Mapes continues Reno tradition of selling bad news


Expanded from the 1-23-00 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

City of Reno contract demolition crews go back to work immediately after Judge James Hardesty lifted his injunction stopping demolition of Reno's historic Mapes Hotel. The Nevada Supreme Court later stopped work pending a review. The hotel remains scheduled for implosion on Super Bowl Sunday Y2K. The Mapes has been closed since just before Christmas, 1982. (Photo: Debra Reid, the Daily Sparks [Nev.] Tribune)

Upon moving to Las Vegas in the Sixties, the first thing I noticed was the dichotomy between the new, like Caesars Palace, and the old, like city hall. The seat of government was housed in the equivalent of old army barracks. The rickety, single story, pre-WWII wooden building even had a creaky front porch with warped steps, a precursor of the government found in those parts today.

Gomorrah South's Department of Motor Vehicles was housed in two singlewide mobile homes in the middle of a vacant field.

UNLV was then Nevada Southern University, a freshwater college out where nobody wanted to drive. Like today, Vegas was interested only in the green on the back of a dollar bill. I longed to see a tree.

For all the barren geography and dismal architecture, LV offered something else to hold a stranger's attention.

I subscribed to the Las Vegas Sun. Every morning, I'd get Hank Greenspun's latest sensationalistic rant about Howard Hughes or the mob or the FBI or some heinous murder. Or Sinatra had thrown a temper tantrum. Or comedian George Carlin had been thrown out of the Aladdin because the Hippy Dippy Weatherman was now using dirty words and no longer worthy of $10,000 a week.

Trumpeter Harry James and his wife, actress Betty Grable, were living in the 'hood and playing the Strip. You could go to Caesars and see the guy who modeled for the cartoon Caesar which remains the corporate logo today. Casino impresario Jay Sarno was neither Roman nor Italian, but he was built like we all imagined Emperor Nero.

"This sure is an interesting town," I remember saying to myself more than once.

Vegas may be a toilet to live in these days, but no one can say it's gotten less interesting. Its level of governmental corruption now approaches that of a major city. Reno City Hall may be unethical and dishonest, but its inhabitants are either too dumb or sell too cheap to qualify as crooked by Clark County standards.

We northerners continue to look down on our uncultivated southern cousins, but maybe our greed is arranging a surrender to their ways.

Which brings me to the Mapes Hotel. The rape and murder of the old girl might bring the last gasp of the 20th Century for the City of Trembling Leaves.

The now almost-certain razing of the venerable landmark may really be a turning point, a watershed event.

Last week's local news was filled with stories about how the imminent destruction of the hotel is generating attention around the globe. Radio and TV on the BBC. CNN. Even the Smithsonian Institution has inquired.

It set me to wondering what other events have scored such worldwide coverage for the Biggest Little City.

Not including lakeside blockbusters like the 1963 Frank Sinatra, Jr., kidnaping from Harrah's Tahoe, or the 1980 Harvey's extortion bombing, Reno's list stands very short.

1. The Jack Johnson-Jim Jefferies "Great White Hope" world heavyweight championship boxing match at E. Fourth and Toano streets in 1910.

2. The fiery crash of a Galaxy Airlines Lockheed Electra on S. Virginia St. shortly after takeoff on Super Bowl Sunday, 1985. More than 60 people died. Only one survived.

3. The great weather disasters of 1948, 1952, 1983, 1986 and 1997. And probably a few more I've forgotten.

There have been several high profile murders, but none of the Lindbergh or OJ variety. And I guess there's always Joe Conforte.

All of the above had one thing in common. They were bad. Even the heavyweight bout proved a mismatch and is remembered mostly for its ugly racist overtones.

And now, here stands the Mapes. An announcement about its purchase and renovation might not have merited two lines on the CNN Headline News screen crawl. Its impending destruction has scored more ink in more major papers than anything we've done in decades.

The construction and continuing losses of our white elephant National Bowling Stadium have passed the $60 million mark. That's more than 10 times the public investment in the Mapes for a building which will probably never be completed. Tearing it down wouldn't get three lines in the Battle Mountain Bugle.

I've felt sorry for City of Reno PR man Chris Good. He's had to spin Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin's self-important line that the worldwide attention is validation that downtown redevelopment is newsworthy and important.

The Mapes would never have aroused the passions it did if the public had any faith in the city's leadership.

Perhaps the Mapes is our sacrifice at the altar of our own insecurity. Maybe it will lead us down a new path enabling Reno to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.

Will it become our first-ever positive world class event?

Former U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., recently said "Reno didn't want to be another Vegas. It is not now deemed a gambling community, and I think it's retained a lot of its integrity."

The lamentable saga of the nuking of the Mapes has made us a little lighter in the integrity department.

The city has no backup plan other than to sell the land to someone as yet unidentified. The public will be informed later, probably after illegal secret deals have been cut, as usual. I fear a small strip mall with a gas station, liquor store and laundromat fouling the banks of the Truckee at the historic Virginia Street Bridge.

The dust from the Mapes destruction will not settle for a long time. When it does, will anything good grow from it?

Be well. Raise hell.


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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past three years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988 where an earlier version of this column appeared on 1/23/00.

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