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December 20, 2014

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Brian “Paco” Alvarez, a Las Vegas original

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Bill Hughes

It’s not unusual to hear Brian “Paco” Alvarez on KNPR one day, run into him at the Beat the next and then find him at a Fremont East watering hole later that week or at a 5th Street School forum or lecture.

If he’s not at the Smith Center or Winchester Cultural Center, he’s at some meeting where he’s a board member, curator, consultant or editorial board advisor, or he’s writing his blog for enculturatelasvegas.com. This month, Alvarez will receive the 2012 curatorial award from the Hispanic Museum of Nevada, and be noted for excellence in historic preservation by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. He’s an omnipresent fixture in the local landscape, whether it’s arts, history or Downtown. We chat with Alvarez, curator of the Las Vegas News Bureau Photo and Film Archives, which celebrated its 65th anniversary this week.

Where did your love of history come from? That’s thanks to my dad. My father gave me a love for history through books about atomic bombs, World War II, encyclopedias. I’ve always had a fascination with what came before.

Why? The story. There’s nothing more rewarding for a geek like me than reading the missives between two individuals debating the name of Las Vegas, should it be Las or Los.

Was it ever Los? Yes, for about 10 years. In fact, the letterhead from the railroad said “Los Vegas.”

When did your interest in local history kick in? I was taking a museum studies class at UNLV. Las Vegas had this rich railroad history that not everybody knew about and wasn’t being told.

Why curate history exhibitions? Exhibition is the way you educate the general public. Not everybody is going to read the essential history of Las Vegas. Museums are so important to a community because they’re living books.

What were some of your early cultural influences? I was very fortunate as a child to have most of my family living in New Jersey and New York. I spent a lot of my summers with my family back East during the formative years of my life. My cousins would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, Central Park.

What was coming home like after all of that? I loved Las Vegas. There was never a moment growing up when I wanted to move away. When the plane landed, I had a sigh of relief, just looking out the windows at the sparseness. You can drive 20 minutes outside of the city and you’re in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing more beautiful than the desert.

How would you define Las Vegas culture today? Las Vegas is still recovering from the growth spurt we had between 1970 and 2008. The huge influx of the population displaced the local population and its culture.

How so? You had all this culture here, but Las Vegas culture has been a victim of Las Vegas success. The city leaders did such a bad job of getting the new population to buy into what was here. We were so preoccupied with building roads that we forgot about our cultural institutions.

What were some big cultural eras prior to that? In the 1950s we had The Las Vegas Art League. Antonio Morelli. Leonard Bernstein brought the New York Philharmonic to Las Vegas. You had Helldorado. In the 1970s there was the development of Nevada Ballet, the Aladdin center for the Performing Arts. Judy Bayley Theatre, Artemus Ham Hall, The Liberace Foundation for Performing and Creative Arts.

What about city leaders today? I still think there’s a disconnect between city leaders and the importance of arts and culture and the economic benefits.

What's an early cultural memory for you? Café Enigma. It’s where I first met Dayvid Figler. My introduction to him was through his reading a poem about anti-bacterial soap. I realized at that moment that poetry could be a live performance. I gained an enormous appreciation of poetry. I remember thinking, “I feel really good right now.”

Notable setbacks over the years? What happened with KUNV was a tragedy. The cancellation of Rock Avenue set back the local music scene. I don’t think we’ve recovered yet. It was the only station playing local music and it won the Gavin Awards the previous year for best college radio station in the country.

What are your thoughts on the Zappos movement? I think it’s great. I love it. It scares the sh*t out of a lot of people.

Why is that? It’s never been tested before. The only comparison that even comes close to what Tony Hsieh is doing is when the resort community spent an enormous amount of money on Helldorado. The corporate thing made it go away because there was no big monetary return, but the return shouldn’t always be monetary. Tony’s philosophy is the return on community. In the 1950s, putting money into Helldorado had a great effect on community.

Are you comfortable with change when it comes to Las Vegas? Yes. Las Vegas has always been a place that has allowed architects to be innovative and casinos to be innovative. But why should it always be focused on entertainment?

Final thoughts on that? Las Vegas is a blank canvas. You can do anything with it. Try it all.

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