April 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 4

download pdfDownload full issue pdf

Looking forward to the 2011 Annual Meeting

Racialized Barriers and Social
Action in West Las Vegas:
The F Street Wall Controversy

Robert McKee and Shannon M. Monnat, University of Nevada-Las Vegas

las vegas

West Las Vegas, also known as the "Historic Westside," is a predominantly black community with some of the oldest streets, homes, and businesses in Southern Nevada. Many of the community’s earliest residents came from the Deep South in the 1930s, seeking employment on the Hoover Dam project. They left their Southern roots, hoping to escape violence and discrimination, only to find those same injustices in Las Vegas.

In the early 1930s it was common for blacks and whites to be seen gambling and eating together in the local casinos and restaurants. But as Southern white gamblers unaccustomed to socializing with blacks came to Las Vegas in the late 1930s, casino owners, fearing loss of business, began refusing service to blacks.

In 1943, the mayor of Las Vegas, Ernie Cragin, refused to renew the business licenses of any black-owned businesses located downtown unless they agreed to relocate to the Westside. This forced segregation led to successful black entrepreneurship and a booming Westside economy throughout the 1940s. However, during this same time period, numerous requests by West Las Vegas residents for infrastructure improvements were repeatedly ignored by the city, leading to urban blight. In 1956, large parcels of property in West Las Vegas were condemned as part of the City Planning Department’s "slum clearance program," and plans emerged for a main interstate (I-15) to be routed through the Westside. This highway effectively blocked the city’s black residents from the downtown commercial district and white residential communities. West Las Vegas residents referred to I-15 as the "concrete curtain," in reference to the infamous symbol of Communist oppression in Eastern Europe. Today, many of the once-thriving black businesses have been replaced by deteriorating churches, empty buildings, and vacant lots. While the city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in downtown Las Vegas, the historic Westside has been virtually ignored.

In 2006, in what can only be called contemporary residential segregation, the Las Vegas City Council developed plans to expand I-15 and voted to close the main street (F Street) in West Las Vegas without notifying area residents, despite being legally required to do so.

In September 2008, without any prior notice, construction workers built a dirt wall across F Street, eliminating direct access between the predominantly black community and downtown Las Vegas. This dirt wall was eventually replaced with a permanent concrete wall, making it exceedingly difficult for the black community to develop businesses and participate in the daily activities of the downtown area. Importantly, this structural barrier also blocked tourists from wandering into the city’s poor black neighborhood.

Community Organizing and Protest

las vegas

Only under exceptional conditions are the lower classes afforded the socially determined opportunity to press for their own class interests. (Piven and Cloward 1977)

By late 2008, dissent boiled over as West Las Vegas residents expressed to Mayor Oscar Goodman and other city officials their shared anger over the street closure. In October 2008, 12 Westside community members formed the "Stop the F Street Closure" committee. The committee met bi-weekly to formulate a plan to reopen F Street, repeatedly attempted to generate a response from city and state officials, and eventually filed a lawsuit on behalf of the neighborhood residents. In the early stages, the meetings were attended mostly by working-class laborers and local religious leaders. Reflecting the importance of the church as the institutional center of black community movements, meetings were held at a Westside church, and the meetings began and ended with prayer.

Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) emphasizes that the resources and conditions necessary for the development and success of a social movement. Such resources typically include formal and informal organizations, leaders, communication networks, and collective action participants. From the RMT perspective, the ability of groups to organize, mobilize, and act rationally predicts success. The resource mobilization model fits the efforts of the "Stop the F Street Closure" committee. By the beginning of 2009, meeting attendance grew to include representatives from the Clark County Democratic Black Caucus, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Association of Community Reforms Now (ACORN), Si Se Puede (a Hispanic community advocacy group), and the ACLU.

On April 18, 2009, approximately 100 people assembled at the Second Baptist Church in West Las Vegas to prepare for a march on the Las Vegas Strip. The group chanted several slogans, the most significant being "The Westside fought the battle of F Street," sung to the tune of "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho."

And the Wall Came Tumbling Down...Sort of

On May 18, 2009, State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, an African American who grew up in West Las Vegas, pushed the Legislature for approval of Assembly Bill 304, designating West Las Vegas part of a historic neighborhood preservation project. Approval of the Bill meant that the city of Las Vegas and the State of Nevada would contribute to a fund to reopen F Street and provide for economic development in the area. Although the bill was vetoed by then-Governor Jim Gibbons, the legislature voted to override the governor’s veto, and the Bill passed into law.

Not-So-Silent Racism

Herbert Blumer suggested that silent racism invokes unspoken negative images and assumptions held by whites about minority groups and that this racism occurs in the public arena wherein spokesmen appear as the representatives of the dominant group. Fifty years later, what Blumer may not have predicted are the very publically spoken scornful comments of those who hide their racist views behind the anonymity of the Internet. The Las Vegas Review Journal/Sun encouraged residents to post their thoughts online regarding the F Street closure and potential reopening. Three excerpts from comments posted on May 28, 2009, reflect the overt racist ideologies held by some Las Vegas residents. These comments are reminiscent of those posted about New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina.

Get over it. You are not that important, that millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars should be spent so you can get to ‘ghetto alley’ a bit easier.

If you people on the Westside are worried about your welfare checks being late because of the closer (sic) don’t, the U.S. mail will find you. If your (sic) worried about the person wanting to buy crack from you can’t find your house, or will have to walk a little further, don’t worry they will find you. If your (sic) worried your parole officer won’t find you, don’t worry they will find you, grow up people it’s called progress, and growth.

Cement the ‘residents’ in with a wall on all sides that is too tall for them to scale, escape from, throw watermelons over or chuck chicken bones over. If they ‘be’ complaining, drop enough cement to completely cover them, thus creating a nice dome-like existence for them. You could drop welfare checks through a small hole in the dome. Or not. Food? Grow their own!

The structural racism in Las Vegas, evidenced by the real physical barrier placed between the black community and the rest of the city, was reinforced by the clear racialized ideologies reflected in online comments. Despite the institutionalized racism and individual racist verbal attacks against Westside residents, the "Stop the F Street Closure" committee was successful because of internal organization, a well-developed indigenous base, and the coalition of non-bureaucratic formal groups (Morris 1984).

Since the passing of Assembly Bill 304, Westside community residents have met regularly with public agencies to design and approve the plans to reopen the street and to make some much-needed improvements to the surrounding neighborhood. The "F Street Reopening Project" is set to begin construction in the fall of 2012.

As Norman Denzin wrote in Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: the Politics of Interpretation, sociology can "work at the level of local political resistance. It will seek to assist those groups in which personal troubles are transformed into demands for a greater stake in the public good." The movement to reopen F Street demonstrates that it is possible for a small group, who lacked political influence or financial resources, to organize and mobilize their community into action and eventually prevail against more powerful opponents. In the end, the residents received a financial commitment to reopen the street and to invest in the economic development of their community.

References

Blumer, Herbert. 1958. "Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position." The Pacific Sociological Review 1:3-7.

Denzin, Norman. 2007. Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: The Politics of Interpretation. Cambridge: Wiley-Blackwell.

Morris, Aldon. 1984. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: The Free Press.

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. 1977. Poor People’s Movements: Why they Success, How They Fail. New York: Vintage.

Back to Top of Page

Print this article discuss this article

Featured Advertiser:

health proponent ad

Back to Front Page of Footnotes | Table of Contents