Thoughts on Hoofing It

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about walking tours. I’ve led a handful of tours of Reno over the past few years at the request of various groups like Nevada Humanities, and have plans to lead another one this summer. While countless places, large and small, offer well-attended tours on a regular schedule, walking tours in Reno are still something of a novelty. The terrific Historic Reno Preservation Society (HRPS) offers a number of popular and well-researched historical tours of various neighborhoods throughout the year, but they’re the only group offering directed tours of Reno on a consistent basis.

Walking Map, Reno Historical Resources Commission

There are self-guided options, of course. When I served on the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission, we developed a historic walking map that’s been reprinted several times and has been posted online. It’s a great resource, but there’s no way of knowing how many people actually use it, or how much they feel they’ve learned when they do. Right now I’m working with the Special Collections department at the UNR Library to build a new smartphone app and website with a collaborative team of area archives and organizations (including HRPS) to provide a place-based, multimedia platform offering accurate information about the city and its heritage. With capacity for video, audio, photos, and text, it’s going to be the next best thing to following a guide around, and I’m thrilled that it’s finally going to happen (more posts on that soon).

Still, there’s something unique about a real, live walking tour. For me, walking with groups through downtown Reno is enormously gratifying.  Since I’ve devoted years to researching Reno, I can deliver a lot of information about its history, but I find that a lot of what I end up doing is explaining why downtown looks the way it does today, to fill in the blanks.

Central Reno changed significantly in the mid-to-late 1970s, when shifting economic priorities transformed the city core from a diverse, pedestrian-scale mixture of retail, commercial, and tourist-oriented businesses (left) to a landscape dominated by block-size casinos, hotel towers, and parking garages (below). It’s a confusing environment, where historic structures are dwarfed by gaming properties, and interpretive markers are few and far between. Leading people through this landscape and answering their questions helps to lend it some coherence.

Downtown Reno 2001, copyright Max Chapman

Southern Pacific depot, Reno

Southern Pacific depot, UNR Special Collections

It’s not always comfortable. When you walk through the heart of downtown Reno, you run into all sorts of people, some apparently homeless or even suffering from mental illness. There are some seedy souvenir shops, but there are also beautiful architectural details that can only be appreciated when standing directly in front of them. There are gorgeous interiors, too, like the waiting room inside the historic Southern Pacific Depot, a true gem that was just listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

And the Riverwalk District, a collection of local-oriented shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues just south of the casino core, is starting to hit its stride. Every time I’ve led a walking tour downtown, curious passersby stop to listen or even tag along, which shows me that people are thirsty to learn more, to make some sense of what they see.

Los Angeles Urban Rangers

Is there tourist demand for Reno walking tours? Perhaps.  But local residents might get even more out of touring their own habitat, as encouraged by the inspired Los Angeles Urban Rangers. Residents worry a lot about the city’s image, but to me, improving the landscape has to come first. In my mind, the key to reviving downtown Reno will be restoring its walkability, to bring back that pedestrian-friendly mixture of buildings and businesses that will once again attract residents and tourists alike, creating vibrant shared spaces that will feel safe and welcoming to everyone. If we want people to be more comfortable with our downtown, we need to get more comfortable with it ourselves. And taking the opportunity to stroll along its sidewalks with a trusty guide for an hour or two could be an important first step.