Listening session: Residents say racism, redlining is root of problems in West Las Vegas
West Las Vegas resident Sheila Collins told listeners inside the West Las Vegas Library Theater that years ago, a colleague asked her if she thought her hometown was a racist city.
She said the question was a struggle to answer at the time. But after many years of watching her father, former Assemblyman Eugene “Gene” Collins, and other elected officials pursue investments in West Las Vegas, she said she had to conclude that the answer was yes.
Collins was one out of about 70 attendees at the first Nevada Democracy Project community listening session, an event co-hosted by Vegas PBS and The Nevada Independent on Wednesday. Citizens spoke strongly about the devastating effects of systemic racism and misconceptions about life in the area.
“Racism played a major [role] in that community not being redeveloped,” Collins said of the Historic Westside.
Comments from Collins and others who weighed in on the conversation were livestreamed on Vegas PBS and The Nevada Independent’s website, carrying out the goal of the Nevada Democracy Project — to uphold democracy, address the widening gap in engagement in public affairs, politics and policy, and ensure inclusive news reporting.
Commenters also shared frustrations and distrust toward the media, stating they felt their community had been misrepresented by journalists and associated with negative outcomes. Others said the misconceptions are byproducts of half-truths that fail to expose the underlying factor that contributes to displacement, exclusion and a lack of resources in neighborhoods nearby — racism.
The Oxford Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people” based on their race or ethnicity, “typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”
William “Billy” McCurdy Sr. and Eugene Collins — two elders in the neighborhood with political backgrounds — opened the dialogue.
“What’s on my mind is the revitalization of West Las Vegas,” McCurdy said, who’s lived in West Las Vegas since 1952 and runs a political marketing company. “That’s been on my mind since the 1960s.”
He said institutions in the community had been demolished, damaged by riots, denigrated by negative media stories and exploited by policies that sought funding for the underserved area but ultimately resulted in dollars being spent elsewhere.
Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), whose district also covers neighborhoods nearby, also spoke about racism and discrimination against Black children and families through urban planning policies. She said it is common practice in Las Vegas and in the state of Nevada for policymakers to “take our poverty, our racial characteristics, plug it into a grant, get dollars and those dollars do not find their way back to [predominantly Black] ZIP codes.”
“The historic and systemic need has been present, has been ignored,” Neal said. “But when we ask for the money that we want, it is then diluted. [People] then say, but what about all of the other neighborhoods [that] might have a similar characteristic or issue?”
The community has a history of being home to predominantly Black families, especially during the Jim Crow era in the 1930s when segregationist laws forced Black Nevadans to live in certain areas. Black communities were also redlined, or denied access to credit because of their race, during that era by the federal government and banking institutions.
“You can look at two houses in the same neighborhood, that were divided by a street, and they could be built by the same builder,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstong (D-Las Vegas), whose district includes the region. “And redlining would cause tens of thousands of dollars in difference in value from one community to another, just because of this imaginary red line that was drawn around communities.”
Redlining was a Federal Housing Administration practice that was authorized in 1934 and outlawed in 1968 through the Fair Housing Act, but residual effects compound upon generations today.
Chandler Cooks, 29, was born and raised on the Historic Westside and said the trickle-down effect of redlining is more devastating for his generation because the cost of living has drastically increased across the nation.
“My father, grandmother, uncles and aunts were able to work a single job, purchase a home, raise their family, put money aside to send their children to school,” he said. “Here I am, out of school, nearly $100,000 in student loan debt. I can't afford to purchase a home. I can hardly afford to maintain the home that will one day be inherited by me.”
Eugene Collins said the condition of the Historic Westside — blighted, loaded with city-owned empty lots and desolate — hasn’t recovered from the many fires in the area and redlining because of “the powers that be.”
In an interview after the event, he said the powers that be are the chambers of commerce organizations and planning agencies.
“We had the money,” Collins said. “We were fighting the politics of this community… [The money] had already been appropriated.”
Education, public health issues and democracy
Former educator Danielle Goodwin weighed in during the conversation, stating that school officials used the pandemic as a “convenient excuse” for why students are behind academically. She said the problem stems from a lack of qualified teachers and a lack of support from administrators.
“My concern is I truly don't see the urgency that is needed in order to shift a lot of the issues that are currently going on in education,” she said. “And I can attest to the fact that kids in our communities have been three to five grades behind, pre-pandemic.”
Alex Neal raised concerns about cultural competency in governmental agencies, access to nearby health care facilities and public health issues — pointing to food deserts, high heat vulnerability and insufficient “movability” or difficulty walking or using a wheelchair.
“Concrete, street [pavement] … They’re awesome,” Neal said. “However, what it also does with the lack of trees, a lack of plants, a lack of ability to absorb water, moisture … that increases your heat vulnerability.”
Quentin Savwoir, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the main thing on his mind was ensuring that people understand the importance of democracy, stating that a paved street is a byproduct of a “healthy democracy.”
“I think the most urgent and important thing that we should all be talking about is democracy,” he said. “Our democracy is in a very fragile state right now.”
He said Jan. 6, 2021 — when insurrectionists attempted a coup on Capitol Hill — changed his life.
Savwoir said the concerns raised at the listening session, along with the complaints he receives at his organization, such as “infractions with the police,” high rates of evictions in Nevada and a lack of affordable and accessible child care, contribute to citizens’ disinterest in democracy. He said a lack of “tangible change” allows misinformation about the political system to spread.
“For democracy to work, we need the systems that hold up our democracy to work so that people can see how it's beneficial to their lives,” Savwoir said.
To learn more about The Nevada Democracy Project, click here.