I had the pleasure of speaking to Boston Globe writer Susan Moeller as she put together her recent article about Reno for the Sunday magazine. You can read the full article here.
July 5, 2016
The City of Reno has a blight problem.
No, the problem isn’t that Reno is suffering from a plague of urban blight. Despite the proliferation of vacant and deteriorating single-family houses and mid-century motels on the northern edge of the traditional casino core near Interstate 80, blight is not the cause or condition of the degraded appearance of this section of town, much of which is owned by a group of private investors.
Rather, the city’s blight problem is the fact that a handful of these structures are being defined as “blight” without a thorough and transparent public discussion of whether the term actually applies to them, who should be held responsible for their degraded condition, and whether money from the city’s limited blight reduction fund should be expended tomorrow (Wednesday, July 6th) to demolish two of them: the Golden West Lodge and the Heart o’ Town Motel on the 500 block of North Virginia Street.
If you haven’t been following the discussion, the City of Reno is poised to spend about $216,000 from its $1 million blight reduction fund to demolish these two late 1950s motels, which have stood vacant for many years across Virginia Street from Circus Circus. The City’s proposed plan is to foot the bill to demolish the buildings, requiring the property owners to repay the City upon the future sale of the properties. If the property owners don’t pay the City back, the City would impose a lien on the property and take ownership of them. This decision is scheduled to be made at noon tomorrow at a hastily scheduled special meeting of City Council.
Clearly something should be done with these long-neglected vacant motels. Anyone can see that they look terrible in their current state and don’t reflect well on our community, and it’s understandable that many downtown business owners, city officials, and residents want them gone. That’s not the problem; the problem is the mechanism by which the City is proposing to get rid of them and the lack of an open and transparent public process in hatching and executing that plan.
At its heart, the primary problem is defining these properties as examples of “blight” at all. The deteriorated condition of these two motels is not due to the systemic forces that commonly produce urban blight (abandonment, deindustrialization, and depopulation). It is the result of a strategic, economically-motivated decision deliberately pursued and entirely controlled by the property owners.
A “blighted” property, by standard definitions, is in extremely poor condition due to one or more of the above factors. Demolition of a blighted property may be warranted if it is in such poor condition that its continued existence poses a significant public hazard and/or an obstacle to investment. That’s basically the argument that was being made by the entities that supported the demolition of these motels at the City Council meeting on June 21st. But neither of these two conditions applies here. First of all, the safety issue is a red herring; these properties are no less a public hazard than any other vacant downtown property—and perhaps less so, as they are encircled by fences. Cited as evidence of their imminent danger was the existence of needles on the floor and the stripping of copper wiring, both of which are no indication of structural instability and are easily resolved.
Secondly, a reputable local developer (HabeRae) with experience rehabilitating and transforming similar structures has now offered to purchase these motels (and their neighbors) in order to adaptively reuse them (that the offer was rejected as too low is not a reflection on their potential for rehabilitation, just of the owners’ self-imposed threshold for an acceptable profit margin). And Northern Nevada Urban Development Co., the LLC that owns the structures, turned down those offers, ostensibly because they feel confident that they can receive a higher offer for the land fairly soon. Therefore, the condition of these motels, despite their degraded appearance, is clearly not an obstacle to investment in downtown. Rather, the land on which they stand IS the investment, purchased specifically for purposes of profit, with no intent by their purchasers to ever improve the structures on it.
No one is disputing that these motels don’t look good. But that does not make them irredeemably “blighted”; that makes them neglected by investors who have chosen to keep them in poor condition as they await more lucrative offers for the land on which they sit.
It isn’t entirely clear, since none of the conversations took place in public, but demolishing the motels seems to have been the brainchild of Operation Downtown, a group currently numbering 32 individuals originally assembled (with the best of intentions) by Mayor Schieve last year into a private working group to analyze and brainstorm solutions for downtown’s blight and homeless problems (I wish Operation Downtown were a public group; I’m not sure why, as advisory to the Mayor and city staff, it doesn’t have public meetings; it’s not even clear who’s on it). A Reno Gazette-Journal article in October of 2015 indicated that the Golden West Lodge might be demolished with the city’s blight funds, but didn’t indicate whose idea it was, and City staff at that point seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t come to that.
