The Mizpah was a remnant of a once lively culture in Reno’s downtown
It was a cold night, probably around 1966. My friend Mike Graham and I pushed open the door at 220 Lake St. and stepped inside. We were in the tiny Squeeze Inn, a narrow and tiny joint not to be confused with the later coffee shop of the same name on Virginia Street.
Every face in the place turned toward our two white faces. None of those faces were white. It wasn’t a hostile reaction—I think they were more surprised than anything else, and after it was apparent that we were planning to stay and eat and had not come in by mistake, everyone went back to their own meals.
I was at Reno High then, and Mike and I liked to find interesting little places like that—joints, not restaurants. I don’t know about Mike, but I was as startled as the other customers when I saw that everyone there was African American (the term didn’t exist in 1966). The Squeeze Inn was long and narrow, perhaps 7 feet wide with a counter running down the center of it, room for the cooks and stoves on one side, room for the customers’ stools on the other and not much more.
The place was one of a number of survivors of the wonderful culture that grew up on Lake Street in the years when blacks were not welcome (or barely tolerated) in the casinos on Virginia and Center Streets.
Also along Lake was the New China Club, a major casino that catered to minorities (and provided scholarships to minority students), as well as the Club Basin Street, Jim’s Shine Parlor, the Lido Hotel, the Open Pit Bar-B-Q, Clyde’s Café, the Bonanza Club, the New Reno Coffee Shop, Reno Drug.
The street’s appeal was not just to African Americans. There were also places that catered to other ethnics, like the Mandarin and Toscano’s and Colombo’s.
In 1950 renowned New Yorker magazine writer A.J. Liebling was waiting out a divorce in Nevada. Known both as a gastronome and an aficionado of New York subcultures, he found Lake Street to be his kind of place:
“It was at the Toscano Café and Hotel, on Lake Street, that I heard an Italian rancher, in town for the day, say, ‘I want a filet mignon with very mushroom. Very, very mushroom.’ All the juices of beef were in his voice, and the filet sounded better than anything I have ever tasted. It was at another Lake Street place that a tall girl a bit worn at the edges entered with a farmerish-looking man and, leaving him at the door end of the bar, came over to a group I was with, placed her hands on the shoulders of two of the women in it, strangers to her, and said, ‘I must love that man. He gave me two dollars and I put twenty cents in the juke box because I feel so good.’ Reno is a lyrical place.”
It took a non-Nevadan to see the value in something that city leaders disdained.
When African Americans were allowed into the previously white clubs, that lively and colorful Lake Street world languished. It did not match City Hall’s idea of progress, being local and low income and ethnic, so it was defined as blight and no effort was made to help it or preserve it or upgrade it for tourism. The city’s middle class started staying away even from the odd-numbered addresses on the west side of the street. By the 1970s, the Mizpah was a hated symbol of sexual harassment in the big downtown casinos, where pit bosses would tell comely women dealers, “You know, they rent rooms by the hour at the Mizpah.”
It didn’t help that Lake Street was low-income. That gave the city’s elite one more thing to disdain, as they would later do with other places they annihilated like Home Gardens and Rewana Farms.
Slowly, the Lake Street places disappeared and buildings came down. Instead of music coming from every other door as tourists walk down that street, there is now silence and empty lots and no tourists come. The Mizpah fire destroyed the last building of the even numbered addresses on that street of joy. Harrah’s finished off all but the Sante Fe among the odd numbers—and it tried hard to kill the Sante Fe.
Imagine if it had been protected. Imagine walking down that multi-ethnic street and enjoying the scent of Southern or Italian or Chinese or Basque food from some doorways and the sound of great music from others. Imagine street festivals like those the New China Club staged.
Because we listened to an unending series of city councilmembers, mayors and business leaders of limited vision, our heritage was lost both on Lake Street and throughout the downtown. Then as now, the city’s attractions were shaped to be appealing to visitors instead of to its own residents, and so became less appealing to both.
Until relatively recently, it was possible to have an Old Reno akin to the area known as Old Sacramento. But because historic buildings did not represent progress in the Reno of the 1950s and ‘60s, that opportunity was lost. The clock tower City Hall, the flour mill, the arcade, Powning Park—such places would today give downtown redevelopment a better foundation. But business and city leaders in Reno defined new and tourist as progress and old and community as regress. So those places and many more are gone. Those city leaders and their conventional wisdom destroyed the downtown, so their successors are having to try to redevelop and revitalize the sterilized city center. The successors show no sign of having learned any lessons from their predecessors. They go on tailoring their decisions to the visitors instead of the residents, ignoring the idea that quality of life is good for tourism.
The Mizpah fire is the latest reminder that when we let a community’s culture be defined by the groups with a narrow commercial stake in that community (even if they know their own best interests), we all lose.