Remembering Tony Hsieh, Downtown Las Vegas and the Realities of Vision

I never met Tony Hseih.  That was on purpose.  

The Downtown Project in Las Vegas crossed my conscience at a moment when I had become frustrated, embittered by the failures of my professions.  As an urban planner and economic developer with a long history in downtown and community revitalization, I had hit a dead end, concluding that the tools I had learned and used to make communities better, healthier, more resilient, had failed.  My professional belief system, as it were, was falling apart.  And I had nothing to replace it.

When you have mastered a way of doing things, you find that that way has tangled itself so tightly into your brain and heart and assumptions that you cannot cut yourself free.  I knew my way wasn’t working, but I could not for the life of me see my way out. 

My first visit to the future Downtown Project was my first visit to Las Vegas, with a planning conference in 2007 when I worked for a national firm and most of western downtown was a wasteland of derelict motels, vacant lots and destitution.  My second visit was in 2012, when the Downtown Project was just starting and the only sights to see were an upended shipping container and a geodesic dome on a dirt lot. 

In the five years after that, I visited every chance I could. 

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Tony built belief.  He gathered believers.  He let you see beyond where you could see.  He sold an astonishing vision from the confines of a tour of his apartment.  A friend told me that being part of this community allowed her to be part of something bigger than herself.  That it fed a piece of her that she had not realized she was missing. And filling that missing piece made her able to do what she never expected.

Tony was everywhere, even when he wasn’t there.  Sometimes I thought he must be behind that pillar in the corner of the bar (basically every pillar in every bar).  Sometimes I thought of him as like a spirit in a seance, passing through walls and thoughts and permeating conversations. Except that this was a spirit that made you feel warm, not cold.  

Mutual friends who have been part of the Downtown Project have written about Tony’s ability to create connection, his approachability, his fearlessness.  They way in which he led, encouraged, even funded them to do something new, impactful, groundbreaking. Watching that from the outside always raised a question for me: 

Am I being fearless in my own world?  Am I fearless enough?  

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I found out when he died that Tony was only 4 years younger than me.  I thought he was a lot younger.  He never seemed to age, he just became more lean, more minimalism personified. While I found myself adding pounds, chins, hurts, uncertainties.  

From my distant observation platform, he never seemed to lose faith, only move from one leading edge to the next, the way he moved to the newest living facility developed by the Downtown Project every few years.  A personified, personal stake in the ground for every expansion of the core of his vision. No matter how the execution of that vision had changed, or perhaps bent, or perhaps diluted.  

That’s probably overstated, too hagiographic.  Everyone has insecurities and hurts and setbacks, and usually a double chin from the right angle.  But part of what we mean to the world isn’t just the facts of our story.  It’s about what we project, what we in our simplified public form end up meaning and teaching other people.  

What does it mean to love a place, to love a community?  What does it mean to love and fight your vision for a place and a community into being?  

What does it mean to do that and then have it become something different, something warped in another direction by forces that you didn’t anticipate, or didn’t account for, or perhaps couldn’t change with the tools that became tangled so tightly into your brain and heart and assumptions that you could not cut yourself free?

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I decided long ago that I wanted to work on community improvement because communities were the most complex organizations I knew of — the edge of the known world in figuring out how to improve human lives.  Too new to scientific thought to have progressed as far as biology; too complex and indeterminate and messy to untangle like chemistry.  

I have studied, critiqued and even occasionally worked with most of the urban thinkers of the late 20th and 21st centuries.  I have argued publicly for the merits of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin over Venice, Italy; fought for the importance of everyday voices in the face of quietly elitist design principles; insisted on the incremental, the human scale, the “economically sound” in the face of lovely balloon-funded pipe dreams.  

More than any other human that I have encountered in my wanders through the forests of urban design, planning, downtown revitalization and more, Tony understood — deeply, profoundly, humanistically — that the life of the people who live in a place, the relationships, the shared language, the shared love of a place and its potential, create the kind of  places that can have resilience, health, staying power.  

The kind of places that I had been trying to figure out, trying to build, trying to will into being for as long as I could remember.  

I never actually met Tony, despite sharing spaces and conferences and friends with him, because I wanted to maintain the reporter’s distance, the arm’s-length detachment necessary for analysis and critique. I knew what a pied piper he could be.  I still have a book in manuscript form that I never finished, as DTLV and I both changed over years.  And you can find my written and spoken voice analyzing, proselytizing, advocating for the Downtown Project in various corners of the internet.  Especially in response to the voices who said Tony’s vision was a sham, or a failure, or a thing that didn’t work.  

It didn’t fully work. But it didn’t not work, either.  

I don’t know if I regret maintaining that distance.  But part of me now regrets not telling him that he influenced me, although I don’t know if I would have been able to make it make sense. I’ve learned over the years not to wait to tell people things like that, because sometimes you miss the chance.

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For a lifelong Midwesterner, accustomed to embodied, looming memories of the Rust Belt and the decades of failed rebirths that closed the last century and opened this one, the Downtown Project was my first inkling that Things Could Be Different.  In the end, one can argue that the Downtown Project didn’t end up being so different from other city revitalization schemes, as real estate (albeit creative real estate) came to drive change. As that happened, DTP left behind much of the plan for the culture development and small business investment. And over time, I think that eroded that something that had captivated me about this  little community when I first met them during a podcast in a bare converted apartment in the Ogden with a PBR (yuck) sho ved into my hand.  What I saw was an embryo, but I could see a glimpse there of possibility, of thinking put into action, of a holistic vision of what a community is for and what a community should be.

I don’t know if I really understood what Tony taught me, an occasional face on the fringe of his universe, until I wrote those last couple of sentences just now.  