In another Reno Gazette-Journal article about the motels on June 13th of this year, Mayor Schieve praised Operation Downtown and the Reno City Council for their support in aggressively targeting blight. And yet, the first time that using city funds to demolish the motels appeared on a public meeting agenda was just three weeks ago, on the agenda for the June 15, 2016 meeting of the Reno City Council, with a staff recommendation to approve (the item was continued to June 21st due to the outbreak of a fire near Caughlin Ranch). There was great support for demolition of the motels at the June 21st meeting from representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Alliance for Downtown (RAD), and Operation Downtown, who seemed surprised (not in a good way) that anyone should be questioning this plan, apparently months in the making. But you can’t help but arrive late to the table if you weren’t invited to the meal.
Let me be clear: I did not then, nor am I now arguing that these motels should be saved from demolition due to their architectural or historical significance. Rather, speaking only for myself, I argued on June 21st that demolishing these structures without a plan for their replacement seemed premature and, obviously, would permanently eliminate any opportunity to incorporate them into any future plans for the area—plans that to my knowledge have yet to transpire. I also challenged the notion that these motels were beyond hope of possible rehabilitation. Buildings in much worse condition than these have been made attractive and appealing through adaptive reuse and rehabilitation, in Reno and elsewhere.
That notion was supported by another of the voices raised in opposition at the June 21st City Council meeting—Kelly Rae, a reputable local developer who through her firm HabeRae has made a career of transforming structures many considered deteriorated and even irredeemably blighted (remember the old Firehouse with the Volkswagen spider on top, anyone?) into some of our area’s most innovative and appealing housing and mixed-use developments. Rae spontaneously offered during the meeting to purchase and redevelop these two motels in order to demonstrate their potential for adaptive reuse, and after a robust discussion, City Council postponed their decision on the motels until July 20th in order to allow her offer to be considered. Last week, the property owners rejected both of HabeRae’s two offers—first, to purchase these two motels; and second, to purchase the buildings in addition to several neighboring properties owned by the same LLC.
The owners’ rejection of those offers seems to have prompted the “emergency” special meeting of the City Council tomorrow, for which the motel issue is the only item on the agenda. After the June 21st meeting, I, in good faith, placed the motel issue on the agenda of the city’s Historical Resources Commission (which I chair), which next meets on July 14th. Due to this hastily scheduled special City Council meeting, we now won’t get a chance to submit formal comments as a body to the City Council, which our Commission is charged by city ordinance to advise regarding Reno’s historic resources (by the way, the term “historic” is defined by Nevada state statute as any structure at least 50 years old; this is different than “historically significant,” an important distinction).
Even the emailed newsletter of the Regional Alliance for Downtown (RAD), issued this morning (July 5th) indicated that City Council would not meet again regarding the motels until July 20th. Apparently few people even know this special meeting is happening.
If the City continues with the plan to demolish these motels despite the fact that a reputed developer has determined them perfectly suitable for rehabilitation (a position many more might take, if given the opportunity), then the City isn’t just trying to eliminate blight through this action; it’s making a determination about what kind of development it supports in this area. And if that’s what’s really happening here, then the City’s role in this case has clearly moved beyond blight reduction into the realm of city planning, without consulting the Planning Commission, the Historical Resources Commission, or the general public, as two other efforts currently underway (Reimagine Reno, and the “Downtown Action Plan” that the City hired Progressive Urban Management Associates to produce) are doing.
