What the f*&k is going on Downtown?

Dear People of the internet:

vegas2Lots of people I know, and presumably some of the people they know, and maybe even some other people, are wondering what’s all this now going on in downtown Las Vegas? Asking if any or all of the massively-hopeful and often-surprisingly-cynical things they hear and read are true. Seriously, multiple people, people who should totally be in the know, have asked me (me?!) lately.

So, in my customary political scientist/sociologist fashion, I drafted a looooong post explaining my full assessment of the situation from spending half a year here studying and participating here on the ground.

But, I forgot that people don’t read long things on the ‘webz, so I’ve tried failed to boil this post down into a smaller number of digestible nuggets that’re intended to be helpful for all involved, as well as those observing from the armchair of the internet. And maybe I’ll reformat and publish more detailed analyses later. For now:

“…trying not to offend anyone, but basically telling it like it is.” – Curtis Mayfield (3:01)

Dear Local Vegas creatives, techies, entrepreneurs, etc from BT (“before Tony”), local poor & destitute people who lack access to read this post, and everyone else in between who has felt left behind by the recent rumblings of a new moneysphere:

I know, it looks like the same old story. Paraphrasing a local’s line to me: ‘…the Indians had the Mormons and the Mormons had the Mafia and the Mafia had Michael Milken, and the current locals have Tony Hsieh. It’s the way of things here in Vegas; everyone sees a blank slate. But of course, it isn’t blank.’

I do understand that the standard answer you’re given that ‘Tony’s no czar that you have to go ask permission from. If you want to do something in the community, just go do it’ is hard to swallow if you have no access to capital, or decisionmakers with capital, or any idea where to turn. I feel your pain.

I know it hurts to hear someone say, whether in public presentations or press, or in private conversation, that there was ‘no tech scene here’ or ‘it was like landing on Mars’ — but you’ve got to get over it and realize that it is a fundamentally different situation this time. While the money is still being allocated in a top-down way, at a core level, I’ve seen nothing but truly good intentions (and a million other competing goals and contstraints) and a major, humility-inducing personal bet on doing sustainable good over a long time frame, with a meticulous-if-incomplete strategy to accomplish it all.

I do understand that a grand vision doesn’t ameliorate immediate pain, or apparent blinders to real problems of real people, physically right next to us.

It’s not that I don’t think all of you slighted cynics and complainers have reason to be upset. I just think you’re upset about the wrong things, or at least going about railing against them in a useless way; entrepreneurs are built to ignore critics who present themselves as trolls.

If you’re a person who actually thinks that the only two options are that Tony Hsieh either actively doesn’t care about the well-being of poor people and existing locals, or somehow doesn’t realize that populations with no adequate voice exist, I have news: you don’t understand the willful acceptance of setbacks and missteps, and intense iterative learning from consciously-naive experiments that visionary entrepreneurs (as defined by attempting things that others are scared to) have to deal with in connecting a current reality that looks nothing like a vision to one with flying cars — or at least fire-breathing mantii — in it. So, at some point, deal with it, and figure out how to work with, or around it, but don’t waste energy railing against it.

Dear Management of DTP/Zappos/VTF/DH/WiP/various entitites, ‘kool-aid’ drinkers of all colors, shapes & sizes:

Hard truth: it’s not possible to run any IRL community as a startup, because a community isn’t a startup, no matter how you organize it or publicly brand it. There are countless ways that this is both true and impactful to your very lofty goals, but here are three of the most important:

