Take a walk on thewild side of Vegas!

Mar 4, 2003 6:08 AM

Downtown Las Vegas has gotten a bum rap.

A recent travel article written by a reporter named Michael Martinez for the San Jose Mercury News describes the area around the El Cortez as "dingy and threatening," and while it might be "okay to walk around in the daytime," it is "too risky at night."

The writer goes on to point out the "older clientele" in the downtown casinos, which "smelled a bit moldy."

Why is it that visiting writers to Las Vegas are always blinded by the neon glare of the Strip while failing to recognize the cultural and historical mosaic that is downtown Las Vegas?

I’ve been a fan of downtown Las Vegas for decades. I used to travel there with my parents, often staying at the El Cortez, the Four Queens or the Western Hotel.

If anything, downtown Las Vegas epitomizes what the city once was — a world apart, a city of high contrast and paradoxes.

Las Vegas gambling was born on Fremont Street in the 1930s, and much of that frontier atmosphere remains, at least in spirit.

Downtown Las Vegas is characterized by its gambling halls, despite the attempt to sanitize Fremont Street with laser light shows, walking promenades and 14-screen movie theaters.

The area known as Glitter Gulch once boasted the country’s best collection of neon signs, highlighted by landmarks such as Vegas Vic and Sassy Sally. Now you can barely see the signs because of the steel canopy.

Downtown Las Vegas also has the best collection of street people. Wandering the sidewalks are the Runyonesque types that helped make Las Vegas famous: derelicts, touts, panhandlers, beggars, hookers and barkers who shout come-ons for gambling promotions.

Dangerous to walk around downtown? The Metro Police department is right across Fremont Street from the El Cortez!

Button up your Patagonia shorts and take a stroll from the El Cortez to the Western Hotel — a walk on the wild side might be just the right thing to jump-start a nondescript weekend.

Speaking of the El Cortez, the hotel deserves the respect any senior citizen should come to expect. Built in 1941, the El Cortez is the oldest hotel-casino in downtown. It was once owned by Bugsy Siegel, who sold it when he needed the cash to build his "Fabulous Flamingo."

The southwest wing of the El Cortez retains the original adobe brick building, tiled roof and neon marquee that once stood three blocks from the nearest paved street.

It’s true, the guest rooms in the original hotel are a bit musty, and you have to take a flight up a creaky wooden set of stairs. But what do you want for $27 a night from a room with a view of air conditioning units and drainage pipes? If you want a room in the tower, spend the extra ten bucks and live large!

If you would rather take a room closer to the downtown action, the Golden Gate at the top of Fremont Street has compact, tidy rooms with bathrooms so small only one person can fit at a time. But the Golden Gate’s roots go back to 1906, when the hotel was first built as the Nevada Hotel, qualifying it as a kitschy Vegas relic.

But the best part about downtown Las Vegas is the casinos. They are built for gambling, and that’s what the visitors seek: a place to give them a good run for their money.

I recall the last time I was in the Western Hotel casino, which many travel writers would probably describe as "seedy" or "downtrodden" or you-fill-in-the-blank. You couldn’t ask for a friendlier staff — from the floor people, to change personnel to cocktail servers. Granted, some of the waitresses look like they helped christen the place in the 1960s, but they are genuine, good natured, courteous — everything you would hope for from service people.

And even though the casino clientele may appear to have been dispatched from the most recent Greyhound bus, there’s a feeling of camaraderie among them. It’s that good-natured feeling of, "We’re in this battle against Lady Luck together, and we share in each other’s joy and pain."

I was reminded of this as I was leaving the Western Hotel. I noticed my cell phone, which is usually stuffed into my waistband, was missing.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I had dropped it, but this was the first time I couldn’t find it. So I had a plan: I would call the telephone number, then when the phone went off with its distinctive ring, I would direct security to the culprit who had apparently picked up the cell phone and kept it.

But I never dialed the number. Instead, I asked a security guard whether anyone had turned in a Sprint cell phone. He returned with the cell phone, and a clipboard. "Sign here," is all that he said, and the cell phone was returned to my ever-tightening waistband.

Ah, ye of little faith!