36 Hours in Reno

My Favorite Neon Sign in Reno

Weekend before last I packed up the Buick with mrsth and the kids and headed out to shoot the “Biggest Little City in the World,” Reno Nevada. I’ve been meaning to shoot Reno for a while now, but somehow just never quite made it out there. I’ve been to Vegas dozens of times, but Reno’s always remained that elusive stepsister of Nevada just out of my reach.

I’ve known that I’ve needed to shoot Reno for years of course. I’m collecting images of neon signs and the neon in Reno really is best in class. Maybe it was the worsening recession that finally convinced me. Every day more and more neon signs are coming down. But whatever the case, I made it to Reno just in the nick of time.

I spent most of my time in downtown Reno and the best way that I can describe it is that it felt a hell of lot like post Katrina New Orleans. When I visited New Orleans after Katrina I was struck by how devastated the place had become, how broken in many ways the city and the people who lived there were, but at the same time how underlying their desolation was a sort of friendliness and even joy that you found most places you went. Reno felt a lot like that to me.

Vegas has an ugly underside, but for the most part they keep it away from the strip. The homelessness, the drug addiction, the prostitutes. They are all there in Vegas if you want it, but you really have to look for it. You can’t say the same for Reno. The despair is thick — both in terms of the people and business. Dozens of motels, casinos and businesses are dark in Reno. I’ve heard that downtown Reno’s always had its trouble, but throw in the worst recession of our lifetime and it’s gone from bad to worse.

There’s an eerie feeling walking down the main strip in Reno. 40 feet or so from Reno’s most famous sign welcoming you to the “Littlest Big City in the World,” Fitzgeralds, a 15-story or so major casino/hotel, sits dark. A hand made sign on the door reads, “we’re now closed, good luck.” Next to the hand written sign is a photocopied piece of paper directing “persons holding the bona fide chips and tokens of Fitzeralds” to Alamo Travel Center in Sparks Nevada to redeem them.

The Biggest Little City in the WorldEverything I Thought I KnewDown and OuterDown Towner Motor Lodge, Plate 2

Next to Fitzgeralds the Phoenix hotel and casino is dark too. For the most part the streets are empty. Music plays but the feeling is quiet. Drunks and homeless hang out in front of the McDonald’s across from Circus Circus asking for money. In the light of the neon sign on the strip you read a hand made sign on a pawn shop offering top rates for wedding rings. Even the best hotels are cheap to stay at. We booked the El Dorado at $42 a night. That’s less than I paid to stay at the Motel 6 in Fresno last Fall.

As you wander out beyond the strip the blight continues. Fantastic vintage neon signs at motels like the the Town View Motor Lodge and the Down Towner hanging on the sides of the dead buildings. The motels boarded up, weeds growing in their plaza planters and no trespassing signs posted. The motels that are still open have signs offering $500 move in specials. They seem less like motels and more some sort of transitory housing for those without.

Dry cleaners, corner markets, overbuilt apartment complexes, office parks, restaurants, so many of them boarded up, shut down. Signs are everywhere. For sales signs, beware of dog signs,”don’t pick flowers,” a plastic sign affixed to a motel reads. A sign hangs in a camper on a truck with a flat tire, “$800 obo.”

“You know there was a fire at that motel,” says the stranger to me, pointing over to the Leo Court Motel. “A guy killed himself in there.”

“It’s interesting how the birds keep swaying back and forth up on the top of the sign,” I answer back continuing to fire off shots at the sign.

I spent a bit of time Saturday morning hanging out in front of the Greyhound bus station. I shot Claudia there. Claudia told me that she was from San Francisco. That she was at the Greyhound station to head home. She said that she still had one more night on her room but that she’d lost her $200. She explained to me though that when she said she “lost” her $200 that she hadn’t lost it gambling that she’d literally somehow lost it out of her pocket. As she smoked her cigarette she told me about her family back in San Francisco. Her grandkids. Her apartment. She was heading back, heading home.

I was surprised at how willing so many people in Reno are to have a conversation with you. Strangers on the street stopped me several times. Asking me what I was doing, why I was taking pictures. Many of them gave me the same advice over and over again. Be careful, they said. You have to be careful walking around with a camera like that they reminded me repeatedly. Don’t go in this area or that area they’d say. Gary told me that the drug addicts were the worst ones on the street. I asked Gary if I could take his portrait and he said ok. He asked me if he was going to be famous. I told him maybe someday, if I ever became famous, you never know.

