My Reno Epiphany

32 thoughts on “My Reno Epiphany”

  1. Photos staged to maximize pavement saturation? Nope, that’s what it really looks like there (and the other similar places ’round the country). A not-so-small detail of them all, and one of the most difficult impediments to implementing livability anywhere (if livability equates to walkability, then Reno is largely screwed). I know this is a major theme of your writings – I think it cannot be emphasized enough. Some of those paved corridors are wide enough that you could squeeze an entire block smack down the center.

    Reno’s ‘original’ boom was silver, and much of that wealth ended up in San Francisco banks. Now San Franciscans bring silver to Reno and drop it in the machines (but not nearly the same rate of return)…

  2. Just discovered your site and am reading my way through the archives. I’ve been an architect for almost 40 years, and I can’t remember coming across an essayist who’s observations so closely reflect my own. I’ve always been a big Robert Venturi fan, and embraced the idea that “main street is almost alright”, but most of the new built environment in America is so mundane and unimaginative–so Reno-ish–that I’m concentrating on work that makes small adjustments with less political backlash. We’ll make the best of it. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  3. This is a great post. Your description and photos of Reno look (un)surprisingly like Niagara Falls, ONT, CA. It’s all nice and shiny(ish) in the immediate area of the tourist hotels, restaurants and traps, but you see the erosion of the pre-tourist destination City that occurred and continues to occur.

    Seeing the two parts of such cities is really interesting and does make you think there is some possible truth to Asimov’s concept of psychohistory ( from the Foundation series.

  4. Came over from a link someone posted on Naked Capitalism. You have a nice post. One thing I question is the extent to which Middle American (or maybe “Standard American”) midsize cities like Reno were left behind, not because they offered no opportunities, but because the elitist coastal mindset of the credit-binging financial elites blinded them to those opportunities? What most of the midsize cities have in common is that they haven’t suffered the real estate and cost of living inflation of the “hip” locations. Are the trendy locations really that much better, geographically? Or was it just the same groupthink, self-brainwashing, closed-minded prejudiced blue-pill perspective that has taken over so much of the culture?

    1. The sad downtown, the sad dead mall, and the anonymous suburban sprawl on the edge of town are all absolutely normal in every part of the country I visit. That was the point of this post.

      Reno is a huge beneficiary of its proximity to California. The more stressed the California landscape becomes the better Reno looks. Nevada taxes are lower, regulations are a bit lighter, property is less expensive, etc. so Reno receives a steady inflow of new residents and businesses from the Golden State. Reno is pressed up against the California border so there’s ready access to the enormous market on the coast. It’s been doing pretty well economically for a small third tier city in the desert. Property values are steadily rising, unemployment isn’t bad, and new construction is evident everywhere. The money, technical expertise, and political will to reinvent the declining properties in Reno is coming from California, not from Reno itself.

      There are always elites. Mr. Procter. Mr. Gamble. Mr. Kroger. Mr. Ford. Mr. Carnegie, Mr. Rockefeller… All elites. Different locations, different centuries, different industries. But elites just the same. Income inequality and influence over government policy was every bit as bad back then as it is now with the same economic distortions. I’ve spent plenty of time all over the country (as this blog chronicles) and there are lesser elites in every town in the nation. They own whatever is worth owning in each part of the country and dominate the local political process. You think Perdue or Tyson aren’t massive elites in the rural counties they set up their processing plants?

      I remember the political arguments back in the 1980s and 1990s when the voting public all across the country demanded the end of labor unions, more open markets with fewer government obstacles for free enterprise, greater international trade, and the liberalization of financial markets. The theory was that hard working, honest, smart Americans would be unshackled from onerous constraints. We’re currently living with the results of those policies. Guess what? It worked. Lots of people got really rich by innovating and creating new technologies and whole new industries. They’re called “coastal elites” by all the folks who were made redundant and unemployed along the way.

      We’re in a financial bubble and it’s going to pop. The pendulum will swing back toward tighter borders, more government control (most likely a conservative version, not a leftie liberal model) and a redistribution of opportunity (if not wealth itself) that will restructure society. No one can say what that will look like, but WWII offers a plausible example.

  5. I’ve been to Reno more than a dozen times, in all four seasons, primarily for business. I’ve also been there for New Year’s “fun”. For that trip, we took the train from Martinez. The landscape, clad in its winter finery, was breathtaking. The destination? Kind of a letdown after the beautiful journey. We visited the Museum of Art, which was…nice.

    I know Reno’s super affordable, at least from a Bay Area perspective. However, there’s something about the air quality that gets to me. The earth in the surrounding area is has a powdery fine quality. It kicks up into the atmosphere in a variety of ways, and for whatever reason irritates my lungs and sinuses. I’m not a geologist or a scientist, nor do I have a challenged respiratory system or trouble with altitude. I don’t know why it happens, it just does. Reno is definitely not on my list. However, I love the way you portrayed it, in words and in pictures.

