Whenever I can I visit family in Sparks, Nevada, which is Reno’s kid sister city. Like other adjoining municipalities in the rapidly growing West (Salt Lake City-Ogden, Denver-Boulder, Seattle-Tacoma, Phoenix-Scottsdale), the buffer zones marking city boundaries have blurred in the last decade. Reno’s city center is prominent thanks to twenty story casinos (Harrahs, the Silver Legacy, the Eldorado et al.) and public buildings. I never did find “downtown” Sparks.
I first saw Reno-Sparks in 1975 during some college-age wandering. Reno was a compact city of 90,000 surrounded by Washoe Valley’s cattle and sheep ranches. There were a few small, seedy downtown casinos such as the Mapes Hotel, Harold’s Club and the Cal-Neva (the last alone survives, Nevadans having never been sentimental about historic building preservation). Union Pacific freights rumbled across Virginia St. (still do), periodically halting traffic on the brightly lit boulevard. That Reno had a neon-noir flavor of gamblers and hustling lowlifes looking for the main chance. Way out east in the valley, Sparks was the municipal equivalent of “Little House on the Prairie.”
Today, Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World,” is living up to its name and becoming a micro-megalopolis and lively modern outpost of the New West. The population (including adjoining Sparks) now stands at roughly 200,000 (Carson City — Nevada’s capital — is forty miles to the south, and adds another 50,000 people). This metropolitan area shares with other cities in the West the traffic problems that have reduced them to a state of coagulating gridlock, a pathetic parody of the much despised Los Angeles freeway system. Interstate 80 and U.S. 395 crisscross Reno, making for 70 MPH bumper to bumper traffic and its accompanying daily wrecks, fender benders and road rage.
The city has become an expanding trucking and rail hub with scores of warehouses lining the Interstate, a busy service economy of big box stores, and a nascent high tech one as Bay Area firms escape California’s high taxes, repressive regulations and energy uncertainty. Tourism and “gaming,” while still big players in the Reno economy, don’t dominate it now. And unfortunately, the agricultural sector hardly exists.
From the snow-mantled eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada to the bleak desert mountains bordering Sparks, the once wide open paradise of the Truckee Meadows has been carpeted by sprawl. The subdivisions creep up into the draws and valleys of the surrounding hills. Reno as seen from the air is a shining aquamarine mosaic of suburban backyard swimming pools. A bright green golf course in the hills east of Sparks looks like it was painted on the brown landscape. These are the paradoxes of life in the arid West, and they beg the question: Where will the increasingly thirsty West’s water come from in the future?
The Washoe Indians certainly lived within their water and food means in their eponymous valley for centuries before it was visited by a party of mountain men led by Joseph Walker in 1833. The trappers found the bottoms of the Truckee River a lush oasis in the desert. These “Truckee Meadows” would eventually attract ranchers and sheepmen. The pseudo-explorer John C. Fremont, guided by the legendary scout Kit Carson, led a party (towing a howitzer) through in 1844. Silver was discovered in the nearby mountains in 1859, and the resulting mines of the Comstock Lode founded wild and woolly Virginia City with its gunfights and vigilante justice, its brothels, and its saloons with names like “The Bucket of Blood”. Virginia City’s newspaper — the Territorial Enterprise — was the portal through which the young Mark Twain entered the world of letters. In an early piece he noted that the first 26 residents of the new Virginia City cemetery “had been murdered.” The coming of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868 marked the beginning of the end of the region’s wild frontier period.
In the 20th century the Great Depression wreaked havoc on Nevada’s agricultural and mining economy, and in 1931 the State Legislature legalized “gaming” as a public revenue source, thus making possible the neon casino Nevada that we know today: the Nevada of Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra. And Nevada is the nation’s only state with pockets of legalized county-regulated prostitution.
The world’s oldest profession is illegal within the city limits of Reno and Sparks (the same applies for metropolitan Las Vegas). The “sporting” life in Nevada is not widely advertised. In rural Nevada, the brothels tend to be out of town, and mostly known about via word of mouth. Mustang Ranch — now closed — is in the desert fifty miles east of Reno.
Mustang was once owned by the legendary Joe Conforte, a Nevada character if there ever was one. Nowadays, Mr. Conforte is said to be serving prison time for income tax evasion, and the gaudy interiors of the doublewide trailers of his famous bordello stand empty, having been repossessed by the U.S. government. Conforte also lost his sumptuous Reno home to the Feds, and the Reno chapter of the Hells Angels bought the large walled compound at auction. Its sinister logo adorns a high wall facing the street, right next to a newly constructed Evangelical church. I’m sure Mark Twain noted churches side by side with saloons and brothels in old Virginia City.
At least some things haven’t changed in New West Reno.
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