As beaten down as so much of Reno seems, there is a genuineness to the people there. As I sat for a while listening to Roger’s story about mining and fishing in the hills outside Truckee he was rolling a cigarette with his loose leaf tobacco. Before he could finish, another guy who looked worse for the wear than Roger stops and hands him three cigarettes from his generic pack. “Here you go brother,” he says to Roger.

Roger looks up and says “thank you kindly,” as the generous stranger keeps walking on his way. An odd sort of random act of kindness between two down and out smokers.

And then there was Georgia, even more beautiful on the inside than she was on the outside, which is definitely saying something. I ran into Georgia while shooting the Society Cleaners neon sign now hanging in the St. James Infirmary bar. I’d been by Society Cleaners earlier that day and had been told that the old neon sign that used to hang outside had been taken down. That it now lived in the bar over on California Avenue. I went into St. James Infirmary to shoot the sign. Nobody was in the bar except Georgia when I stepped in and asked if I could shoot it. “Why not,” she answered back to me.

We talked for a few minutes about my photography while I shot the sign. And then about her writing and music (she’s in the band Pushbox). She bought me a beer and then spent the next three hours talking to me about anything and everything, posing in between the conversations and pouring beers. It’s not everyday that you luck into a bar with perfect natural light and a beautiful bartender who loves to pose. These are my most prized photos from the trip. Georgia shared with me about the self help book she’s writing. About how she’d learned to eliminate judgment from her life. I showed her various sets of my photography. It was pretty damn good.

Before long a parade of Irish themed patrons filled the afternoon bar. Guys in kilts, woman with shamrock headbands — apparently the crowd was part of some sort of pub crawl. You pay $1 to about 20 different bars per beer and drink all afternoon. I shot one couple. Then another couple. Then a guy, then two women. Everyone seemed amenable and friendly. What started out as a two minute stop in to shoot a Society Cleaner’s neon sign, turned into a three hour bar shoot. Fond memories of St. James Infirmary for sure. One of the best damn bars I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink and shoot in.

After four beers or so I left St. James Infirmary to meet back up with mrsth and the kids for dinner and then on to even more shooting with them in tow at the Peppermill Casino and Resort (which is the grandest neon palace in all of Reno). I figured that I’d best get a big boost of caffeine to keep me going into the rest of the night and stopped by Starbucks.

I’m not sure if it was the four beers I’d had or just a high from my Saturday of shooting, but I asked the Starbucks cashier if I could take her portrait. “No,” she answered quickly and then gave me one of those you are wayyyy too creepy for me looks. I laughed to myself and grabbed my double shot of something or other and quickly crossed the street. Aces tattoo was there and they had both a neon sparrow and a neon nude and the sky had turned the perfect color of blue.

As it turned out the Peppermill was the mecca of all meccas for the neon photographer. More square miles of neon in one place than any place I’ve ever seen. I’ve never done acid, but someday if I do I’ll be heading back to the Peppermill for the experience. I don’t think I’ve ever filled up an 8 gig card in less than 15 minutes before. That’s the Peppermill for you.

I’ve uploaded 25 or so of about 450 of my Reno shots that I’ve processed so far. You can see those here. I’ve only processed about half my shots, so there will be many, many more shots of Reno coming in the weeks and months ahead. In total I shot about 4,000 frames in 36 hours. I think I’ll end up with close to 1,000 finished photographs from the trip when all is said and done.

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10 Comments

  1. Great post, Thomas! You found some great stuff there…thanks for sharing the story! I’m going to have to get up there sooner rather than later.

  2. Dan N. says:

    Nice post! I wish I knew you were coming to Reno, I would have loved to tag along on your photowalk. I know Georgia BTW (did some stills for a music video and went to some parties with her) she is amazing and so is her band!

    I feel the exact same way as you do about down town. It was great to shoot for a while, but after a few years, I try to avoid that depressing scene as best possible. Reno (and Nevada in general) is really hurting now with a huge amount of unemployed and the horrible state of the gambling industry, a major source of state revenue. Downtown paints an accurate picture.

    Let me know if you are ever in town again,

    Dan

  3. Thomas Hawk says:

    Dan, I’ll definitely be back to shoot more. This trip was short, 36 hours. We’ll do a photowalk next time. Georgia is delightful for sure. Hopefully the economy recovers at some point and with it more of Reno as well.

  4. Thomas, great write up! Thanks for sharing your experience and photos from Reno. Sounds like you had an awesome time. Looking forward to seeing the rest of your set once they are posted.

  5. Debbie says:

    Thanks for visitng my fair city and taking some wonderful photographs. Let me know about your next trip and I can suggest some other, lessor known locations to photograph.

  6. Brad says:

    Awesome story and photos. Was great reading…

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