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Thursday, 20 June 2013


Reno in postcards

“Some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, he would come here and look sadly around then get homesick and go back to hell again.”
Mark Twain

The city of Reno began its life as a bridge over the Truckee River. Charles Fuller built it in 1859 and charged wagon trains a fee to use it. Soon enough someone decided to set up a store and then there was another, followed by a hotel, and by the time the Central Pacific Railroad was being built in the 1860s, Lake’s Crossing, as the settlement was now called, was large enough to justify a train station. It was officially named Reno after Major General Jesse Lee of the same surname, who fought and died on the Union side in the Civil War. It seems he never got close to the place but he couldn’t have complained if he did. To the west it faces the Sierra Nevada and on all other sides it is surrounded by desert; scenically speaking one of the best sited cities in North America.

When I was in Reno recently I was describing a building to a woman who had lived in the city for ten years but had trouble placing it. “We really don’t go into the downtown area that much,” she explained and that made sense. Even if residents were interested in gambling they’d have no reason to go there. Poker machines are everywhere but for day to day living needs downtown has nothing in the way of services anyone would need. That might explain the curious atmosphere of the place. It is crossed by a grid of wide avenues devoid of real traffic. If you are conditioned to wait for the light to go green before you cross, you can stand for five minutes at an intersection with no moving vehicles in sight in four directions. It is a strangely silent place too. 

The impression from historical documents and photos is that downtown Reno was much livelier when it was smaller, and there’s a reason for that. The huge skyscraper hotel casinos that dominate the skyline now only arrived in the 1980s. The way they work, if you book into one like the Eldorado or the Circus Circus for a weekend of relaxation at the tables, you have absolutely no reason to go anywhere else. Food, drinks and entertainment are laid out for you along with coupons that make it seem you are saving money. In the old days, when the businesses were smaller, patrons moved between establishments more often either because they had to – if you wanted a slab of prime Nevada beef you might go to Harold’s rather than the Nevada Club – or because people inevitably tire more quickly of smaller places. They get crowded and smoky and like a television channel it isn’t long before you start wondering if the passing parade isn’t more interesting somewhere else. It is worth remembering incidentally that everything you see here has gone. Where the Frontier, Nevada and Harold’s Club were there is now a blank space given over to one of the super casino’s entertainment venues. The famous sign in the distance has been moved to Lake St, about five blocks away, which is a lot better than demolishing it altogether but in its new position over the Truckee River, and not in a place you’d call the entrance to Reno, it has lost its magic. Then again, you could look at a scene like this and think the whole city has. Incidentally; compare it to the one immediately above, taken perhaps ten years earlier, and notice how casinos have altered the streetscape.

Here is the famous sign, and a photograph that, if not quite famous, is instantly recognized by Nevadan historians. Most of the photographs here were taken by the Nevada Photo Service but this is one of the very few where the company gave itself credit. It’s an image that has become emblematic of old Reno, a city of the night, a neon city. Engel’s studio was just around the corner and he made several versions, including some he took in daylight. All of them contain those elements we’ve come to associate with Reno’s façade; the signage and the cars. The cars especially; this was a city for visitors.

Another landmark was the mural outside Harold’s Club. Painted by Sargent Claude Johnson from a design by Theodore McFall. According to his Wikipedia entry, ‘Johnson was one of the first African-American artists working in California to achieve a national reputation’. Race may not have meant a lot to Harold Smith but Johnson was also a member of the Communist Party, which might have. In any case, the mural showed a group of pioneers with their wagon trains in a circle around a campfire while up in the rocks behind the waterfall a group of Native Americans watched passively. Backlighting gave the impression the campfires were crackling and the waterfall flowing. In 1995, when Harold’s was being demolished, a group of concerned citizens moved to save the mural. It sits out at the Reno Livestock Events Center behind the University. We are grateful it was saved but have to accept that in its present location something is missing.

