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Where the people go

You’ve probably been to Town Square. The shopping, dining and entertainment complex at the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard has been open for a year and half now, and legions of locals have checked it out.

I was there on a recent weeknight for a function at one of the glossy lounges, and the place was packed. I wandered over to a nearby restaurant and bar. It was packed, too. I had dinner at yet another restaurant and bar. Packed.

My take-away: Town Square is the new downtown.

This observation, which I posted later that evening on Facebook, generated a firestorm of debate among my social media friends.

Knowing my audience — heavy on journalists, hipsters and arty types, some of them brave residents of downtown Las Vegas — I figured my assertion would draw some snarky remarks. But I didn’t expect it to generate a mostly smart and impassioned discussion that spanned 37 separate comments from a diverse cross section of individuals. It was an encouraging exercise of social media.

Now, however, I’m going old school and telling you what I think in print. Such is life in the hybrid media world of 2009.

First of all, Town Square is not really the “new downtown.” The original Las Vegas town site will always be downtown in a literal sense. It’s where all the government offices and courts are located, and it’s the community’s historical center.

But Town Square is achieving something that the real downtown can only dream about right now. As hard as the real downtown has tried in recent years to redevelop and attract legions of locals, its results pale in comparison with the numbers visiting Town Square.

Town Square is where the prime demographic of locals goes now to shop, eat, hang out with friends and meet new people. The restaurants are good, the nightlife is energetic and the shops have trendy things people want to buy. The movie theater is the valley’s best. It has great freeway access and acres of parking. It’s safe and clean.

By the way, this is not an advertisement for Town Square. My heart still lies with downtown Las Vegas.

I’ve been a vocal advocate of downtown redevelopment since efforts began in the 1980s. I believe in the intrinsic benefits of a vibrant downtown core, and I think I’ve done my part, as a journalist and citizen, to help make it happen.

But as I commented in the midst of the Facebook debate: “I don’t wish and hope for Town Square to be packed all the time with young adults with money but it IS. It’s obviously what lots and lots of people want. This is what happens when you let people decide for themselves — vote with their feet. … I’m not giving up on the ‘real’ downtown, by any means. I love it, actually. But that doesn’t discount my initial observation.”

It seems difficult for downtown die-hards to accept that a sterile “shopping center,” as one dismissively described Town Square, would be more desirable to people than the mishmash of downtown Las Vegas. After all, for a certain minority of people, that mishmash is what makes downtown fun and cool.

Key phrase: certain minority of people.

The majority, for better or worse, prefers places that it believes are clean, safe and organized. Downtown, for all its fits and starts of progress, still does not give off this vibe.

One Facebook denizen who blasted my “new downtown” comment said part of the charm of the real downtown is the “homeless people, crazy people, smelly people.”

I understand the point, I think — with “real” places come real problems that we shouldn’t ignore or cover up — but I also know that “homeless,” “crazy” and “smelly” are not words that most Las Vegans would associate with a charming place.

The most disconcerting element of the discussion was the suggestion that my “new downtown” statement constituted some sort of betrayal of the “progressive” viewpoint.

You are reading this column in the Review-Journal, a mainstream daily newspaper. But another hat I wear is publisher of CityLife, a free weekly paper that has a politically progressive perspective. Somehow, by calling Town Square the “new downtown,” I have done the unthinkable: I have mentioned the elephant in the room.

Local progressives want so very badly for everybody to like downtown, to embrace its smattering of hip watering holes and art galleries, and to be tolerant and obliging of its population of homeless and mentally ill. It borders on a religion, frankly.

And, just to repeat, I’m one of that certain minority that likes downtown. I work there. I eat in its restaurants. I go to First Friday several times a year. I’ve seen rock ‘n’ roll shows at the Beauty Bar. I scout for books in the thrift shops and antique malls. I’m looking forward to patronizing the performing arts center and the mob museum.

But I’m clear-eyed enough to see that, like it or not, downtown still isn’t working as a central gathering place for a sizable number of valley residents who don’t buy the grunge-is-beautiful aesthetic.

What’s working for them is Town Square.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

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