Perhaps the lesson I take from my arm’s length relationship with Tony Hseih’s vision is the centrality of genuine love of people in community, love that is framed and formed by how you house and serve it.  Beyond the containers and the Burning Man artifacts and the new/old architecture and the llamas.  Perhaps the most compelling thing about Tony’s vision for DTLV was the love, the quasi-family, the connectedness, that I think he tried to embed in it.  

Perhaps that’s the challenge of the next DTLV: fully building and integrating that community of love within places that enable that kind of community, perhaps a new/old type of community, to happen.

Thanks, Tony.  Godspeed. 

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Additional edit, December 9:

As more information about Tony’s last few months has come out, I’m finding myself trying to reconcile the tragedy of his experience with what I wrote above. I don’t like to edit my writing after it has been published — I feel like that’s dishonest, in some sense — but I need to add a few things.

First, it’s hard now not to see the Project and Tony’s vision as at least in part the product of his… whatever it was. His need for people, or for distraction, or for a Something that transcends our usual communites. I’m no psychologist. And some of the trappings of the Project — the drinking/party culture — wasn’t my gig, as a middle-aged Midwesterner with two kids and a pretty traditional life back home that I wasn’t trying to escape from. What I resonated to was the energy, the intent that lay under the EDM and the Giant Beer Pong and the party scene. Those were’t the community activities that I personally would have been looking for, but the intensive effort to build a real community, a different, more intensively-interrelated community…that was something that I didn’t see in the dozens or hundreds of efforts to indirectly, ineffectively, “build community” through fancy streetscapes and parks and incentive programs.

Second, Tony’s death rightly or wrongly now becomes linked with the handful of suicides that took place within and adjacent to the Downtown Project’s tech startup world during the first five years of the Project. We have learned a lot more about the mental health of entrepreneurs since then, due in part to the bravery and honesty of people like Brad Feld. And I learned since then myself about how dark those periods feel when you are in them. It’s pointless, and yet also necessary, to say that self-destructive behavior, intentional or unintentional, is horrific and necessitates soul-searching. How does one build honest care for others’ mental health into a community, a network? Into startups and entrepreneurship? We understand more than ever how crucial that is, how peoples’ mental and emotional state affects everything else (thank you 2020, I think). But we have to ask ourselves next: what does that look like in a resilient community?

Finally, I was uncomfortable with “love” and “quasi-family” in the conclusion I published before, even as I was writing it. At the time I chalked my reaction up to Gen X cynicism and decided I was going to push myself in that direction (part of my ongoing personal struggle to write in Non-Geek.) Now I think I was reacting to the fact that those are actually not the right words. A family can be a dysfunctional mess of baggage, and “love” is too vague, too blurry, too many meanings. What’s the better way to describe this?

At one tough point in the DTP’s history, leadership shifted the language they used from talking about “community” to “connectedness” — I and others were told that this was because the general public was regarding them as government, asking them to install garbage cans and fix public infrastructure problems. I think “connectedness” was the better term — the term that better fit what all of these people were working to build. The point was to create an environment — physical and social alike — that enabled people to find and build connection with people that they might not encounter otherwise. Tony articulated that in his book, Delivering Happiness, and that was clearly a guiding principle. The result: even an outlier like me could come into the community and be welcomed, connect, be energized, build relationships. If you’re from the eastern US, you know how incredibly hard it can be to enter and be immediately welcomed in most environments. And our nice streetscapes and parks don’t necessarily make that easier. Downtown Las Vegas was the first place in all of my life where I felt like people geniunely welcomed me, wanted to get to know me at a level beyond how my business might help theirs. And I will never stop being thankful for that.

But here’s most important part that was missing in what I wrote before. Although Tony was the face, the spearhead, much of the money and perhaps even the wellspring of the Downtown Project Vision, it wasn’t his vision alone. Hundreds of people bought into it, invested their time and hearts and, yes, money into building it. Some of those people are still there, some have moved on to other places. But I can tell you from my own experience elsewhere that being part of a shared vision remakes your way of living, changes how you interact with the world from then on. And I’ve seen that in the people who passed through the Downtown Project.

My consistent message in all of the years that I wrote and talked about the Downtown Project was that if we were looking at Tony, we were missing the bigger and (from my perspective) the much more interesting part of the story: how those hundreds of people shaped the community — and the Vision, as it played out in reality — by their own actions.

We too often talk about community revitalization, urban planning, grand visions and big projects, according to the Great Man theory of history. Dan Gilbert in Detroit. Richard M. Daley in Chicago. Frederick Olmstead in Central Park. We make it about Them, as though they had single-handedly wrought the iron and carved the stone. That not only makes the story boring, but it makes it false.

A community vision is profoundly different from a personal vision. Even if the vision for the community starts with one person, it will pass through hundreds of hands, most of whom will add a shape or a flavor or a new element or a nuance along the way. And if the first person, through whatever control they have, insists on the vision staying under glass, exactly the way they conceived it, those are the visions that become fossilized relics.

So, ironically, perhaps Tony’s greatest gift was to place his vision, the one that he cared for so much, in the hands of the community that surrounded it. And by doing that, giving up control over it, opening the possibility that it would not go where he intended. Maybe he didn’t imagine it turning out as it has. Maybe he didn’t realize all of the ways it could go awry. But when we make a gift, we don’t really know what the recipient is going to do with it anyways. And often the people to whom we gave the gift don’t use it the way we intended.

But sometimes, sometimes, the gifts we give echo far beyond where we imagined.

I think that will be the case for the Downtown Project, and indeed, for many people, it already has.

So, thanks Tony. Godspeed.

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