History professor fascinated by Reno's longing for heritage and reinvention
Divorce, gambling and “Reno 911” are just some of the events and themes Alicia Barber covers in her new book “Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City.” The book, published earlier this month by the University Press of Kansas, tracks Reno’s reputation in the media and in the nation’s mind.
Barber, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of History connected certain aspects of Reno’s landscape and activities to its larger national reputation throughout much of the book.
“It’s really looking at the question of Reno and its reputation and how its reputation, from the beginning, has really influenced the city’s development,” Barber said. “It’s also about the relationship between a city’s image and its landscape. And in this case, I really focused on the downtown area.”
Almost from the very foundation of the city in 1868, Barber said, Reno was on the national radar as a frontier outpost of the west. With the first celebrity quickie divorce in 1905, an assemblage of reporters from across the nation flocked to Reno to cover the phenomenon. But along with the attention from the media came a bad reputation for being a scandalous place, Barber said. Reno’s reputation as an immoral place worsened when the gambling was legalized.
“A lot of those different economic avenues Reno just decided to really take advantage of but in the process got some criticism for,” Barber said. “But even when Reno was a place known for somewhat scandalous activities…generally the media accounts which I looked at had a tone of surprise that despite these activities, Reno was actually a charming town.”
Barber said that this discrepancy between Reno’s reputation and its charm lay in the landscape and architecture that was present in the downtown area. In the early 1900s to the 1960s, the downtown area had a blend of tourist attractions and residential spaces.
“Through about the 1960s, our downtown landscape was characterized by pretty traditional brick and stone, two- to four- or five-story buildings,” Barber said. “And it really was very charming. It had a mix of residential and tourist types of businesses so that translated into a great diversity of types of people on the street.”
But when tourism and the gambling industry began to take root as major economic trades in Reno, the downtown area’s landscape changed as more and more large casinos were built.
“Downtown had become engulfed by tourist activities,” Barber said. “And once gaming really started to suffer from the competition of a lot of other gaming throughout the country, downtown started to look not so great and that’s really when the reputation started to be negatively affected.”
The book’s look back on Reno’s reputation throughout history concludes with a look at Reno as it is today, including the redevelopment of downtown to reincorporate both residents and tourists.
“By the end of the book, I’m looking at 2007, 2008,” Barber said. “There are a whole bunch of articles that are looking at the reinvention of Reno…In a way, it’s a new development but it’s also really coming full circle to a landscape where tourists and residents are both increasingly inhabiting our downtown streets.”
Barber’s interest in Reno’s reputation began with her dissertation when she was at the University of Texas, Austin, where she focused on how cities in the American west, with a specific focus on Reno, were connected to their heritage. Throughout her research, Barber became further fascinated with Reno, especially with the city’s pride and it’s longing to reconstruct its identity. When she came to the University in 2003, she began narrowing down the research that led to “Reno’s Big Gamble.”
“Reno was always a place that intrigued me because it had this paradoxical relationship to its past,” Barber said. “There was this pride among residents of Reno for its heritage but at the same time there were all these calls for reinvention.”
Barber hopes “Reno’s Big Gamble” will provide a historical context for Reno as a culture and a place within the broader framework of the nation.
“As a historical work, I think it demonstrates that Reno has had a national significance in American culture for a century,” she said. “And if at the same time, we can prove once and for all that Reno isn’t just a second string Las Vegas, then that is just the icing on the cake.”