After the gold rushes of the 19th and early 20th centuries faded, Nevada was stuck with the problem of how to attract people. An early answer was to legalize boxing, or prize fighting as it was officially known, but the trouble was that 100 000 spectators could descend on Reno for the Johnson Jeffries fight of 1910 yet as soon as it was over they left. Still, rewriting that law gave the city fathers other ideas. Over the next few years they would legalize gambling then divorce. Both of them proved incredibly successful, until towns like Atlantic City took the idea and sucked the northern visitors away. Nevada would always promote the notion that it had the most liberal laws of any state in the U.S though pragmatic is a more accurate description. The Doghouse used to advertise itself as “the divorcees’ haven”, which gives you some idea of what it was like behind closed doors.

I thought for a while this was one of the Nevada Photo Service postcards but now I think the handwriting is close but not enough. To say it has the NPS look would be misleading because there were particular scenes that lent themselves to photographers and we know that other studios such as Frasher Fotos and J. H Eastman took near identical photos as Engel of some Reno landmarks. More interesting than who took it is the way that signage and Neon became identified with Reno. People would come to speak of ‘Nevada style’, which wasn’t entirely accurate since it was never indigenous, but what looked normal in a Chicago street could be transformed in a desert town.

There was a curious side effect to Reno’s divorce laws. When we say divorce was legalized, what that really means is that the state got rid of the paperwork. Divorce was of course legal across the U.S but as a state law with federal effects it could entail a year of expensive legal wrangling plus, and this was the worst, publication of the spouses’ intentions in the local papers. Nevada’s only stipulation was that one of the couple spend six weeks in Reno while the paperwork was sorted. Because men were more likely to have full time jobs than women, it was usually the women who went to Reno. This was of course red rags to the bullish young cowpokes working the nearby ranches and there are stories of women who arrived in Reno to get a divorce and never left, and others of women who got their divorce, moved in with the cowboy and a month or two later were back at the registry office filing another request. In the meantime they had another six weeks to kill. 

Reno’s history could be distilled into the story of one city’s constant struggle to bring people in, against the constant fear that with an economic downturn it could vanish back into the desert. When the transnational Lincoln Highway was being planned in the 1910s, the choice was to go through Nevada and end in San Francisco or avoid the salt pans and go through Arizona, which meant the road would end in Los Angeles. Apparently it was Mormon filled Utah that pushed for the Nevada route on account that so many of its citizens wanted access to Reno’s nightlife. Whatever else the city had on offer, casinos were what drew people to Reno. Without them it is likely the divorce laws would not have had such appeal. Six weeks in a sleepy desert town with nothing to do can make a bad marriage seem tolerable. 

 For most of Nevada’s history Reno was its largest and pre-eminent city. Las Vegas to the south was just a small service town, until the gangsters worked out that being much closer to LA and Hollywood gave it cachet. In a short time Vegas would be hosting Sinatra and Martin while Reno was left with a few sad also-rans. As Vegas boomed, once again Reno found itself battling for economic relevancy. What kept it going were those elements that had drawn people in the first place: mining and location. It still has some of the biggest gold deposits in the world and it is only a short drive from Lake Tahoe and Silicon Valley. In the 1980s however the decision was taken to redevelop the downtown district. In a few years the monstrous Silver Legacy and only slightly less ostentatious Eldorado and Circus Circus resort hotels would snuff the life out of smaller places. The only way to compete was to build big, offer more inducements like special packages and fill the lobbies with more machines. An older Reno still survives. There are plenty of small motels that look like the final scene in an independent film about someone whose luck ran out a long time ago. And there are also those parts just outside the downtown district that belong to another world; Manzanita Lake at the University of Nevada could be the grounds of a prestigious eastern college and across the river are streets lined with 19th century wooden houses. You can’t however escape the impression  that it is defined by that area bounded by Arlington, Fourth, Centre St and the River. What lies outside might belong to Nevada but not Reno.


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