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Historic black Vegas neighborhood to get preservation push

September 6, 2019
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This Monday, July 29, 2019 photo shows, The Former Greater New Jerusalem Church in the Historic Westside of Las Vegas. The 1940s in Las Vegas was an exciting time of growth, but not all residents shared in the excitement. Just as the city’s black community was growing in size and prominence, officials delivered a major blow to the Westside neighborhood, virtually the only area of the city where African Americans were permitted to live, and where some homes date to the 1920s. (Miranda Alam/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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This Monday, July 29, 2019 photo shows, The Former Greater New Jerusalem Church in the Historic Westside of Las Vegas. The 1940s in Las Vegas was an exciting time of growth, but not all residents shared in the excitement. Just as the city’s black community was growing in size and prominence, officials delivered a major blow to the Westside neighborhood, virtually the only area of the city where African Americans were permitted to live, and where some homes date to the 1920s. (Miranda Alam/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The 1940s in Las Vegas was an exciting time of growth, but not all residents shared in the excitement.

Just as the city’s black community was growing in size and prominence, officials delivered a major blow to the Westside neighborhood, virtually the only area of the city where African Americans were permitted to live, and where some homes date to the 1920s.

Citing concerns over substandard housing, the city in 1944 and 1945 razed about 375 makeshift homes and shacks, displacing some of the thousands of people who had moved to Las Vegas for work.

Residents were not compensated for their destroyed dwellings, and some vacant lots in the neighborhood just blocks northwest of downtown Las Vegas still date to that ugly period, Heidi Swank, Nevada Preservation Foundation executive director, told the Las Vegas Sun .

As the cultural center of Las Vegas’ black community, the Westside and its residents were subject to countless racist policies extending even after the formal end of segregation in 1971.

Now the foundation plans to use a $50,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to identify and highlight Westside stories of triumph, innovation and success.

The nonprofit is housed in the former Westside School, at Washington and D streets, which opened in 1923 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Swank said the grant, designed to help preserve neglected historically black neighborhoods, can be a first step toward maintaining the area and revitalizing properties to benefit residents.

“We also think there’s some really great stories over here on the Westside that not a lot of folks know,” she said.

Frank Woodbeck, a foundation board member, said that unlike traditional redevelopment, which might entail demolishing buildings and replacing them, the foundation aims to keep people in the neighborhood or even bring back former residents.

“The goal is to give upgrades (to) properties in that Historic Westside area,” he said. “Not only to preserve the property, but also preserve the population in that neighborhood and lift it back up.”

The survey will focus on homes and churches, including some that Swank said played crucial roles in Las Vegas’ civil rights movement.

Most of the more than 80 abandoned homes in the neighborhood are owned by the city of Las Vegas or Clark County. Swank said preserved and refurbished properties could provide affordable housing.

“We’ve been talking with the city about how we can make that relationship work so that we can get the houses and revive them,” Swank said. “These are usually ones that the market doesn’t want because they cost too much.”

Another grant, for $24,000 from the 1772 Foundation, will help the Nevada Preservation Foundation conduct a feasibility study and recommend ways to save some of the abandoned properties in the neighborhood.

The foundation hopes to secure additional grant funding to cover costs of preserving properties’ historic qualities and original architectural features, refurbishing them and eventually selling them at an affordable rate.

“It all kind of plays together in that in order to figure out where we would focus the work of the threatened properties program, we need to do a survey to figure out where those places should be,” Swank said.

In addition to single-family homes, the survey could include housing projects in the area, notably Marble Manor, circa 1952, as well as Jackson Avenue, commonly referred to as the Jackson Street Strip or the “Black Strip.”

Much of the area’s commerce during the segregation era of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s took place on Jackson Avenue, home to numerous black-owned clubs at a time when Las Vegas Strip casinos didn’t allow black card dealers or patrons.

In addition to the Westside School, properties already on the National Register include the Harrison House, one of the few lodging options for black entertainers visiting town in the segregation era, and the Berkley Square neighborhood, designed by the renowned architect Paul Revere Williams.

Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said many more properties are probably worthy of preservation.

She cited the Christensen House, built in 1935 by a family of businesspeople that owned horses and provided riding lessons, and said the close Westside neighborhood proximity to downtown might also lead to gentrification and additional displacement of existing residents.

Swank said the local history of people of color should not be muted or ignored, and the Preservation Foundation is seeking input from longtime area residents.

She said the foundation plans to hire a consultant for property surveys and is keeping its timeline open.

“There have been a lot of promises made to the Westside, and we don’t want to be another group that makes promises that don’t come through,” she said.

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Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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