Las Vegas

The Little-Known Black History of West Las Vegas and the “Black Strip”

New investment brings exciting changes to the historic neighborhood.

Photos courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries; Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Photos courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries; Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Photos courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, University of Nevada Las Vegas Libraries; Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

Though Las Vegas has long been known as a hub for world-class entertainment, decadent dining, and glamorous gambling, these pleasures haven’t always been afforded to all, and for many years the Black community was excluded from participating in these past times. Determined to circumvent these race-based limitations, they transformed Jackson Avenue on the Westside of Las Vegas into what became known as the “Black Strip.”

From the 1940s to the 1960s, the core of Las Vegas’ Black community lived and worked in West Las Vegas, or the Westside, a 3.5-square mile neighborhood located northwest of the Las Vegas Strip and the “Spaghetti Bowl” interchange of I-15 and US-95, separated by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the west and Lake Mead Boulevard to the north. This was the result of a 1943 move by former Mayor Ernie Cragin, who codified de facto segregation into law by refusing to renew business licenses to Black-owned establishments unless they relocated west of the railroad tracks to the other side of Downtown. 

While Cragin’s intention was to regulate Black residents out of sight, instead, locals leveraged it to build a prosperous and close-knit community. They opened up stores, shops, and restaurants along Jackson Avenue, attracting other Black professionals who bought and built their homes in the area.

Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist

The Glory Days of the Glamorous “Black Strip”

Jackson Avenue soon flourished and represented the center of commerce and entertainment for Black Las Vegans. Teens relaxed in Johnson’s Malt Shop and Sammy Lee’s Pool Hall. Residents would crowd the Cotton Bowl club at the corner of Jackson Ave and E Street to watch performers like comedian Rudy Ray Moore. Entertainers and celebrities like Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Chubby Checker, and Sammy Liston would perform in casinos but head to the Black Strip to stay at the Jackson Hotel or the Moulin Rouge. 

Though the Moulin Rouge was only open for six months, it is forever cemented in Westside lore as the city’s first fully integrated casino where Ella Fitzgerald performed and where Tallulah Bankhead, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin could relax alongside Sammy Davis Jr. after playing to “whites-only” crowds on the Strip. It’s also the setting for Martin Scorsese’s mobster movie, Casino.

Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist

Keeping the Legacy Alive

But this star-studded version of the Westside is a far cry from what exists today. Integration in the 1960s gave African Americans a choice as to where they lived and shopped, with many residents opting to move to parts of the valley studded with brand-new housing developments and schools. A boom-and-bust economy led to disinvestment from the neighborhood, resulting in infrastructure decline. Owens Avenue replaced Jackson Avenue as the economic heart of the Westside, where national retailers and county offices occupy sites of former businesses and homes.

Although the casino and clubs are gone, long-time community activists and city leaders are ensuring that the Westside remains a relevant part of the city, with new development that recognizes and celebrates the community for its uniqueness. The long-term plan is to revitalize the neighborhood without losing the essence of the community. Steps are being taken to use a positive development model that builds on the cultural capital of the community, especially as a way to bring Black tourists who are interested in seeing themselves in the wider context of Las Vegas. 

Currently, construction is planned on a series of monuments and signs meant to identify important markers in the community, just a short drive from Las Vegas Boulevard, Springs Preserve, and the Smith Center, a hotspot for jazz performances and travelling Broadway musicals. 

Recently, a “Welcome to the Historic Westside” sign was unveiled, lighting up at night to welcome travelers off  the U.S. Highway 95 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard exit. Other markers are planned, including one at Berkley Square – a National Historic site and the first Nevada subdivision designed by Paul Revere Williams, a renowned Black architect. Williams had created over 2,500 buildings when he passed away in 1980, most of them in Los Angeles.

And to recognize the ongoing struggle for racial equality and justice, a series of Black Lives Matter murals were painted on the walls of the Moulin Rouge on Bonanza Road. Community activist and artist Brent Holmes coordinated the project with area muralists and painters during the summer of 2020 as a way to highlight the movement and the historic space. Across the street sits the Tenaya Creek Brewery, known for locally crafted brews of pale ales and stouts. 