  6. Years ago Atlantic City had the same bright idea. Bring in big Gambling, fill the city coffers
    and revitalize downtown with increasing property values. Of course more than 30 years later
    it went into a steep decline. After visiting Biloxi, MISS I too see the resurgence of big casinos
    along the beach after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Same reasons! Bringing
    taxes, jobs, and revitalizing downtown but mostly from FEMA funding

  7. I’ve been through Reno a number of times over the years, and as I’m not a casino type type of guy it never held much appeal for me. However, some years back I spent a few days there in discussions with a firm we were in negotiations to acquire. The deal fell through, but it was in SW Reno suburbs, and you know, it was quite nice there. The young people in the company were largely pleased with living there – the relatively low cost of living, no state income tax, and the very close proximity to Tahoe and the Sierras, not to mention Pyramid Lake and the more remote Black Rock Desert and Sheldon Wildlife Refuge (both worth a visit outside of Burning Man periods and are certainly getting off the beaten track). Reno actually offers something well beyond “good enough” if you stay away from the tawdry areas.

    “And lo and behold the small shops died and rough trade lingered in the inky shadows.”

    That’s a good line.

  8. I found your Reno post rather depressing since I had driven through there a number of times over the years. I live just outside Lacey WA (15 minutes from the I-5 and ‘downtown’ such as it is, mostly strip stuff, but most of what I need is within 10 miles from me (food co-op, medical etc). Have you ever been to our tri-city place (Tumwater,Olympia, Lacey) area. If so, whaddya think? I rather like it and they have an awesome old time music vibe here, and people have moved here for that, from the east, and canada and other places.

    1. I’ve never been to Tumwater, Washington before, but I’ll keep it in mind the next time I’m in the area.

      What I see all over the country are towns that are 99% identical. For example, I spent a big chunk of my growing up years in Toms River, New Jersey. Get on Google and “drive” around Fischer Blvd. It looks an awful lot like Capitol Blvd. in Tumwater.

      Some people may look at photos from Reno (or any other town) and get depressed. “My town is better.” That’s because you live there and have become numb to the place. I’m sure I could find parallel images if I spent a few hours in Tumwater – and I know I could in Toms River.

      By the way, Reno really does have a lot of great stuff going on, particularly at a moderate price point. Check out this link from Sunset Magazine that placed Reno in the same category as many other quality towns (all of which have the same warts and all as Reno)

      1. My original hometown (Fort Wayne, Indiana) can actually be worse: eight lane stroads, immense factories that have been abandoned for 40 years, awful metal box standalone commercial buildings with enormous signs. But it has lovely older pre-war neighborhoods when they knew a thing about housing “style” and a downtown that is trying really, really hard to recover from decades of bad decisions and economics.

        So suburban California is not the nadir of American urbanism. 🙂

        A very thought provoking essay, Johnny.

  9. “Halfway between the urban core and the fringe sprawl is a particular sweet spot for a lot of people.Halfway between the urban core and the fringe sprawl is a particular sweet spot for a lot of people.”
    Just curious if you’ve ever visited Jacksonville, FL? (where I grew up) I’ve been looking at properties in those “sweet spots” just outside of downtown (Springfield, Riverside, Murray Hill) and although I say they’re always 20 years behind, it seems like the officials, developers, planners, etc. are really at least making an effort as of late.
    If you ever visit, I’d love to get your perspective on this often overlooked, underdog city (which is the largest in land area in the continental US).

    1. First, this is a terrible time to buy real estate unless you can do so with minimal debt. Squirrel away your cash and wait until after the next big market correction. It’s coming. I’ve never been to Jacksonville, but if I’m ever in town I’ll look you up. If you’re ever in San Francisco let me know.

      1. Whether it’s a bad idea to buy real estate depends on where you are in the country. In most places the rent vs. own comparison indicates it’s fine to buy, if you meet the general criteria for buying (can afford it, expect to stay, etc.). The main exception, and it is important, is that in most of the successful metro areas it’s not fine, and often a very bad idea. That includes NYC, DC, South Florida and every single metropolitan area on the West Coast, as well as a couple more I have forgotten. I saw a good chart on this recently but forgot to save the link.

        1. We’re generally in agreement with the “Your mileage may vary” asterisk about home ownership. But the rent vs. buy calculus has more moving parts than that.

          Even if you live in a low cost region and plan to stay there for a long time there are other really good reasons to hold off on a purchase right now.

          If you’re juggling student loans, car payments, and think of your credit cards as your raining day fund… you might not want to take on more debt right now. Renting gives you the option of relocating toward new opportunities if the economy shifts. You might not be able to pivot if you can’t sell a house – even an affordable one – if there are no buyers.

          Notice I emphasized the debt level, not the cost of the house per se. A $500,000 house might not be a problem if you pay cash and have savings to keep up with taxes and maintenance. Meanwhile, a $50,000 house with a modest mortgage could be a disaster if you lose your job in the next recession.

