going to be millionaires," she said.

"Even if that went through, it would take five years. People still have to live. You have to be responsible."

That deal fell through, although new negotiations are under way to build a sports arena next to the Stratosphere.

There are other kinds of deals the Gateway district is known for, but there's evidence those transactions are getting harder to pull off.

Metropolitan Police Department officer James Oaks said he knows crack addicts who are having trouble finding drugs to buy. Capt. Valerie Juick said police efforts are paying off.

"In the last 11 months, crime has been decreasing," said Juick, who heads the department's Downtown Area Command.

"As of two weeks ago, this is no longer a hot spot."

Of course, she said, "that can change tomorrow."

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate @reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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