I understand that some downtown business owners, city officials, and residents don’t want these motels to be adaptively reused at all—that they don’t want to see them turned into affordable housing or artist studios or mixed-use development or boutique motels. They want something completely different to stand there—something that more clearly supports the widespread desire for greater density, walkability, and ground-level, pedestrian scale development in the downtown core. I get it. I’d be in favor of something like that, too, should a plan arise to construct something specific that would warrant the demolition of these motels. But a public body like the City doesn’t get to label a structure irredeemably “blighted” and use the City’s blight reduction fund to demolish it simply because it is run-down and because a vocal and powerful group of private citizens would prefer to see something else in its place—something that isn’t even being proposed (at least not publicly). That’s not how blight reduction, or how government, is supposed to work.
The existence of run-down buildings on a piece of land is not an impediment to development. Experienced developers have no trouble envisioning a proposed new structure on property already populated with buildings. One need only look two blocks east of these motels to the future site of the Standard at Reno, where a developer recently purchased an entire city block filled with dilapidated single-family homes with the intent to demolish them all and construct a single student housing structure in their place.
Demolishing these two motels using funds designated for blight reduction via a process that was not transparent and inclusive would set a troubling precedent. If these motels, then why not the old Masonic Lodge, or the Freight House, or the Reno Brewing Company Bottling Plant? You might say, “Oh, that would never happen. Those are too historic.” But if these motels are demolished using the City’s blight funds, without a greater opportunity for public discussion or consultation with the City’s Historical Resources Commission, the precedent has been set. Without a public process that involves abundant opportunity for public comment and consultation with the city’s own advisory boards, the same thing that is happening to these motels easily could happen to vacant, long-neglected, privately-owned buildings that carry greater architectural and historical significance for our city. What’s to stop it?
Involving the public isn’t an onerous process. It’s easy to charge people with opposing views as obstructionist to your preferred plan, but it’s an unfair charge to lob at people who had no opportunity to be involved in concocting that plan in the first place. If you don’t want to see members of the public showing up at the eleventh hour to question some of your assumptions and decisions, there’s an easy solution: invite them to the table when those decisions are first being made.
Reno’s limited blight funds should be used in situations where private investment cannot proceed without the City’s help—for instance, when a degraded property’s owner can’t be located, or when a property owner has struggled in good faith to keep a property well maintained but simply could not manage to do so, or if a structure is literally falling down or poses a significant and immediate threat to public safety.
Yes, the fantastic Mural Marathon at Circus Circus, directly across from these motels, is next week. Yes, we are just embarking upon a summer chock-full of special events and it would be nice for Virginia Street to look prettier for our visitors and residents. But that doesn’t justify calling these owner-neglected properties irredeemably “blighted” and sidestepping the public process in order to make them disappear.
It doesn’t matter how many newspaper articles have been written about an issue; if it doesn’t appear on a public agenda, it hasn’t been part of a public process. As Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
There is much work to be done to preserve Reno’s architectural heritage. Some of our most historic properties are in dire need of realistic solutions in order to survive. Some are owned by sympathetic property owners in search of feasible solutions; others may require organized intervention to avoid irreparable damage or even demolition. For all, awareness of what’s at stake is the first step to ensure the preservation of some of our city’s most significant, and most beautiful, historic structures.
I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks to come. But for now, take a look at some of these buildings. They deserve the attention of local residents, who can help to persuade their owners to take care of them and help find the resources that will allow them to do so. Whether fifth-generation Renoites or new arrivals, we are all stewards of Reno’s heritage. These structures, ranging from 19th century Queen Anne homes to modest commercial brick buildings to architectural landmarks, all have enormous potential to contribute to our city’s character, its ongoing revitalization, and our economy. But when they’re gone, they’re gone. Let’s not allow that to happen on our watch.
Perhaps it’s no big surprise that Reno, Nevada hasn’t done much to promote or even to acknowledge its six decades as Divorce Capital of the World. The title might seem a dubious honor, implying that Reno’s culture proved so poisonous to the concept of stable wedlock that the city’s married couples didn’t stand a chance.
In fact, Reno’s migratory divorce trade played a pivotal role in enabling the matrimonially dissatisfied, abused, and abandoned to be free of their conjugal constraints, in the process increasing the widespread acceptance of divorce, empowering thousands of men and women to take charge of their own lives, and hastening the enactment of similar legislation nationwide.