          Don’t forget, even cheap houses in Cleveland and Cincinnati were foreclosed upon in the 2008 market correction.

          1. In the industrial Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin) it was ESPECIALLY the $50-100K homes that were foreclosed upon 2007-10, given to the bank by the nominal owner through deed in lieu of foreclosure, and/or allowed by the banks to go to the county for taxes. Either landlords lost tenants and couldn’t make payments, or sub-prime borrowers living on the edge fell off due to job loss, medical bills, divorce, etc.

            Each of those happened to more than one immediately neighboring house where I used to own, and the resulting short sales depressed market values 35-40%. Fortunately, I did not need to sell.

  10. Reno is America? Interesting take. Personally I find Reno to be one of the most depressing cities in the Union. Something about the desert basin geography gives me cabin fever.

    The midtown “sweet spot” of tolerably walkable yet affordable older suburbs near downtowns… I’m bullish on that too. While quality urban cores are in short supply, there’s quite a bit of 40s/50s crap all around the country. And importantly, it’s still plentiful in places like Denver and Dallas where there’s actually jobs.

    1. Some of those 40’s houses, like the brick bungalows in Johnny’s photos, are pretty decent looking…and every city has some.

  11. Nice post. Indeed elegaic.

    Those of us of a certain age grew up (and have grown into late middle age) with the endlessly-replayed wisdom of the Stones in our heads: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.”

  12. Hi Johnny I don’t have a way of logging into WordPress……you might be interested in my comment which requires a password, Very well written. Having formerly lived in Reno, I was unsatisfied with the lack of interest of the locals in Environmental issues, despite their surroundings in natural beauty. Also, I didn’t like it that many areas on Virginia Street attract drug addicted tatooed hipsters, not educated yuppies. The yuppies and college grads, interested in intellectual pursuits and the environment, along with the region’s large LDS community (12 percent) still prefer living and socializing in the master planned communities that are around the crime ridden downtown and Virginia street. Reno isn’t Boulder, Seattle, Ft. Collins, Carlsbad (CA), or Denver just yet; I would give them 10 years and they do have a good city council with plans to do so.

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  13. Now I’m curious what happened with the attempt to save traditional Charleston block styles from Texas Donuts in that link for Texas Donuts.

    Reno is different from many smaller American cities in that its “industry” (casinos and vacationing in nearby natural attractions) is doing fairly well so it has more to work with financially and commercially than many. I don’t see any of these half-hearted revival attempts when I visit my parents’ home in Alabama. The dead mall has been dead twenty years, and dead it stays. Downtown still has many abandoned buildings, which smells like zoning problems to me although I haven’t researched it.

    1. Re: Charleston – ask Kevin Klinkenberg

      At one time Reno’s primary industry was tourism and casino gambling. Now, every one horse town in America has a casino. The market is saturated. Reno’s real engine of economic growth these days is “not being California” while having a municipal border pressed hard up against the Golden State. Retirees, logistics and distribution centers, construction, tax havens of every kind… Tesla built its Gigafactory there with relentless subsidies.

  14. The “Texas doughnut” at least has the virtue of putting the retail right out on the street and the cars in back. I wish they had made the minimalls in LA do that. Actually, before World War II, Wilshire Boulevard pioneered a model of having the department store right on the sidewalk and the auto entrance in back. Wish we’d stuck to that.

    1. Howard, A million years ago I lived in a 1920s building called the Los Altos on the corner of Wiltshire and Bronson – long before the neighborhood became K-town. The Wiltern Theater (corner of Wiltshire and Western) is an excellent example of a 1930s theater, office tower, and commercial strip center that had no parking at all back in the days when even fashionable angelinos walked and rode the streetcars. Today there’s a multi-level parking deck behind it that’s larger (and I’m sure cost more to build) than the theater complex itself. I’m not complaining. People need a place to park. But I can imagine a time a century from now when things are different. Not 1920s again. But not 1983 or 2018 either.

  15. One of your more gentle and elegiac posts. Your photos of one story buildings, blank walled buildings, vast parking lots and the new hipster housing types shows the ferment going on in Reno. It’s not all bad and it’s not all good and somehow we have to make do with the average and mediocre hand government and society dreamt up. There is a feeling of Alaska in this essay, and open spaces and running river with water does not conjure up Southern Nevada. And that’s a good thing.

      1. Living in the Vancouver BC area reading about a $40,000 house hit hard! I’m fortunate enough to have bought a house quite some time ago but it’s a nightmare here for those who weren’t as lucky. My childhood house was about $30,000 new in 1974, sold for $275K in 2004 and would now go for about one million! There’s a lot I liked about the Reno in your article. I especially liked the renovated buildings as I see depressingly little of that here. Mostly it’s just bulldoze and replace with something generically modern and expensive. Thanks for the link to the Texas Donut and the proposed alternative too – very interesting.

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