    • You can’t fire everyone in a community. And, crucially, the office is already at least partly occupied when you move in. Well duh. But this means that the only alternative is growing your own community inside the one that existed. Doing so is fine, but it has consequences: using the word ‘community’ publicly in a way that lets everyone on the outside believe you mean the whole community, when you’re really specifically referencing the  still-very-beautiful-but-much-smaller-and-definitely-separate banzai tree of a community you’re busy very carefully pruning; yep, that right there is the root source of your problem. And avoiding this issue is actually pretty easy: for example, when you talk about dabbling in education, make it clear what social services you AREN’T fixing at the same time, and a good 75% of your PR headache goes away overnight; don’t use the word ‘potentially toxic’ in reference to even theoretical members of the ‘community’ in public fora. It’s the little things. Remember, to most of the world, the word “community” includes lots of people you don’t know, and may never know, and probably will never like to hang out with if you did know them. Yep, still members of the community.
    • Know your users. Even the ones who don’t pay, and so don’t count as customers. ‘Users’ of IRL communities don’t always act in rationally self-interested ways the way they do when transacting with a business online–even with real, smiley-happy people from that business. In communities, people advocate for others instinctively to anyone they see as able & potentially willing to help, because they feel they have no adequate ways to help those others themselves. The people who were already doing this advocacy in Vegas would be particularly good bottom-up examples of investments that would pay off multiplicatively for the community over time. Helping orgs like Jude22 is a great informal start, but it needs to be formalized and expanded to the entire community that was already here, doing the things you talk about wanting the community to do. Add a bottom-up community investment layer at the micro-seed level to support the orgs that were here before you, doing the work you talk about doing, and scale up support of those that use your seed money well. To be clear, this is a different method than the current small business fund or tech fund. It might be a better use of the education fund, which burdens you with all kinds of ‘community’ expectations.
    • Know your market. If one wants to learn how to revitalize a city’s decay-ravaged downtown, why stop at reading books about how to make cities work? Why not go out and chronicle how that specific community exists — the people in it, not the overhead view of the land it occupies — so that even-more-informed steps can be discussed and taken? I know writing business plans aren’t fashionable anymore for startups (and for good reason, lean startup all the way baby), but doing market research still is fashionable. I personally have been advocating for this one since my first contact with this SimCity dream/nightmare scenario last year, and I know for a fact that the UNLV sociology department is ready to do a full ethnographic study of the few-square-mile-area-tops in question for practically free. I mean, #1 & 2 above, I get; I can see legit rationalizations for not seeing both coming more clairvoyantly, or at least being more proactive in heading them off as inlkings arose early on, but I still don’t have any clue why this, or something like it, hasn’t been undertaken. Seriously, double you tee eff, mate.

Look, as an entrepreneur who’s oft been in a position where I wanted to accomplish something much more audacious and/or much more quickly than I had the resources to do correctly, I understand the need for laser-focus compared to the overall possibilities and what you’d like to do. I do. But IRL experiments have externalities the way internet-based experiments might not. And externalities are often easy to miss when all of your focus is on the experiment.


Pre-existing community, you’re making all kinds of useless assumptions and I think it’s leading you to ask the wrong questions and expect the wrong (re)actions.

Zappos-sale-funded-community, you’re doing great things, and doing a terrible job engaging publicly and privately with the people who were already here (not me), on whom, I would argue, your stated long-term, altruistic goals in large part depend.

(also, none of this has anything to do with april fools, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear)

6 thoughts on “What the f*&k is going on Downtown?”

  1. Very interesting take. I’m looking forward to reading the long version. Still too high level and missing so many of the background stories for each of your comments that will really add to the benefit of what you’re saying.

    As a Henderson living member of the community (or should we say Community with a capital C), it’s been interesting to watch develop. I think one of the key points you make is that it is a community within the larger community that’s being developed. At least up to this point. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s important to recognize it as such.

  2. Yes, more please! I am one of the cynics when it comes to the revitalization of downtown. I’m a cynic in general so this is not much of a surprise to be honest. What Tony is doing is remarkable of course but I have to wonder at times who it’s actually benefiting, especially when so many older and historic buildings are shut down and long-time residents given the boot.

    I’m willing to be open-minded and fair but I must admit I’m skeptical. But, I’m also a Henderson resident who hasn’t spent a buttload of time down there in the past few months so really, what the f**k do I know?

    1. Hey Kim, everyone has different values and sentimentalities, and I can’t think of an example of urban redevelopment where loss of history and gentrification weren’t front-and-center issues.

      Entrepreneurs optimize for certain things (in the current case, it’s ‘collisions among people who might reasonably want to run into each other’ as far as I can tell), and that often leads to an implicit or explicit personal acceptance that lots of other things will fall by the wayside, and many of those things are things that others, especially locals who lived here already, passionately believe should be prioritized more actively. But, that’s why the DTP is a private company that isn’t hiring urban planners. The don’t *want* to be seen that way; they just aren’t out there being proactive describing the more-specific mission and focus they actually do have. They’d probably say: “baby steps.”

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