At the same time, the divorce trade played a significant role in establishing Reno’s image and its tourist economy, something I covered at great length in my book, Reno’s Big Gamble. The unique industry clearly demonstrated the economic potential of attracting outsiders to the state (and to Reno in particular, as its largest and most accessible city) by legislating highly desirable activities not available elsewhere, and paved the way for its embrace of legalized wide-open gambling.
The absolute centrality of the migratory divorce trade to Reno’s development, and its largely unacknowledged significance both nationally and in Reno itself, prompted the creation of the new online exhibit and archive, Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry–a project I was thrilled to participate in for the past 15 months. A project of the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, this effort involved digitizing over a thousand photos, books, pamphlets, diaries, postcards, and other materials; recording interviews with individuals who experienced the divorce trade firsthand; writing narratives to explain the many facets of the trade; and designing an exhibit and online archive to bring this story–in all its marvelous complexity–to the public.
Browse the online library, read the narratives, and listen to the voices, and I think you’ll begin to appreciate the magnitude of this six-decade industry and its wide-ranging contributions to the culture of Reno, the state of Nevada, and the United States. The legacies of this trade are everywhere–in Reno’s architectural and business landscape; in the large number of local residents who came to town for a Reno divorce and decided to stay; in the city’s longstanding identity as a cosmopolitan crossroads; and in this rich and often surprising collection of colorful stories that hold such potential for further research, for tourism, and for strengthening the identity of a community almost perpetually in transition.
Scott Sonner of the Associated Press has written a nice piece on Reno’s historic 1905 Virginia Street Bridge, soon to be demolished. I was glad to be able to share with him my thoughts about its significance to the city and beyond. You can read the story here.
Early one morning a few weeks ago, I stood on the bridge with three amazing women who devoted years to the effort to integrate preservation of the bridge into plans for the future of downtown Reno. I joined those efforts soon after I moved to town in 2003, inspired by the bridge’s understated elegance and classical form, its centrality to Reno’s development and identity, and the multitude of stories it contains.
Together, we worked for years in pursuit of a solution that would allow the bridge to remain in place while still accommodating the needs of flood control and the concerns of downtown business owners, and it is important that we did that. It is right and good for us to make every attempt to combine development with preservation of our most historic structures. It is critical for us to ask questions and to engage in those difficult conversations, sharing our opinions in a public forum. We should continue to do that as a city. We owe it to our past, recognizing that the future we are building will be infinitely enriched by embracing the stories of who and what we have been. The loss of each historic structure deprives us of a tangible reminder of our heritage, making it that much more difficult to connect to what came before us.
I’m proud of how hard we worked to save the bridge. And when it was clear that this bridge could not accommodate the level of flood protection required by the City of Reno, the Army Corps of Engineers, business owners, and the Truckee River Flood Project, I’m proud that each and every one of us who stood on the bridge that day participated in the process of determining what would replace it. We attended meetings of the Design Review Board convened to select a new bridge design, we met with its architects and engineers, and we discussed how to incorporate elements of the historic bridge into the new span. It is impossible to be a dedicated historic preservationist, at least a successful one, without also being a clear-eyed realist.
On that day, our final day on the bridge together, we talked about how much it had seen in its 110 years: the growth of the city’s population from fewer than 10,000 residents to more than 250,000; the devastating fires that brought down earlier versions of the Riverside Hotel and the Masonic Temple; the demolition of the charming little Carnegie Library to make way for the Post Office building now gracing the south bank; the golden peals of laughter and music cascading from the Mapes and Riverside in their prime; the hum of the streetcar traversing its length; and yes, the footsteps of the newly divorced, pausing for a moment at the railing to consider whether or not to join the ranks of the famed ring-flingers.
We brought with us armfuls of white roses and daisies, and flung them one by one, like discarded wedding rings, into the river, watching them land gently in the rivulets and catch in the rocks, until they finally broke free, winding their way downstream and out of sight.
