Alicia Barber

Photo By David Robert

What could be one of the most interesting books written about Reno is now underway. Cultural scholar Alicia Barber’s as-yet-untitled book will examine Reno’s reputation over the years, as it has been reflected in popular culture like movies and novels, as well as in news reports and so on. Barber holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and is a humanities instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

What’s the book going to say?

I’m writing about Reno’s reputation through the years since its founding and how that’s had an impact on the way the city was built, its successes and its struggles.

How do you fix Reno’s image in the public mind?

That’s the million dollar question, I think. I think what I’m trying to do is explore how the reputation developed and how it persists and how a reputation can be so hard to shake because it’s not something that simple promotion can change. You know, a reputation, like with a person, is something that you can’t control. It’s created by hearsay and image and personal experience and any number of things.

And pop culture?

Right. I’m studying a lot of those popular depictions of Reno through the years. I look at a whole variety of newspaper and magazine articles, images, post cards, photographs, movies, works of fiction and marketing materials. I’m trying to examine the way that the city has always tried to control that reputation or at least influence it in some way. And I think, with respect to the question of how do you change a reputation, I think you need to be aware of all the factors that go into it. So that what I’m trying to reveal is all the different aspects because I think the tides have been turning in recent years.

How much success have you found that the city has had over the years in controlling its reputation?

I think there has been success as far as creating events that gain positive press, and I think as generations shift, the prominent reputation of Reno as a divorce center, as kind of a sin city, has changed over time.

And that was outside the city’s control. Divorce was being made easier elsewhere.

Right. I think cultural shifts have a lot more to do with it than anything the city can control—although, I think they’ve had the most success [recently] with respect to improving the aesthetic appearance of Reno, and that’s going to be most successful. Because that’s what people think of the most now, not it’s reputation for gambling, divorce—these things have become more respectable—but what the city actually looks like, and that’s what people take away when they visit. And so we’re in a transitional period right now, but I think when they come out at the other end of a lot of these downtown changes, we could see some enormously positive change with respect to how the city looks.