The 'Biggest Little City' has winning ways and a Wild West attitude

March 13, 1994|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to The Sun

If Las Vegas is the place to check reality at the door, then Reno, Nev. -- earthy, unpretentious and friendly -- is the place to find it.

Where else would you find a marquee announcing "Restroom Renovation Underway" at the performing arts center in the heart of downtown? Or spot a new Ford Bronco with "UZI" vanity plates and a bumper sticker proclaiming "I * Explosives!" One windy winter morning, while waiting for a taxi at dawn, I stood outside a neon-clad casino, lit up like Christmas, and watched tumbleweed bounce across the railroad tracks that cut through town. Even that early, from a sidewalk bathed in strips of neon color, I caught the musical refrain of coins being tossed rapid-fire into slot machines: kerplunk! clunk! plink! Call me crazy, but there's poetry in a moment like that.

There is still very much of a Wild West flavor to Reno. You can buy an AK-47 clone here for under $300 and, after shooting one, I fully understand why the semi-automatic "sporting rifle" is the gun of choice. I felt about eight feet tall while I plastered holes all over an abandoned car on a gravel road a half-day's drive outside of Reno. Bullet holes are part of the scenery in these parts. Take a drive past the city limits, and I defy you to find a Nevada historical marker that hasn't been shot up. I find that charming in a Bad Girl sort of way.

Yes, Reno, with its cowboys and coffee houses, has its own je ne sais quoi. To the surprise of Renoites themselves, the National Endowment for the Arts last fall named the "Biggest Little City" a literary capital of America. Folks read more novels, plays, poetry and short stories in Reno than in any other city surveyed, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose, Seattle and Las Vegas. Almost weekly, book signings, readings and lectures draw standing-room-only crowds, and the region has become a popular retreat for writers and artists.

There are lots of ways to measure a town -- culture and cuisine, for example -- but perhaps the truest measurement is how residents feel when they put their town in the rear-view. "I get homesick," I heard, again and again, from folks who live in this high-desert playground that Rand McNally rightly has dubbed a premier spot for "outdoor fun" in the nation.

So, while glitzy Las Vegas operates at an amphetamine speed, Reno is building the National Bowling Stadium. "Here's the difference between Vegas and Reno," explains Larry Henry, associate publisher for Nevada Weekly. "People up here wear penny loafers, khakis and red-striped ties. In Vegas, you see glittery sweat suits, and they seem to have an attitude there about hairdos -- the taller the hair, the closer to God. There's artistic strength here, wonderful opportunities for outdoor recreation, and something of a European look and feel to the area. And, it's diverse. I ate at a soul-food place today. But Reno has 60 or 70 years of negative publicity it has to live down. Outsiders tend to hang onto their stereotypes."

Not long ago, I threw back a couple of Picon punches at Louis' Basque Corner with the regulars huddled at the bar, and learned a new word: "Ossagaria," or, "To your health." "On Fridays," one of the guys told me, "it's so crowded you can't get in here with a whip. Later, he quipped, "Vegas? What's a Vegas?"

This isn't a place that yields its charms easily; you have to look for them.

Viva Reno!

Built in 1868 at the crossroads of the statuesque Sierra Nevada and the high desert of the scrappy Peavine mountains, Reno grew up as a city of second chances, a destination for dreamers. Miners, divorcees, gamblers, immigrants -- all found their way to Reno.

In "Not in Our Stars," a novel written in 1957, author Jill Stern's heroine, Sara Winston, muses: "But what was happiness and where could you find it? Was this, in fact, America? Did all roads lead to Reno? . . . In America, everybody had a chance -- and if they muffed it there was always the second chance. Reno would give a second chance."

In the book, Sara engages in her musings at Harold's Club, one of the first casinos built on Virginia Street, Reno's "Strip." One of the most recognized city symbols in America, the art-deco designed Reno Arch spans the downtown casino row and welcomes visitors to "The Biggest Little City in the World." Reno and neighboring Sparks house 40 casinos, and it is "the clubs" -- as the locals call them -- that continue to draw most folks to the city.

Nearly 5 million people visited Reno last year. A typical visitor is a 52-year-old empty-nester with an annual income of $42,000. Visitors generally spend an average of $400 on gaming while they're here, according to the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority.

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