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Downtown Las Vegas, the oldest developed section of the city, has the highest density of buildings of any place in Nevada, with the possible exception of downtown Reno. Laid out by the railroad on a grid in 1905, it was the obvious spot in which to build because of the proximity of the depot and water supply. After the legalization of gambling in 1931, entrepreneurs built larger hotels to meet the recently created demand for gambling. Although Las Vegas began as a railroad town, few structures associated with the railroad remain. Amtrak now stops at a platform without a depot, behind the Union Plaza Hotel. Buildings in the nearby Union Pacific yards have burned down or been demolished. Only a few early twentieth-century hotels and the remnants of railroad cottages along South Main Street remind us why Las Vegas was founded.

Today downtown Las Vegas compactly balances casinos with government buildings, small businesses, a historic district, and a few residences. Gambling is the dominant industry, however, giving the area the atmosphere of a round-the-clock carnival. Fremont Street, the main thoroughfare, has seen a marked evolution, as casino and business owners downtown have sought ways to compete effectively with the larger, showier Strip casinos to the south. It retains many vintage neon signs, including “Vegas Vic,” the 60-foot-tall image of a smiling cowboy. However, the closure of the street to car traffic and construction of the Fremont Street Experience—a large space frame on which elaborate light shows are projected at night—have transformed the street into a pedestrian mall, destroying much of its former random mix of road traffic and raffishness.

Writing Credits

Julie Nicoletta

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