Goodbye to a bridge that has served this city so well. Goodbye to your beauty and elegance, to your steadfast endurance through times both robust and lean. Goodbye to a well-worn path trod by thousands. Goodbye to the rings and flowers, to the crystalline blue of that morning sky. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Word came out this week of a local group’s efforts to promote the redesign or even replacement of the Reno Arch, in order to better reflect Reno’s changing identity and economy. As Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve later clarified, the group first approached the City with the idea several years ago, but the discussions have so far resulted in no plans to renovate or replace the famous arch.
Historically, it’s not a new idea. The widespread belief that the previous two arches were outdated was what led to their replacement in 1963 and 1987 (when the current arch was installed). Based on that calendar—replacement every 20 to 30 years—we’re about due for a new one.
Or are we?
The arch’s role has changed significantly over the past 89 years. The first Reno Arch was installed in 1926 to promote a specific event, a Transcontinental Highways Exposition held in Idlewild Park to mark the completion of the Lincoln and Victory Highways. You can read more about that on Reno Historical.
A centrally-located, well-lit arch was the perfect vehicle for promoting the expo—erected on Reno’s main thoroughfare, it loomed over the very people the event hoped to attract: people in cars. It’s not like there were a lot of other marketing methods back then. Oh sure, there were brochures and newspaper ads, if you could afford the costs. But a big, bright street-width illuminated banner stretching overhead was a constant, unmistakable reminder to GO TO THE EXPO, CAR PEOPLE.
After the big event, Reno folks just liked the arch, so it stayed. Once it gained its famous slogan and Reno became the talk of the nation for legalized gambling and the six-week divorce, the Reno Arch became the city’s most recognizable icon, as famous as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, New York’s Statue of Liberty, and that much bigger arch back in St. Louis–which is kind of incredible considering how much larger those cities were and are.
But that’s what made Reno the Biggest Little City in the World—its outsized reputation and larger-than-life banquet of cultural enticements, far more cosmopolitan than anyone would expect for a city its size.
Keeping Reno’s arch current was essential in the postcard, pre-Internet era, when the chief aspiration of a city dependent upon tourism was to create an image in people’s minds that could single-handedly epitomize their destination’s cutting-edge appeal.
And the Reno Arch did just that. Touting the city’s famous nickname, it conveyed just the right mix of brashness and charm through every era. In the neon age, as Virginia Street filled with clubs and casinos, it blazed in bright neon. In the swinging sixties, it grooved in yellow and orange octagons. And in 1987, increasingly dwarfed by the rainbow-hued multi-story dazzle-fest of Fitzgerald’s, the Eldorado, Harrah’s, and Harolds Club, it burst forth in a blinding carnival of over-the-top pizzazz. Dependent upon casinos and tourism, Reno fully embraced its new icon’s unapologetic glitz as the city’s calling card.
In the subsequent 28 years, Reno’s economy has diversified, and the downtown landscape with it. Some casinos have closed, some have been demolished, many remain, neighboring Fitzgerald’s has transformed into the non-gaming Whitney Peak Hotel, and the city is embracing a new era of start-ups, high tech, higher ed, outdoor adventure, and unprecedented innovation.
So why not update the Reno Arch once again to reflect the new Reno?
Because city promotion and consumption don’t work like that anymore. In this era of advanced technologies and sophisticated marketing strategies, both promoters and consumers can immediately access an endless array of images (and narratives) to correspond with whatever stories they seek to construct and absorb. Platforms have multiplied, markets are segmented, campaigns are targeted, and places no longer project a single image (nor do they wish to).
At the same time, as Reno forges ahead with a new resident-centered vision, appreciation of the city’s rich heritage is growing, and the arches help to tell that unique story. The original Reno Arch was reinstalled on Lake Street in 1995 after years languishing in a city storage yard. The site is appropriate, neighboring the National Auto Museum, which celebrates the car culture that inspired its creation. The lost sixties-era arch, donated years ago to Willits, California, would have looked fabulous next to a renovated mid-century motel.