“At any time of the night, you will see cars and young people who frequent that establishment after they get off from work. That’s such a pleasant thing to see,” says longtime resident Jackie Brantley, whose family arrived in 1939 and who made Las Vegas history as the first Black woman to manage the public relations department of a Strip casino. 

Historian Claytee White has also witnessed a positive shift in the neighborhood. As the Director for the Oral History Research Center for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Libraries, she documents the lives of African Americans throughout the city.

“Once you start going over to the Westside and going to a restaurant or event, you begin to see that this community has possibilities,” White says. 

Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist

Must-Visit Places in West Las Vegas

White is quick to point out that there is lots to do on the Westside if you know where to go. The West Las Vegas Arts Center has a rich history of art exhibitions, dance, and spoken word performances. The Center is housed in the same complex as the West Las Vegas Library that often sees a revolving door of Black artists and writers introducing their work. Those looking for down-home Southern cooking enjoy Annie’s Kitchen, owned by pitmaster Bill Thompson, on D street for plump BBQ ribs that fall off the bone-head there early before dessert sells out. Or, visit Soul Foo Young, a Chinese-soul food fusion eatery on Owens Avenue that’s home to the famous Bruce Leroy, a combo platter of three whole-fried chicken wings with veggie fried rice that pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the movie, The Last Dragon

Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist
Photo by Soni Brown for Thrillist

The Future

But even as residents welcome the drive for reinvestment in the area, some are worried that redevelopment might lead to cultural displacement. 

Brantley’s cousin, Chase McCurdy, a multimedia artist, says Westside residents want the same development opportunities that venture capitalist and entrepreneur Tony Hsieh was able to bring to Downtown Las Vegas – just not at the expense of the longtime residents who are the heartbeat of the close-knit community. 

That’s why McCurdy came back to the city after sojourns to Arizona for school, and then Los Angeles and Paris where he worked as a music and fashion photographer. One look at the Mojave Desert hues that dominate much of his work-iron-rusted red, cobalt blue, and sun-baked yellow-lets you know that the desert and Las Vegas are constant muses. This invocation of the city throughout his work, and his roots as one of the first Black families that came to Las Vegas, are likely why he was chosen to create a visual history of the Westside in the forthcoming Legacy Park that’s set to open in December 2021. 

When it opens to the public, the $3.2 million, two-acre park on Mount Mariah Drive near Martin L. King Boulevard will feature exhibits and sculptures to highlight the neighborhood’s history, and the African-American leaders who shaped it. Legacy Park will herald the other developments slated to begin nearby, including the building of another campus of the College of Southern Nevada and an apartment building. 

McCurdy sees the Westside being reinvented as a cultural destination to moor Las Vegas. Brantley sees it as a place that will epitomize all that the Black community is capable of creating when given the resources to do so. Above all, they want the world to know that the community is living and breathing and planning for tomorrow. 

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Soni Brown (@neonscrawl) is a freelance writer and editor. Her educational background in art, gastronomy, and journalism has given her a broad base from which to approach many topics.

Las Vegas

A Fresh Take on Italian Dining Opens in Southwest Las Vegas

A first look at Basilico Ristorante Italiano.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

You can’t be all things to all people. Yet a new Italian restaurant strikes an intriguing balance between authenticity and inventive touches while helping to shape the identity of a new community in the booming Southwest Valley of Las Vegas.

Basilico Ristorante Italiano is now open at Evora, a master-planned apartment development still under construction that won’t be finished for at least five years. The 160-seat restaurant follows the vision of chef Francesco Di Caudo, a Sicily native who draws on his heritage and experience throughout Italy to build a compelling menu based on traditional techniques and modern ingenuity.

“I come from a country where farm-to-table is nothing new,” says Di Caudio, while emphasizing the importance of ingredient sourcing and simple, straightforward flavor combinations.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

Just look at the appetizers. Americans are used to eggplant parmesan that’s breaded and fried without restraint. Di Caudo sticks to a traditional Sicilian recipe with the vegetable sliced thin, sizzled in a pan, and layered with tomato and basil. No mozzarella. On the other hand, the Smoked Cigar is destined to be a signature showstopper. Duck, foie gras, and porcini mushrooms are packed inside a thin, cracker-like shell, presented in a box, and dipped into a glass ashtray. The “ash” in the centre is a black sesame and truffle mix. Don’t be shy about double dipping.

