In any number of Twilight Zone episodes, the characters experience a frisson (French for chill) when they realize something or someone or somewhere isn’t quite what they thought it was. That same chill slithers through me every time I step foot in Reno, Nevada, as I did earlier this month.
When we were young, we read in history books about how cities changed. We learned that New York overtook Boston as a port after the completion of the Erie Canal. We learned that Chicago superseded St. Louis when railroads supplanted the Mississippi River for shipping. But it isn’t until we’re older, and we’ve lived quite a few years, that we can actually see for ourselves how such changes can actually affect a city.
It doesn’t quite work for a city you live in, because the changes flow slowly and imperceptibly. But when you visit a city intermittently, as I have visited Reno over the years, the changes are increasingly stark.
I first visited Reno on Friday, July 28, 1972. I know the day and date because it was the last stop on a grand tour of the United States I took between my junior and senior years of high school. As we walked downtown that July day, we passed by the construction site of what would become Fitzgerald’s, an Irish-themed casino.
Downtown Reno in those days was basically confined between the railroad tracks and the Truckee River, four square blocks or so that held Harrah’s, Harold’s Club, Cal-Neva, the famous Mapes Hotel (the first skyscraper built in the West after World War II), and of course, the famous arch proclaiming Reno as the Biggest Little City in the World.
As it happened, Reno was the hometown of one of the other travelers on that trip. Though Steve soon after moved to the Bay Area, he returned for both undergraduate and graduate school at the University of Nevada. Many times during my college years and his, I would drive or take the train to see Steve. We would gamble, eat all kinds of fast, bad food, watch movies, and generally try and be raucous. Our general idea of being raucous: once we walked into a movie theater that was empty except for two girls and told them they were in our seats.
During this time, we witnessed one of Reno’s first casino construction booms. In 1978, Circus Circus opened north of downtown, and the MGM Grand (now the Grand Sierra Report) opened north of the airport, a considerable distance from downtown. Steve and I used to go to Circus Circus because it was new and the parking was free.
It was clear from the size of these casinos that Reno had ambitions, but they never seemed to be coordinated. And, according to what a cab driver once told me, there were also forces in the city that wanted to block the city’s evolution into a northern version of Las Vegas. That’s why, even though Virginia Street could have resembled the Las Vegas Strip, anchored by downtown on one end and the Atlantis on the other, it never has, and now never will.
After Steve moved away in 1989, for a long time I had no reason to visit Reno. When I returned in the late 90s, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. In the mid-1990s, another boom brought more construction on the north side of downtown. The National Bowling Stadium, along with the Silver Legacy and the Eldorado, all opened their doors in 1995. The first time I went to that part of town after that particular boom, I felt like I was in a town I knew but didn’t know. Steve and I had walked these sidewalks many times – but what had been here? I simply couldn’t remember, as if something else had never been there at all. It was a strange and uncomfortable feeling.
And now it’s changed yet again. In 1998, California voters approved the establishment of gaming on Indian tribal lands. It’s not full casino gaming – there are bizarre rules governing table games like roulette and craps – but it was enough to siphon off an incredible amount of Reno’s casino businesses.
So much so that today, Fitzgerald’s is closed. The one-time Sahara has been converted to condominiums. On one of my most recent visits, one whole side of Virginia Street, the heart of the gambling district, held little but bankrupt casinos. It makes you wonder how the heck casinos could go bankrupt, when people do nothing but give them money, but they have. Sometimes I don’t have to wonder what used to be there, because I can still see the names of places like the Money Tree and others, faded and dusty.
Unlike Las Vegas, Reno has always prided itself on diversification. Its low tax rate has enticed a healthy industry in manufacturing and logistics. Though with the number of casinos shriveling, I wonder how long those low tax rates can survive as well.
I loved Reno once, and for a long time. But now being there is like watching an old friend dying without being able to do a thing about it, and it brings on a frisson that makes me sad.