The current arch, if replaced, would certainly need to be preserved and relocated. But what site would better suit it or the story it tells than its natural habitat, the historic heart of Reno’s casino core, where it serves as an unabashedly spectacular, infinitely recognizable commemoration of the pioneering role Reno played in the creation and ascension of the American gaming industry?
Each Reno Arch is a product of its time, and like any building, artifact, or cultural product, it derives deeper meaning from the way we interpret it to the world. Does the current arch symbolize everything that Reno is today? Of course not. But why should we ask it to, when we have so many other tools at our disposal to accomplish that?
Rather, we need to recognize that as Reno reinvents itself, our city’s rich heritage is one of its most valuable assets. There is no place like it. And its incomparable story, embedded in the landscape in ways we have only begun to tap into, is a key component of the city’s multi-dimensional, excitingly complex, absolutely unique identity.
This Reno Arch, in its historic spot at Virginia Street and Commercial Row, is an iconic part of that story. Outdated? No. It is masterfully, flamboyantly, beautifully outrageous, an assertion of Reno’s abundant civic pride and boundless delight in celebrating itself. And what could be more timeless than that?
As Reno’s revitalization continues to gain momentum, our city’s rich heritage is emerging as one of its most valuable assets. From digital projects to the renovation and repurposing of key historic properties, the year 2014 was marked by an increasing (and exciting!) realization of how our city’s unique past can be an integral, and irreplaceable, component of its continuing reinvention. Here are five of the year’s top stories in Reno’s heritage.
1. The Launch of Reno Historical
On May 9th, the anniversary of Reno’s original land auction in 1868, the new smart phone app and website Reno Historical launched. The map-based multimedia platform, a collaborative effort by most of Reno’s history-related organizations, allows users to explore Reno’s heritage through stories, images, audio, and video clips. The project continues to expand, with the regular addition of new locations and multimedia components. Look for the addition of historic sites throughout Midtown and the Wells Avenue district in 2015.
2. The opening of Heritage restaurant
While not housed in a historic building (by most standards, anyway), Mark Estee’s Heritage restaurant, which opened in May, was significant to Reno’s heritage for a number of reasons not limited to the establishment’s name. Located in the Whitney Peak Hotel, the old Fitzgerald’s casino building, the restaurant champions the city’s history in everything from the menu’s inspiration to the wait staff’s denim uniforms (a nod to the 1871 invention just a block away of Levi’s riveted jeans). Additionally, the establishment of a non-gaming hotel in the heart of the city’s casino core bodes well for the return of the city center to a more diverse array of businesses and attractions for both tourists and residents.
3. Historic UNR Dorms Saved from the Wrecking Ball
Citing seismic concerns, a press release issued by the University of Nevada, Reno on May 29th indicated that two of the university’s historic dormitories, Lincoln Hall and Manzanita Hall, might be “removed” in whole or part. Immediate public outcry to save the two 19th century buildings, both listed in the National Register of Historic Places, included a student-led petition, an editorial in the Reno Gazette-Journal, and a flurry of activity on the part of local and state preservation groups. Just weeks later, UNR President Marc Johnson announced that both Lincoln Hall and Manzanita Hall would be preserved. Bids to design the initial plan to convert Lincoln Hall into office space are due January 15.
4. The Renovation and Reuse of Reno’s Downtown Post Office
Reno’s historic downtown post office closed its doors in December of 2012 after 78 years of operation. Designed by Nevada’s pre-eminent architect, Frederic DeLongchamps, the Art Deco/Art Moderne building was purchased by the Reno Redevelopment Agency and sold to a local development group. Led by local resident Bernie Carter, the building’s new owners worked closely with Nevada’s State Historic Preservation Office and the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission to ensure that its renovation would retain the structure’s historical integrity. Renamed Fifty South Virginia, its historic address, the beautifully restored building’s office spaces are now open for lease.
