Renovation

A combination of unlikely forces brings a flickering economic candle to a historically troubled area of Reno: East Fourth Street

Photo by Amy Beck

The E4 second Thursday events are planned for each month this summer. “Prepare to Burn” is at 8 p.m. on July 14 and will raise money for the charter school, Rainshadow. A $5 wristband will gain the wearer entry to 11 venues on East Fourth Street, including Davidson’s Distillery, Abby’s Highway 40, Studio on 4th, The Underground, Tree House Lounge, Hobson Gallery, Alturas Bar and Nightclub, Cadillac Lounge, Dilligas, Ruben’s Cantina and Casale’s Halfway Club.

The East Fourth Street nightclub is dark and obviously closed for the afternoon, although a cadre of men and women occupy a bit of space in the cavernous front area next to the glass doors. A small round table is littered with empty cigarette packs, a full ashtray, old promotional fliers, a couple of empty cans of PBR, and a few more that have yet to become empty. Cigarette haze creates strata in isolated spots of light, looking like mist in a Japanese landscape painting. That musty, closed-bar smell evokes a feeling of nostalgia, as we’ve all been here before, both metaphorically and in fact.

“You really need to walk down Fourth Street to see what we’re doing,” says Rémi Jourdan in his distinctive, rich French accent, opening the Underground’s door into the fiery bright of afternoon, and heading east on East Fourth Street toward the previously unnamed arts and cultural center, Hobson’s Square.

Reno’s incorrigible street of pessimism—longtime environ to street prostitutes, down-on-their-luck hobaloes, and substance addicts of every stripe—has a peculiar glow of optimism. Weird.

But we’ve been down this road before, many times. We’ve seen Reno’s impotent government attempt to reform the unrepentant street many, many times—throwing up fancy streetlights, increasing police patrols. We’ve watched as industry grew ever more feeble, ever less prideful of the property it owned and even less concerned with its effect on its neighbors’ property values. We’ve watched as one by one the neon lights on the seedy hotels flickered out—visiting tourists giving way to homeless individuals and families who pay by the week. We’ve even seen competing businesses coming together to promote the district as a locals entertainment corridor, a Reno Red Light District, a Gas Light District or a Reno Bourbon Street. We’ve seen all those efforts flare and die, lack of instant success dooming nascent endeavors.

What we have not seen, at least in the 50 years since Virginia Street casino operators locked up the Reno City Council and the vast majority of Reno’s urban development tax dollars—which culminated in the unwanted and unwise “investment” in the train trench—were the disparate interests aligning in a way to start East Fourth Street on a consistent upward road.

And yet, it appears as though random factors have started East Fourth Street on just such a path. There are obvious obstacles—two steps forward, one step back—but it’s no stretch of the truth to say that East Fourth Street is looking cleaner, more industrious—as opposed to industrial—and more wholesome than it has in a quarter century, maybe longer. Gone, for the most part, are the hookers who’ve moved west to better service tourists. Gone, during most of the day anyway, are the unattractive homeless. Even the drug-related graffiti is diminished. The police patrol cars are still regular as clockwork, trawling for scofflaws and ne’er-do-wells. But what’s new on East Fourth Street, even in the daylight hours before the watering holes have unlocked their doors, are pedestrian groups of passersby, monied-looking yuppie types who are going from Point A to Point B, perhaps on their way to a ballgame.

But let’s not overstate things. While the new 4th Street Station bus depot created an oasis of secure activity, the closure and erection of a chain link fence and “road closed” signs at the old station created new blight with trash and the apparent detritus of trespassers collecting on the property. There are many broken windows on the street, and the occasional panhandler still hits up visitors.

Government

Part of East Fourth Street’s new attractiveness has no doubt come from its historic nature as a major thoroughfare, Old Highway 40, the Lincoln Highway. It’s the most direct, non-freeway route from downtown Reno to downtown Sparks, and as such, it’s attractive for quasi-government, government and primarily taxpayer-funded public-private partnerships. Also because of the Reno City Council’s years of neglect of East Fourth Street—backing up, as it does, to the train trench, it became a place where it was very easy to place facilities nobody wanted in their own backyards. Don’t let anyone tell you there was any kind of a long-term government strategy to have a positive impact on the historic highway by constructing buildings on the street that faced other directions or placing the homeless shelter there, because there was not. East Fourth Street, along with the Riverfront, could be Virginia Street’s main competition for local entertainment business.

