Fremont Street, Las Vegas

The problem was, nobody wants to live in downtown Vegas. Hsieh’s own employees, accustomed to raising families in Henderson, didn”€™t even like driving there every day. Much of the Downtown Project capital was spent simply promoting the idea”€”a million-dollar digital media firm to document everything, an elaborate “€œCatalyst Week”€ to bring decision makers to Vegas, rent for 150 “€œcrash pads”€ so that people from New York and San Francisco could sample living in Vegas. Tech Cocktail was a $2.5 million investment in showcasing start-ups in order to attract other investors. At one point Hsieh calculated that there are “€œ100,000 collisional hours per acre per year”€”€”meaning, if you buy enough real estate and get enough “€œculture fit”€ people to move onto that land, they”€™d be bumping into each other like pinballs and coming up with truly inspirational business ideas.

But it was all for naught. The book is a blizzard of names, companies, projects, trendy self-help titles, and buzzwords as thousands of people, attracted by Hsieh’s money or vision, show up for funding and party hearty, but pass on relocating. Hsieh’s tech fund became something of a last resort for projects that couldn”€™t get money from New York, Boston, San Francisco, Boulder, or Austin.

And then the ones who did relocate…started killing themselves. Jody Sherman, the founder of a start-up called Ecomom, blew his head off with a shotgun one day before the company was to be liquidated. A year later, Ovik Banerjee, a 24-year-old Venture for America fellow, leaped to his death from the balcony of his 7th Street apartment. A few weeks after that, Matt Berman, founder of the Bolt Barber start-up, hanged himself at home a day after sending out a happy “€œlet’s all get together and hang out”€ email. After the suicides, Hsieh removed the word “€œcommunity”€ from the Downtown Project mission statement, telling the media, “€œWe”€™re not a charity.”€

No. No, he wasn”€™t.

This is where Groth should have been exploding the underlying assumptions of the whole grandiose geniocracy that was being artificially imposed on one of the most historic neighborhoods of Vegas, but she continues to plod through the narrative with an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand blitheness. (Her brief mentions of Vegas history are inaccurate and out of context. She refers to the El Cortez, the oldest continuously operating casino in the nation, as being somehow out of place, as though all the years between 1941 and 2012 didn”€™t count. When Hsieh buys the Gold Spike for $27 million, she nowhere mentions Jackie Gaughan, the original owner and one of three or four men who built Fremont Street. She seems unaware that Gaughan was watching the whole Downtown Project saga from his penthouse at the El Cortez, no doubt calculating the odds and writing off Hsieh’s minions as clueless interlopers, and equally unaware that Gaughan died there in 2014.)

In other words, what was being created was less about “€œfixing”€ Las Vegas and more about building an antiseptic sealed-off party house, like one of those artificial habitats for the Elon Musk mission to Mars. When faced with long-term problems like homelessness and drug addiction, Hsieh did things the old-fashioned Vegas way”€”evictions and roundups. When he noticed that a lot of people were starting to live in his Airstream Park who were decidedly not culture fits, he told his managers to tell them to leave because their space was needed for new construction. It was a lie to get rid of them. His innovative 9th Bridge School, the education component for the Downtown Project, was so expensive that no one who actually worked for Zappos could afford to send his kid there. The people who lived and worked in the Downtown Project regarded the Fremont Street Experience”€”the tourist casino part of downtown”€”as an irksome nuisance that attracted winos. Of course, Hunter S. Thompson had already covered this in Fear and Loathing: “€œIn Las Vegas they kill the weak and deranged.”€

As it turns out, Hsieh proved pretty adept at running his own casino. When almost every one of his start-ups failed, he brought in Michael Downs, former director of operations at the Bellagio, to fire staff, shut down companies, and generally treat all those passionate “€œreturn on community”€ people like high rollers who got a little overextended at the baccarat table. How fast can you leave town and, by the way, we always give you ten bucks for the bus. Most of the Downtown Project people had been living in a luxury high-rise called the Ogden, but the proprietors used Hsieh’s infusion of capital to mark up prices, convert every unit from a rental to a condo, and basically kick the hipsters out. That’s how Tony ended up living in Airstream Park with his pet llama Marley and girlfriends who dress like Trinity from The Matrix. After all, there’s always another rave or, failing that, a TED talk.

As to the people who upended their lives in places as far away as Australia and were now left with no job and no “€œcommunity,”€ literally ejected from the party, we have to go no further than the gonzo Bible of Hunter S. for a description of what happened. “€œWhat [Timothy] Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody”€”or at least some force“€”is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.”€

There was no Light”€”not in the “€™60s and not a half century later in the teens. There was no 100X payout at this particular craps table. The only thing Hsieh made money on was flipping the real estate. (The jury is still out on Container Park, which uses 250-square-foot shipping containers to house small retailers in a makeshift tavern/playground/flea market.) Like hundreds of Vegas operators before him, he learned that, at the end of the day, you”€™re always paying rent to a Mormon. That’s the way Vegas rolls. That’s what Mayor Oscar Goodman could see from the first time he sized up Hsieh and asked him how big his bankroll was. Goodman pulled strings and made arrangements so that Hsieh could buy the old City Hall and launch his circus. Oscar used to work for the Mob. He knows how to roll an outsider.

As to Aimee Groth, she eventually starts describing the Downtown Project as a “€œcult of personality,”€ but uses the term without irony. Mostly she just accumulates a series of interviews, some pro-Hsieh, some con, until she proclaims, “€œI don”€™t want to be a data point in Tony’s experiments.”€ Then she has a series of meetings with him, during which he types 56 “€œtensions”€ into his laptop and the two of them hash out their relationship over tearstained fernet glasses. She returns to the “€œblank canvas”€ metaphor at the end of the book, but we don”€™t know whether that means she feels success or failure.

What she could have done is simply quote page 68 of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the passage in which Thompson explains why spiritual things are born in San Francisco but go to Las Vegas to die:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run…but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant… [It] seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time”€”and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened…. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda…. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark”€”that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

The wave always breaks and rolls back. The fact that it took five years for this particular social experiment to be revealed for what it was means that the tension-processing should have started back in 2012 with someone shaking Tony Hsieh by the shoulders and saying, “€œDude! Snap out of it! You”€™re good at selling shoes, man! That’s what you do! You”€™re gonna hurt somebody!”€ And then mix a few Molly crystals in a fernet glass and send him home.


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