Alicia Barber recorded Reno’s history and now helps shape it.
Alicia Barber is the author of the essential history of Reno, Reno’s Big Gamble, published in 2008, which is available at Sundance Books. She has moved beyond simply recording the city’s history to take a direct interest in the city’s future, particularly the downtown. Barber is also director of the oral history program at the University of Nevada, Reno.
You were at the “farewell party” for the downtown Reno post office. What did you think of the plans for that building?
I think that adaptively re-using the post office building as a retail and commercial center can really give it new life and a new role in the community. I think more people will be able to appreciate it as a commercial and retail building than ever stepped inside it as a post office. Everyone who came to the event on Saturday was astounded at just how beautiful and spacious it is.
What do you think of the way downtown is now?
I think we’ve had trouble downtown ever since it got divided into tourist spaces and residential spaces. So a lot of plans right now are attempting to bring residential life back to the heart of downtown, and I think it’s very exciting.
Former mayor Jeff Griffin said that if the city could get people to move back to the downtown to live, it would do more than anything else to revitalize the downtown.
I think bringing more residential spaces to downtown is something that will, ideally, be part of a reconfigured downtown, but in truth, I think the first step and the more achievable step now is just to bring more people downtown for various reasons throughout the day and having more foot traffic in our downtown area for a number of purposes will make people feel safer and more comfortable in the downtown and will help restore a lot of that vitality that we’ve lost. I think there’s still a number of obstacles to bringing more residents downtown, and making it more appealing space can be a first step to making that happen.
Well, I think there are a lot of amenities that are still necessary to have downtown in order to make residents feel that it’s more attractive. There’s definitely a need for a grocery store, a food source. The whole point of having people downtown, I think, is to increase pedestrian life. And people would tend to live in the downtown area because they like to be able to walk to a number of attractions but also be able to walk to get the things for their daily life. So there’s a need for all those things to happen at the same time. It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario where it’s hard to attract the residents before you have those amenities.
What did you mean when you said we made a mistake by separating business and residents downtown?
Well, Reno underwent a huge transition in the 1970s when the large block-size casinos began to dominate the spaces of our central downtown core and at the same time resident-oriented businesses, retail shopping, department stores, cafes and restaurants started to move outward to outlying areas. And when you separate tourist spaces from residential spaces, it doesn’t contribute to the vitality of a healthy downtown. Another problem with that, the interstate went in in the mid-1970s and essentially divided downtown Reno from the university and that’s been a division that’s remained in place ever since. It’s not just physical, it’s symbolic, too.