The risotto is bound to be another conversation piece. The recipe uses Carnaroli rice, a starchy grain from North Italy that produces a creamy texture, balancing the saltiness of a parmesan broth with a sweet splash of chestnut honey. The real surprise is the inclusion of Lavazza espresso, manipulated to crackle in your mouth like Pop Rocks candy.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

All pastas are made in-house, from a parsnip cavatelli to a lamb and thyme tortellini in a broth filtered from braised prosciutto. Some dishes have a subtle Asian influence, including a hamachi crudo with pomelo (similar to yuzu), Hokkaido scallops with oxtail, and a planned octopus braised in dashi. The flavours come to life inside a sharp, contemporary dining room with deep red chairs and stone, wood, and marble touches. The wine collection is dominated by Italian labels, with a few California and Oregon picks thrown in to round out the list. Bottles are on display near the front entrance and inside illuminated square shelves. “It looks like a fancy restaurant, but when you sit down, I want you to have fun,” adds Di Caudio.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

The bar is the heart of the restaurant, ready to serve up to 16 people inside and dozens more via accordion-style windows that open wide to a covered patio. The outdoor space, temperature-controlled with overhead fans and heaters, effectively extends Evora’s open-air plaza with dramatic water and fire features. It’s a natural spot for tastings and special events with a covered stage for live music. Evora is rolling out in four phases, with the first 342 apartments ready by fall. There could be as many as 1,400 when it’s all said and done. Rent begins at around $1,800 for studios and one-bedroom units and goes up to $4,000 for two-story top-floor residences with a loft and Strip views. The community will include swimming pools, pickleball courts, a putting green, a dog park, firepits, EV charging stations, and pavilions equipped with audio and video features.

“Basilico matches the demographic for our apartments,” says Danny Sorge of Digital Desert Development, the company behind the community. “The term ‘youthful sophistication’ has been thrown around about the restaurant and Evora as a whole. It brings something new to the area.”

Rendering courtesy of Evora
Rendering courtesy of Evora
Rendering courtesy of Evora

The development follows a deliberate strategy to have the commercial tenants in place before the first residents move in, occupying a stand-alone building that strikes a commanding presence on the corner of Patrick Lane and Buffalo Drive. Lemon Tree Cafe & Market is already open as a European-style grocery store with plenty of room to sit down with a sandwich and glass of wine. Keep your eyes peeled for Taps & Barrels (a self-service beer hall), Tachi Ramen, and EVOQ hair salon in the months ahead, with more businesses to come. The timing couldn’t be better. The Southwest Valley is on fire right now, with the Durango hotel and casino and UnCommons mixed-use development taking shape as new attractions in 2023. The Bend, a long-promised shopping and dining district, has been in a holding pattern for years but holds promise in an area where everything is getting bigger and better.

Meanwhile, the team behind Evora is staking a claim with Di Caudio running the kitchen at Basilico. The chef’s recent collaboration with Chef Oscar Amador helped Anima by EDO score a recent James Beard Award nomination and reputation as one of the best new restaurants in Las Vegas. Di Caudio first came to Las Vegas to work at Zeffirino at the Grand Canal Shoppes-a gig he expected to last about six months before returning home. Instead, he stuck around and continued to build his reputation at culinary destinations like Sinatra at the Wynn and Ferraro’s off the Strip.

Ultimately, Basilico will be a restaurant to keep an eye on as it develops under Di Caudio’s guidance. The menu will shift and evolve based on the chef’s preferences and the availability of seasonal ingredients. Di Caudio is also planning a smaller menu and social hour for the bar area and a reasonably priced tasting menu with around 10 dishes served family style.

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Rob Kachelriess¬†has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than nine years. In addition, his work has appeared in¬†Travel + Leisure, Leafly, Supercall, Modern Luxury, and¬†Luxury Estates International’s seasonal publication. Follow him on Twitter¬†@rkachelriess.

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