5. The Renovation of the Nevada-Oregon-California Railroad Depot
Vacant for more than a decade, the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad Depot on historic East 4th Street was long the subject of hand-wringing by locals who feared the building would be lost to deterioration or demolition. Another Frederic DeLongchamps design, the historic 1910 depot was purchased in 2013 by a long-time Nevada family. Following an extensive renovation, it reopened on New Year’s Eve, 2014, as a combined brewery/distillery/restaurant, named the Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery. The property promises to play a key role in the reactivation of East 4th Street, recently named the Old Brewery District by the Regional Alliance for Downtown.
Stay tuned for my list of five issues in Historic Reno to look for in 2015!
Why do I care about Reno’s history? If you read through my blog, the answer is pretty clear. Researching and interpreting Reno’s history for the public has become central to my professional life, and something of a personal crusade. You can read more about how all of that started here and elsewhere on this site, and I hope you do!
But why should you care about Reno’s history? I addressed that question recently in a talk for Ignite Reno, held at Cargo in the Whitney Peak Hotel in downtown Reno on November 20th. If you’re not familiar with the format, Ignite presenters are given five minutes to speak on a subject of their choice–something that really fires them up–backed by 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. On this night, fourteen of us spoke on topics ranging from digital publishing to how lessons from cycling can make us a better community.
I geared my talk toward the local Reno audience, but my general points can apply to any location. History is every place’s most unique asset, and caring about it, promoting it, and preserving it, can help us make our places more walkable, more meaningful, and more community-oriented.
You can watch the 5-minute video here and the full powerpoint presentation here: Ignite Reno Powerpoint. I hope you enjoy, and perhaps feel a little more inspired to care about the history in your community, wherever that may be.
Earlier this week I was deeply honored to receive the Silver Pen Award on the same night that two wonderful writers, Ron James and Shaun Griffin, were inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. Several people have asked for copies of my remarks, and so I include them here, as doing so provides me yet another opportunity to acknowledge those who have influenced my writing career and to thank many others who have encouraged and inspired my writing so far. I am filled with gratitude.
Thanks to all of you for being here. Thanks to the selection committee. Thank you so much to the Friends of the University Libraries for this honor and for all the work that you do. Libraries need friends.
Libraries have been very good to me. I wanted to become a writer because of a lot of people I met in libraries. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Louisa May Alcott. Dr. Seuss. Mark Twain. Henry David Thoreau. Edith Wharton. Nathaniel Hawthorne. William Shakespeare. Virginia Woolf. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Walt Whitman. I could go on.
I wanted to become a writer because I wanted to move people the way I had been moved by these authors’ words and to transport people the way they had transported me.
But I wanted to become a writer of history in particular because of one person: Wallace Stegner. Wallace Stegner is the reason I went to graduate school and the reason I study and write about the American West.
I am not a native Nevadan, but I am a westerner. And like a lot of westerners, I am from a lot of different places. My parents, who are here tonight, are from Alaska and Washington state. We lived in southern California and Utah. We spent many years in New York but ended up back in the West.
I had been aware of Wallace Stegner’s work for a long time, but I didn’t start to read his work in earnest until his death in 1993. And once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Not only did his writing transport me, but he felt like a kindred spirit. Like me, he was a child of the American West. Like me, he had spent a lot of time in Salt Lake City and Palo Alto. Like me, he had moved around and had no single place to call home. He understood the tension between the exhilaration of rootlessness and the hunger for stability and a sense of place.
And he pointed out that that wasn’t just the plight of a few individuals—that was part of the West’s intrinsic nature. And it had consequences.
Stegner wrote that the American West is most susceptible to losing a sense of place. As he wrote, “Many western towns never lasted a single human lifetime. Many others have changed so fast that memory cannot cling to them; they are unrecognizable to anyone who knew them twenty years ago. And as they change they may fall into the hands of planners and corporations, so that they tend to become more and more alike. Change too often means stereotype.” As a result, he said, “Communities lose their memory along with their character.”
I wanted to understand how that could happen and was happening, how a community could lose its memory, and its character, especially in the West, where that character was so strong, and so tied to this incomparable landscape and these immense open spaces.