Starting at Virginia Street and heading east, there are constant testaments to the government development money that was intended to benefit downtown interests but in the long term has served to temper East Fourth Street’s rebellious nature. First, there’s the aforementioned closed bus station, but across the street is the Reno Ballroom, the Reno Events Center, and the National Bowling Stadium, which many use for parking for another taxpayer-funded facility, Reno Aces Baseball Stadium.

Across Lake Street from the National Bowling Boondoggle is the new bus station, 4th Street Station. Even the most cursory glance will reveal uniformed and armed security guards and a clientele that’s more concerned with timetables than doing time.

Beverly Llopis, a bus driver for some 14 years, says claims of a Fourth Street renaissance are exaggerated, but some signs make her hopeful.

“God, I hope so,” she said. “You just don’t know what people are going to do still. A guy got beat up the other day across the street—he had blood everywhere—but fortunately, the police were right here.”

Remi Jourdan, owner of Club Underground, talks about how East Fourth Street has transformed in the past couple of years.

Photo by amy beck

True, some East Fourth Street merchants grouse that the stadium and Freight House District were designed and constructed to funnel attention and traffic away from East Fourth. (In an apparent unlearned lesson from the casinos a few blocks west, the sports mall seeks to grab consumers and keep them on premises to the exclusion of nearby businesses and the general community welfare.)

Head just a bit farther west, and the homeless services complex on Record Street created another “island” of security on East Fourth Street. Last winter, with the Reno City Council’s inhumane treatment of the “sidewalk sleepers” and the more recent shutting down of the remainder of Tent City (see News, page 8), homeless people only tend to congregate on East Fourth during meal times. The homeless did not move out of town, they just moved into the poorly patrolled areas, near the scenic ditches and into residential areas. But the rest of the city’s loss was East Fourth Street’s gain, and while poor people may not know where they are welcome, they know they’re not to be caught loitering on East Fourth Street.

So, with almost no other effort required, government created islands of security from Virginia Street to Record Street. Regular people are able to walk the first four blocks of the street of ill-repute with no fear, with little interference from panhandlers, and with a frequent presence of uniformed security guards and real police.

With little fanfare, the community has taken back a crime-ridden section of town. And maybe it’s ironic, maybe it’s not, but because of city government’s failures—investing in fancy pavers, floral baskets and a train trench to buoy up the failing gambling tourism industry while casino property values (and property tax payments) crashed—the community could potentially benefit from increased property values (and property tax payments) from a reinvigorated Fourth Street corridor.

It’s unlikely that even a completely rejuvenated East Fourth Street will ever provide the revenue that Virginia Street at its gaming height contributed to the city and county, but it had much less distance to fall when the real estate and gaming engines sputtered, and it’s a bright potential in an otherwise murky forecast.

Arts

Heard about Hobson’s Square? Admittedly, the overarching idea is still under development, but it refers to the three buildings south of Fourth between Morrill Avenue and Spokane Street.

Perhaps the most commented upon and high profile aspect of it has been the Salvagery, a collective of artists who are housed in a building originally constructed in 1939 to house the Reno Brewing Company bottling facility. The collective has participated in community events like mass art exhibitions and art classes but, perhaps most importantly, has created a buzz of activity around the building that has been essentially shuttered for a decade.

And now, the construction of the “Temple of Transition” for the 2011 Burning Man festival has brought international attention to the historic corridor, and dozens of workers are laboring feverishly to build modular parts for the temple, which will be transported and assembled on the playa for the Labor Day week festival. The production has also contributed to the action on that section of Fourth, creating yet another island of security on the route. Labor Day will come and go, and with it, those Temple workers, but the artists of the Salvagery will remain.

Also likely to remain is Spencer Hobson, owner and namesake of Hobson’s Square, whose family owned Pick Hobson’s Riverside Casino.

Hobson has long had arts and entertainment goals for the property—he’s always had an artistic bent, doing some time as a freelance photographer and glass blower. More than 10 years ago, he was working with famed local architect Peter Wilday to bring a House of Blues to what’s now Hobson’s Square, but difficulties getting a special use permit—the area was zoned industrial—put the kibosh on that idea.

The block’s new life began when Reno City Councilman Dave Aiazzi approached Hobson with the idea of using what’s become the Salvagery space for the decoration of Artown 2010’s signature pianos.

“I started feeling good about the artists,” Hobson said. “We started having open houses, and I’m looking around thinking, ‘Hey, this is OK.’ We started getting BMWs and nice cars and the like.” Hobson is also a bit of a motorhead.

He credits Aiazzi in many ways for the improvements on the troubled stretch of road.

