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The History of the Weirdest, Queerest Strip Mall in Vegas

With gay bars and bathhouses, a Pentecostal church, a straight swingers club, and one of America's best Thai restaurants, the Commercial Center redefines the phrase "something for everyone."

by Steve Friess
Dec 26 2016, 3:00pm

Illustration by Sarah MacReading

A half-century ago, when a vast new shopping center debuted a mile east of the Las Vegas Strip, anyone who mattered came by. As its business owners will tell you, Frank, Sammy and Dino could be found after hours munching pastrami sandwiches at the Commercial Deli; Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Durante played shows in the Ice Palace; and Liberace took his rhinestone-encrusted costumes to Tiffany Couture for dry-cleaning.

Back then, in the era before malls and mega-casinos took over the city, Commercial Center was a happening, modern retail experiment, a sprawling 38-acre collection of a dozen low-rise buildings that was the pinnacle of hip.

Now? It's the pinnacle of something, to be sure. The area has, in the decades that have passed since its heyday, transformed into perhaps the weirdest, most diverse shopping district in America—with a decidedly queer bent.

Its offerings include two gay bathhouses, a legendary straight swingers club, two gay bars, a trans-friendly bar and a gay-oriented Alcoholics Anonymous center.  But there's also a roller hockey facility, the largest billiards hall in town, a karaoke bar, a workplace uniform emporium, and about 30 restaurants, including several celebrated hyper-authentic Korean, Japanese and Chinese spots, one of the best Thai restaurants in America, as well as a popular kosher restaurant and a Mexican-operated banquet hall frequently used for quinceaneras. And, of course, there's a Pentecostal church.

"You can do everything here," gushes Paula Sadler, owner of the 1,700-square-foot A Harmony Nail Spa and, since 2006, founder and president of the Commercial Center Business Association. "And then, when it's all said and done, you can go to one of the many churches and repent, go get your nails done and have a bite to eat. You can sin and be saved, all in the same day."

Sadler is an indefatigable booster who has rallied some of her neighbors to pitch in for a fresh name—it's now known, at least online and on social media, as the Commercial Center District World Village—as well as beautification projects, including graffiti clean-up. She engaged the police department to clear out panhandlers and homeless tent camps that persistently dotted the 3,000-space plain of parking. "We had a minor public image problem," she says, "and it needed some rebranding, which I brought in."

When it opened, the Commercial Center was at the retail epicenter of a relatively small but thriving city of fewer than 300,000 residents. Within a two-mile radius, one could find upscale golf communities alongside acres of funky mid-century modern homes. By 1980, Las Vegas's population exceeded 450,000, but had spread west and south—and people had moved on to shopping in malls. The Commercial Center went into decline.

"The reason why all those businesses moved [to the Commercial Center]—whether it was the gay stuff or all those international things—was because the rent was cheap," says Rob Schlegel, a longtime LGBTQ activist and real estate agent who founded Las Vegas's gay newspaper, The Bugle, in the 1980s. "The adult places moved because rent was low and the landlords were fairly desperate for tenants, so they didn't care who rented there."

That cheap rent is also what attracted a struggling local LGBTQ outreach organization called The Center in the late 1990s. It was a controversial move both for the number of at-risk queer youth who flocked there for companionship, social services, and refuge, and for the fact that it was in the vicinity of bathhouses, bars, and sex shops. But the landlord allowed The Center to occupy the place on the cheap—and sometimes for free—until 2012, when it moved into its own $4 million building a few miles away.

The fact that the Commercial Center also become known as one of Las Vegas's two clusters of LGBTQ commerce is, to some extent, both a reason for and a consequence of the hard times that befell it after its 1960s and 1970s heyday. (The Fruit Loop, an intersection of bars and dance clubs about two miles south, is the other.)

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the Commercial Center's reputation took many hits as police calls became frequent, the public began associating it with adult businesses, and most building owners allowed their property to decay. In one notable incident, vice squads made a habit of raiding a now-closed porno theater to arrest the men masturbating inside.

"Commercial Center was never far from controversy because of some of the businesses that were operating there," says John L. Smith, a former Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist and lifelong resident. "They were never classy. It was always a place where you wound up, rather than somewhere you went."

Today, the Commercial Center has (mostly) shed its controversial past. Around the turn of the century, county officials began discussing using eminent domain to seize the ramshackle structures, bulldoze them and throw up some upscale, mixed-use redevelopment concept. Yet the great recession left the county without that kind of money to toss around and, anyhow, Sadler had entered the picture by then.

"Over the past years there's been a renaissance here," Sadler insisted, noting that the Commercial Center is about 60 percent leased and blaming most of the remaining vacancies on absentee owners of two buildings who "don't do anything and don't care about the place."

She notes the fanfare that attends some of the restaurants. Eater Las Vegas, for instance, wrote about Arawan, an 18-month-old Thai bistro and dessert spot. There's also Italian Oasis Pizzeria, the owner of which told her he's soon to add a gelateria.  She envisions a farmers market, art fairs and festivals in the Center's future.

Sadler is "very aggressive about bad publicity," which is part of why she often pushed back hard on Smith when he referred in print to Commercial Center as "sleazy." Smith, she groused, "doesn't know what he's talking about. Obviously, he doesn't come down and talk to the business owners here and see all the hard work they put in day in and day out. We have 500 employees and have given over $100 million in local taxes for property and business property, plus licensing and fees for gaming, liquor and businesses.  Really, our center is a cash cow for the whole county."

Still, Smith is far from alone in his impression. Schlegel, too, says the area still has a low-brow, down-trodden cast to it: "I don't think it's that much different. There's been a little bit of clean up. But it's pretty much the same Commercial Center. The draw has always been low rent and plenty of parking."

Sadler, though, is ever-ready with a pitch. With the opulent Strip within eyesight and even the unsavory parts of downtown Las Vegas starting to see gentrification, Commercial Center remains a slice of the legendary anything-goes Sin City of yore.

"This is one of the last refuges of the old days," she says. "People love that."