For many, Reno is one of those hellish American cities that’s best avoided, a locale who’s glory days are long gone and one that serves as an ideal target for condescending mockery. It might find good company among other burnt-out metropolises like Detroit and Baltimore. There’s no denying this.
For the most part, Reno is a woebegone place that’s the modern equivalent of a rusted-out miner’s colony. Its casinos, which even in the city’s heyday couldn’t hold a candle to the gaudy palaces down south in Las Vegas, now stand mostly vacant. Even at the height of the summer tourism season it’s possible to score a room for under $40 at Harrah’s or Circus Circus.
Last year, I found myself stuck in Reno for 24 hours as I waited out a fierce, day-long windstorm while volunteering at the Burning Man Festival. I stayed at Terrible’s Hotel and Casino (since rebranded), a joint that more than lives up to its namesake. The streets of downtown Reno were lined with quiet, ticky-tacky souvenir stands and bored ne’er do wells. While driving down 4th St, I had to slam on my brakes when a bloke who looked just like Mickey Rourke (and may have actually been him, all things considered), ran into the path of my car to catch up with the World’s Most Cliched Prostitute. I patiently waited as they haggled and made plans for later on that afternoon. It was the least I could for the guy that gave the world The Wrestler and the best moments of Iron Man 2.
I doubt much has changed since then but during my time in Reno I managed to find pockets of hope in a city that was otherwise chock full of despair. Frustrated with Terrible’s spotty wifi in my $32 a night room, I decided to break out a can of courage and do some exploring. My first stop was The El Salvador Restaurant, which serves Chinese food. Ok, not really. In there, the salsa is hot but the Mexican soap operas on the TV near the register are even hotter. I had a delicious pupusa and washed it down with a few Limon Jarritos.
After that, I wandered over to Strega, a watering hole housed inside a 1911 bungalow. According to the bartender on duty that night, the place is owned by a refugee of Portland, OR, who fled to northern Nevada after becoming disillusioned with the City of Rose’s hipster throngs. An old bar sits in the bungalow’s living room and a pool table can be found in an adjacent dining area lined with the work of local photographers. The low-key vibe on the porch out front was shattered when an angry girl in a tank top grabbed a pint and started ranting to a colleague about an ex-boyfriend. Typically, this would have been annoying but her obscenity-clogged rant was worthy of a stand-up routine, or at least a podcast.
While flipping through a copy of the Reno Gazette Journal, I noticed a listing for a nearby drive-in movie theater. These relics of a bygone-era are increasingly hard to come by and I immediately cancelled my plans for the rest of the evening (heading back to my room to watch Men in Black II on TBS). Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was playing on a double bill with The Expendables at the West Wind El Rancho Drive-In. I caught the last few minutes of the first film and only one of Mickey Rourke’s scenes (after possibly/maybe but probably not running him over with my car earlier in the day). Most of the crowd cleared out as The Expendables’ credits rolled. I headed to the cool, vintage snack bar, grabbed some M&Ms and was back by the time Edgar Wright’s mini-masterpiece began.
In no rush to return to Black Rock City, I headed over to The Hub Coffee Company the following morning. This oasis, housed inside a former auto-body shop, is the dream of father and son team Mark and Joey Trujillo. While sipping a cup of joe, I chatted with a web designer who had relocated to the city after getting priced out of the Silicon Valley. His views on Reno’s future were cautiously optimistic. He told me that area civic leaders had desperately spent the prior few years trying to attract new blood to town by turning casinos into condos and adding a glitzy but banal entertainment district. “Overpriced martini bars and franchise restaurants are not what’s going to pull in the ‘young creatives,” he admitted. “It’s places like this. Those condos are going to sit empty for a long, long time.”
With telecommuting supposedly on the rise in the US, there’s a good chance that more people might flock to cities like Reno in search of warmer climes and cheap housing. “The Biggest Little City on Earth” is definitely one of the more unique locales in the US that’s ripe for further rejuvenation as it continues to leave the past behind. Buying a loft in an old warehouse is so passe. Why not pick a chunk of a former casino instead?