That’s what first brought me to Reno. I wanted to understand how this most unique of western places was struggling with its identity, and in its quest to find secure economic footing, was in danger of losing its identity and its character. The city had undergone so many changes, some so suddenly, that the past was in danger of being completely erased and forgotten.
Then as I stayed longer, as I learned more, as I became part of this community, I wanted to help do something about that. I wanted to learn not just how a community could lose its memory, but how it could get it back. I wanted to help reverse that process, to strengthen a sense of place and make the city more meaningful to people through understanding its past.
And in my writing and my public history work, that is what I am trying to do, to help strengthen our understanding of the places where we live. I want to reach people wherever they are—in a library, in their home, on the computer, in a park, waiting for the bus. I want to be a part of the effort to preserve individual memories, to strengthen our collective memory and create an ethic of care about this place and about each other.
And that is what Wallace Stegner stood for, too. He was not just a writer and a scholar; he was an activist. He didn’t just want to explain the West. He wanted to inspire people to act, to save the places they cared about.
I have now lived here for eleven years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. I know this place better than I know any place. Reno has become my home and my inspiration.
I am immensely grateful to Phil Boardman for bringing me to Nevada as a postdoc in Core Humanities in 2003. I’m grateful to Tom King for recommending me to direct the University of Nevada Oral History Program, a job that I absolutely treasured from start to finish. And I want to thank all of my friends and colleagues—so many of you are in this room—who have encouraged and inspired me.
Thanks to my parents who have read everything I’ve written since I was five. And to my husband, Mark, another westerner, who I met ten years ago last week at the Nevada Museum of Art. No one could be more supportive.
There was a time not so long ago when I wasn’t sure there was a place for me here or if this was what I was supposed to be doing. But the past year has shown me that there is and I am.
This award means the world to me, and I accept it as confirmation that I’m on the right track, and encouragement to stay on it. I am so proud to be the warm-up act for the two gentlemen we are truly here to honor tonight.
Thank you so much.
In light of this week’s announcement that Tesla has chosen Northern Nevada as the site for its new $5 billion battery “gigafactory,” it seems timely to recall the state’s long history of luring residents and potential investors with its unparalleled tax advantages. Perhaps the most well-known attempt was the “One Sound State” campaign of the 1930s, which hoped to attract wealthy new residents to Nevada by promoting it as a conservative tax haven.
As a promotional strategy, the “One Sound State” campaign was driven largely by local concern that the only Reno most Americans knew was the image purveyed by the media–as a capital of gambling and divorce. Its strategy was to convince the very wealthy of the state’s economic “soundness” by stressing the lack of numerous taxes, from state income tax to inheritance taxes.
Its methods could not have been more overt. In 1936, the First National Bank of Reno, in conjunction with the Nevada State Journal, published a pamphlet that it sent to a select list of 10,000 wealthy prospects, outlining Nevada’s fiscal advantages, and dropping the names of millionaires like Max C. Fleischmann, who had already made the move. As a reporter for Collier’s magazine noted, “The Nevadans aren’t going to play up this gay, devil-may-care side of life in their state anymore. They’re going to put the emphasis on civic respectability.”
So did it work? Undoubtedly. Numerous millionaires moved their residences to Nevada, although many clustered around the shores of Lake Tahoe in elegant homes far removed from Nevada’s urban centers. The long-term benefits to the state are difficult to calculate, but one point is clear: the charitable foundations founded by some of those millionaires and their heirs (among them, Max C. Fleischmann, E.L. Cord, Wilbur D. May, Nell J. Redfield) have injected hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s educational system, cultural institutions, and non-profits.
If you’re in Reno, you can learn more about these millionaires and their foundations at the Wilbur D. May Museum at Rancho San Rafael Park in an exhibit on display through September 21st called “Rush to Reno: Millionaires in the One Sound State.” For more info, visit the museum’s website.
So will the massive tax breaks and incentives offered to Tesla come back to benefit Northern Nevada a hundredfold? Only time will tell. It’s a major achievement, and also a leap of faith. But that’s Nevada, land of the eternal gamble. You really can’t expect this state to operate any other way.