Revival mixes art, fun, and some risk

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Friess
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2004

RENO -- As we stumbled out of the sparkling new Nevada Museum of Art, sated by our fill of 20th-century abstract painters, we followed Virginia Street about a quarter-mile to the edge of the Truckee River. Within sight of the snowcapped Sierra Mountains and under a rouge-swirled late-afternoon sky, we stood for a time watching hardy body-suited kayakers negotiate the challenging and frigid February waters. Then we made our way in and out of rows of little antique and novelty shops, dropped in at the riverside Java Jungle for a warm-me-up latte, and homed in on a quaint French bistro for dinner before an evening of experimental theater.

This quaint, artsy ramble is Reno? Believe it or not, yes. The new one.

What happened to all the casinos? They're here. But Reno, having long ago ceded its status as a gambling capital to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and now a nation bursting with tribal casinos, is actively repositioning itself as Nevada's more cultured and outdoorsy destination for vacations -- or relocations. Remember, Nevada is the fastest-growing state in the country.

Once Reno was more like the Nevada version of a burned-out, has-been industrial city, with half-empty casinos standing in for deserted plants and mills as the symbols of a tragic, inevitable decline. It had morphed from whatever heyday it had into a tacky, schlocky, cigarette-strewn mess of old-style gambling joints with soiled carpets. The famous arch over the Reno strip along Virginia Street that announced this in red and white neon as ''The Biggest Little City in the World" became a study in self-mockery.

Buzz has been growing in the last few years, however, that Reno is in revival mode, trying to reinvent itself with a $16 million art museum, a $70 million high-end riverside resort, and, most recently, a $1.5 million, half-mile whitewater course for kayakers and rafters built along the Truckee just steps from the casino core.

To be sure, the results are mixed, but there's been enough of a revolution to provide a day or two's distraction for the millions who swoop into Reno en route to somewhere else.

The centerpiece of the new Reno as a legitimate arts center is the gorgeous new four-story, nine-gallery home for the Nevada Museum of Art, a 55,000-square-foot marvel with a striking exterior of creased black zinc and glass intended to evoke the Black Rock Desert north of Reno. The building itself has been called a work of art, and the alternative weekly Reno News & Review raved that it is ''without a doubt, the single most culturally important building ever constructed in northern Nevada." Inside, the art is impressive, too, with a recent show featuring 50 contemporary works from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. The spring show, which opens next Sunday, will highlight French Impressionists.

After visiting the museum, wander a few blocks north into the compact Truckee River Arts and Culture District, a cluster of edgy businesses along and near the riverbank. Also in the vicinity is the offbeat Brka Theatre, where original shows written by local playwrights are staged on Friday and Saturday nights in front of an audience of maybe 40 people who sit on a haphazard collection of old sofas. This being experimental theater, not all of it is good, but the attempts are noble and the space emblematic of the adventurous, colorful vibe starting to course through this section of town.

As luck would have it, we were in town for the monthly Wine Walk on the Riverwalk, a monthly Saturday event where browsers pay $5 for a wine glass and a downtown map showing 18 participating vendors offering free drinks and snacks. Walkers spend two hours shop-hopping to collect stamps for the map from at least 10 of the establishments and then turn in their maps at Dreamers Coffee House, where the organizers draw winners of gift certificates and other prizes.

That the walk terminates at Dreamers makes especially good sense because this south-bank cafe and sandwich shop acts as a sort of living room and lounge on the ground floor of the Riverside Artists Lofts. The Lofts is a commune where painters, sculptors, and writers live in apartments subsidized by state and federal arts grants. With that population circulating, the creative vibe of Dreamers is evident in the array of wood tables and plush couches, the borrowers' bookshelves, and the baby grand piano that sits at its center for anyone to play.

Businesses in the district also sponsor Artown, a popular monthlong festival in July featuring more than 200 visual and performing events in more than 50 locations across the city.

The Truckee River is itself a focal point of Reno's renaissance: A bold $1.5 million effort is underway to make it a boating and sports attraction. The city narrowed a half-mile stretch of the Truckee downtown near Wingfield Park, a large island in the middle of the river. Completed in November, the park has mild rapids that flow over a series of five-foot drops, enticing experienced kayakers and tourists who, for about $50 a day, can rent inflatable rafts and roll along in the shadow of the perpetually snow-capped Sierras.

Come May 14, when the city kicks off a grand opening for the Truckee River Whitewater Park at Wingfield with its three-day Reno River Festival, this stretch of waterway will be abuzz with activity. The free festival will include kayak racing, live music, and special art exhibits along the riverfront.

Anyone with their own gear can jump into the river free any time of year; a handful of outfitters also rent kayaks and rafts.

One rap on Reno is that its casino-hotel stock is decidedly lowbrow. None in the downtown core has any discernible theme as Vegas properties do, and many hotel rooms look out onto ugly alleys or the backs of parking structures.

That's why the 2001 addition of the elegant $70 million Siena Hotel Spa Casino on the Truckee's south bank is so refreshing. Like almost no other Reno hotel, it is easy to check in and get to your room without passing a craps table. The Siena is a boutique hotel, with 214 rooms versus the 1,000-room behemoths on Virginia Street. Half the rooms and the exercise center overlook the river.

Reno's revitalization hasn't been without its bizarre mistakes. The city spent $43 million to build the National Bowling Stadium smack in the middle of some casinos. It was a fine addition -- the four-story building, which opened in 1995, is shaped like a bowling ball and has been dubbed the ''Taj Mahal of Tenpins" -- except for one thing: Almost nobody can bowl there. Instead, it's reserved at all times for championship tournaments that seem to occur about every other year. Visitors are welcome to watch, but since when has bowling been a spectator sport of choice for vacationers?

A better choice for those in search of serious schlock is the National Automobile Museum, a collection of 220 antique cars once owned by William F. Harrah, the late casino pioneer. Among the more intriguing exhibits is the 1949 Mercury driven by James Dean in ''Rebel Without a Cause."

Reno's leaders know there's more to do before the city returns to being a serious tourist draw. There is, for instance, nothing resembling high-end shopping. The situation is so dire that the in-room literature at the Atlantis Casino Resort cheerily promotes a ''nearby shopping mall" that actually is a small strip mall anchored by a grocery store.

The city also lacks any impressive concert venues, despite the A-list talent that tends to drop in. Bette Midler appeared recently in the ill-equipped Lawlor Events Center, better known as where the University of Nevada-Reno basketball team plays. Midler sounded as if she were singing into a tin can. In December, the City Council approved $29 million for an events center near the National Bowling Stadium to remedy this problem.

In the end, the best that Reno may be able to hope for is to be seen as a worthwhile stop for the millions who fly in en route to Lake Tahoe, which holds its own unique place among American recreational areas. That wouldn't be so bad, really, except for this irony: In its heyday, Reno's gateway was Tahoe.

Steve Friess is a freelance writer in Las Vegas.

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