Spencer Hobson, left, and Chuck Travella discuss hopes for the future in the Hobson’s Square office on East Fourth Street.

photo by amy beck

“He’s been a big help for us to get a lot of stuff down here,” Hobson said. “I think that Dave is the most positive guy we’ve got on the Council.”

But that’s just one of the artistic anchors on East Fourth Street, with Studio on 4th bringing a good many shows and openings to the area for several years now. And while soon-to-be Hobson’s Square has made giant steps forward, they are but baby steps in Hobson’s greater plan for the area, which may include an amphitheater for performances, restaurants and more galleries.

In fact, he’s hired Jonathan Lewis, a former beverage manager for the Reno Hilton, to formalize business plans for the complex. “The vision and mission are gelling right now. We’re in a posture where we can support the artists, and we have a very unique recipe [to develop the property].”

But the group’s plans extend beyond this city block—admittedly further in the future—with hopes of decreasing the number of traffic lanes on East Fourth Street, increasing access to the Truckee with a possible extension of the kayak park, making the road safer for bicycles, and maybe even installing a streetcar.

Hobson’s friends, too, are onboard with the idea of a Fourth Street renaissance. Chuck Travella—who at one time owned the Spice House and who now owns the old Firestone building up the street—lights up with a knowing, crooked grin at the opportunities for gentrification: “You’re darn right. This is historical Reno, the only part of old Reno that’s left. We don’t consider south Reno, Reno. This was the first transcontinental highway. You’ve got a great venue for restoring this town right here.”

Hobson predictably agrees. “If we light up this block, everything from here to downtown is electric.”

Business

A few days later, returning to the darkened, again pre-crowds, but still smoky Underground, Rémi Jourdan stubs out another cigarette as workers upgrade the ATM for direct internet access. He expounds on his idea to bring all businesses in the area under a single “district” umbrella: E4. The idea appears to have gained some inspiration from the success businesses around the city have enjoyed by combining forces and marketing themselves as ‘districts’: the Midtown district, the riverfront arts district, WeFi (West and First streets), and California Avenue.

“Right now, there are a lot of congestions in downtown Reno,” Jourdan says. “There are problems with security, parking, everybody’s bitching about the bars [due to the recent spate of violence that has little but after-2 a.m. access to liquor to connect them], and the bars are pointing fingers at each other. The vision here is to make Fourth Street a real entertainment corridor, to give back to the community. The vision is to have incentive for the city to come to Fourth Street to make it a more desirable area. It always has been, that’s why there are so many motels, but East Fourth Street has always been more edgy, more rock ’n’ roll. We need new restaurants, new shops, people to show interest to be more artsy than just bars.”

And he’s not just taking advantage of some bad luck and isolated violence downtown to make his case. He claims that the Underground hasn’t called for police in some three years. “I can’t believe that people still think that East Fourth Street is dangerous.”

He points at efforts like the Reno Bike Project shop, the Tutto Ferro artistic metal shop, and Zagol Ethiopian restaurant as additional cultural beacons along the street. Still other Fourth Street bars, like the Lincoln Lounge, have clearly benefited from the area’s uptick. Lincoln Lounge built a well-lit and inviting beer garden that sucks people off the street, particularly on game days.

Dave Muskin, owner of Davidson’s Distillery, stops by unannounced—illustrating further the friendships and collaborative efforts that are driving East Fourth Street’s embryonic renovation. Muskin came up with the idea of the bars and nightclubs collaborating to rebrand East Fourth Street as a sort of New Orleans-style Bourbon Street back in December 2004, when he created an event to benefit Toys for Tots called the Fourth Street Tavern Tour. He spearheaded the initiative, managed the first event, but as other bar owners—who are by nature solitary, competitive creatures—failed to assist in sustaining the event, Muskin became jaded.

Jourdan, who has yet to receive buy-in from many of the street’s businesses, has sympathy for past efforts, but is driven to make this one succeed. “We need the community to support this. We’re still here. We’re struggling businesses. We believe in what we do,” he said.

“If I didn’t entertain myself, why else would I do it?” Muskin asks dryly.

Jourdan’s event, which is scheduled to occur the second Thursday of each month this summer, is also a benefit. The Burning Man-themed “Prepare to Burn” begins at 8 p.m., on July 14. It will raise money for the charter school Rainshadow. A $5 wristband will gain the wearer entry to 11 venues on East Fourth Street.

All these plans and sprouting successes are no assurance of an E4 renaissance—many of them have been tried many times before. But they’re a ray of light in what could be either Reno’s long passage into night—or Reno’s new dawn.