Destination United States of America

A Stroll through the History of Las Vegas

Fremont Street is the historic centerpiece of “Sin City.” Just five miles from the luxury mega-hotels, the street where it all began is now a promenade where pedestrians can learn about how the city was founded in 1905, and relive the glories of yesteryear.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Roberto Quintero

It was horribly cold and the smart thing would have been to put away my camera, pull on some gloves, and stick my hands in my jacket pockets. But the urge to capture what I was seeing on film was much stronger than my survival instinct. I still couldn’t believe I was on Fremont Street, in the exact location where the history of Las Vegas began. The average visitor may have little interest in how and where the mythical Sin City started, and it may seem silly to speak of history when referring to such a young and constantly changing metropolis, but I’m ready to take it all in: I am fascinated by the idea of revisiting the city’s origins, reviving the era of clandestine betting, brawling gangsters, the advent of neon lights, and the nights when Frank Sinatra and his friends dropped in for drinks.

In truth, little remains of those wild days of yore; the action now takes place elsewhere.  In the 1980s, after the Las Vegas golden years had come to an end, the city’s entertainment epicenter moved to The Strip, a noisy section of Las Vegas Boulevard with towering thousand-room mega-hotels, glamorous casinos, fine restaurants, and gigantic show palaces. Every year, more than 40 million people visit, determined to try their luck. But the atmosphere on Fremont Street, about three miles away in the heart of downtown Las Vegas, is quite different. Rather than a “historic” Las Vegas, Fremont Street seems like a B-side, a quiet neighborhood of low-rise buildings and nearly empty streets, where the passersby don’t look like they’ve been partying for a week. The people in the area, the folks who live where the Cirque de Soleil never ventures, are the descendants of the first settlers, who arrived with dreams of progress and founded the city in 1905.

But this area has changed quite a bit. In fact, I remember asking the taxi driver when I got out of the car if we were in the right place. I know it seems strange to want to recognize a place you’ve never been, but although I’d never physically visited the place, I’d seen it thousands of times. Like some character out of a Woody Allen movie, I naively set off in search of the classic Las Vegas cliché: the streets sparkling with neon signs, known in their heyday as “Glitter Gulch,” immortalized in the 1964 Elvis Presley film Viva Las Vegas and Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the James Bond picture starring Sean Connery, who was chased through the same streets by the police in his red Mustang. The streets where I watched the Irish band U2 wander a thousand times in the famous video for their song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1987). The streets that until a few decades ago were some of the most famous in the United States.

That iconic postcard has disappeared. In late 1994, business organizations and tourist agencies decided to transform Fremont Street’s five most important blocks into a promenade that they dubbed the “Fremont Street Experience,” turning it into a tourist attraction that would commemorate the city’s glory years. Few of those emblematic hotels and casinos remain standing. Today they have been replaced by any number of restaurants and shops selling souvenirs and fast food. The giant vaulted ceiling above the promenade is a screen with more than 12 million LEDs and a loudspeaker system that presents light shows every night.

I set off to explore, hoping to come across some secret signs on the walls leading me back to the Las Vegas of the 1950s, or at least some symbolic reference to that mythical era. Then, all of a sudden, at the end of the last block, I spied the famous Vegas Vic, a 46-foot cowboy erected in 1951 on the façade of the Pioneer Club.  I couldn’t believe it! The sign quickly acquired iconic status in the city since the cowboy could “talk” and “wave” to welcome visitors, a complete novelty at the time. A few years ago the club was turned into a souvenir shop and Jennifer, a shop employee, told me that the sign was restored at the end of the 90s to save the likeable character from disappearing.

And to my surprise, right next to Vegas Vic, I found the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas’s most historic hotel. It opened in 1906 under the name Hotel Nevada and over the years has witnessed the city’s key historic moments: the prohibition years, the era of illegal gambling, the reign of the gangsters, and the legalization of gambling, which produced a boom in Las Vegas in the 1950s and 60s and brought the Hollywood stars. Of course! The hotel casino is home to Prohibition Bar where Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. used to come for a drink when night fell. I couldn’t resist ordering one myself (as long as I’m here…) and imagined those two giants of the entertainment world seated next to me at the bar. I think this is the closest I’ve ever come to a real life Disneyland.

I step off the promenade and enter a restaurant for a bite to eat and to get out of the cold. The first thing I notice is the price of a meal —I can tell we’re no longer on The Strip! Carmen, the cashier, laughs at my surprise and asks where I’m from. “Everything around here is cheap: the hotels, the food, and the shopping. It’s so tourists will come,” she explains, as if guessing I’m a journalist, in the Spanish spoken by Latinos in the US. I ask her if things are always this quiet and she says no, there are always crowds at night for the light shows. And the occasional free concerts on the promenade draw both locals and tourists.

I set off for a walk around the neighborhood under the last of the sun’s rays.  A few blocks away I bump into another legendary hotel: El Cortez, which opened its doors in 1941. Along the way I discover several walls with graffiti confirming something I read in a tourist guide: Downtown Las Vegas has begun to earn a reputation as the city’s Arts District. A number of galleries have set up shop in the neighborhood and they organize occasional art fairs, spurred by the 2012 opening of the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better known as the Mob Museum, which has brought new life to the neighborhood.

I return to the promenade to hail a cab. The sun has disappeared, the cold is killing me, and I need to get back to The Strip: I have tickets for the Cirque de Soleil. But before leaving, I take a final look at Fremont Street. The neon lights have come on. I’m happy to be left with that last image of the street that witnessed so much glory. To see it shine again, like an old warrior who has stood the test of time.