It’s a slogan that’s as synonymous with Sin City as Caesar’s Palace, the Bellagio, and Mandalay Bay. “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” alludes to the good times one might want to keep from friends, family, and coworkers back home, but it could apply just as easily to a short stretch of road known as the F Street underpass.
Located about two miles from the Strip, the F Street underpass is where one of the nation’s worst homeless problems and the ramifications of Jim Crow-era segregation policies collide.
In short, it’s a tale of two cities, both of them within a short drive of the neon glow.
WEST LAS VEGAS
F Street connects an area known as West Las Vegas to downtown and just beyond that, the Strip. From the time the city was founded in 1905 through the implementation of desegregationist polices in the 60s and 70s, West Las Vegas was the only part of town where African Americans could live.
At the time, it thrived. Jackson Avenue, in particular, was a bustling scene of restaurants nightclubs, and black owned businesses. Ironically, desegregation policies would become its downfall. Granted the ability to choose where they lived and to vie for jobs on a more equal footing, affluent and middle class African Americans left West Las Vegas.
Businesses shut down, homes were boarded up, and little by little, the area became known for its vacant lots, blighted streets, and gang activity. In recent years, there’s been a moderate revival. Businesses, service organizations, and office buildings have begun to crop up along one of its major corridors, and the city has channeled millions of dollars into a handful of renovation projects.
One of those is the F Street underpass. Blocked at one point during an expansion of Interstate 15, the barricade that was put in place became a controversial touchstone. Many African Americans viewed it as a veiled attempt to keep members of the community away from downtown Las Vegas and the Strip. They wanted the barricade to come down. Others leery of the neighboring homeless population wanted it to stay put.
Ultimately the city decided to remove the barricade and put $13.6 million into a facelift for the F Street underpass that included, among other things, 12 tiled murals honoring African American leaders and local landmarks. The revamped underpass reopened in December 2014.
Since then, it’s become a popular destination for many who drift in from a cluster of nearby shelters and service organizations that cater to the homeless.
With more than 6,200 people living in the streets, Las Vegas has one of the largest homeless populations in the country. According to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it ranks ninth among metropolitan areas of a similar size.
And now, two years after the underpass became both a gateway in and out of West Las Vegas as well as a tribute to African American history and culture, it’s also become a haven for the homeless.
Many have made it a quasi permanent home — one with a concrete floor, an interstate rooftop, wide open entrances north and south, and on the walls, the steady gaze of, among others, Louis Armstrong, Natalie Cole, and Sammy Davis Jr.