I just returned from the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History full of new and good ideas for making our local history more accessible to the public, inspired and impressed by the professionals I met and reconnected with. One of the most inspirational presentations with the most impressive presenters was a roundtable session on Saturday morning: “Integrating Local History and Transportation Planning for Sustainable Public Partnerships.” According to the description in the program, “This roundtable introduces an innovative model for designing, funding, and executing multifaceted public history partnerships in conjunction with an ongoing regional urban planning project.”
This model of a successful partnership is in our own backyard — the 4th Street/Prater Way History Project, in Reno/Sparks, Nevada! The presenters were the main project participants, who have been quite successful in pooling their resources, ideas, and affiliations to insert an important history component into a plan for a major transportation corridor, thus generating a significant amount of community participation around the preservation and enhancement of the historical aspects of an east/west route that was once part of the Lincoln Highway.
Those who currently live in Reno and Sparks recognize that East 4th Street and Prater Way have seen better days, but as with other areas of town, if you look closely you will see signs of new vitality as entrepreneurs re-purpose some of the old buildings for new businesses. The planners hope to help re-invigorate the corridor and nurture a sense of community while improving transportation in terms of walkability, safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, better parking options for businesses, aesthetic enhancements through landscaping, and “historically/culturally significant elements incorporated into the streetscape.” It is an ambitious plan, but I am convinced that it can succeed, thanks to the dedication, intelligence, and synergy of those involved in the planning process. Reno is fortunate to have so many historians and history enthusiasts who are able to work so well together on a project like this.
Remnants and reminders of the cultural, economic, and industrial history of Reno and Sparks can be seen all along East 4th Street and Prater Way: motels and motor courts with retro neon signs and aging restaurants that once served a thriving auto tourism industry; the magnificent railroad depot designed by Frederic DeLongchamps for the long-gone Nevada-California-Oregon line; the Rainier Brewing Company building that became the Nevada National Ice and Cold Storage House and then Ice House Antiques and is now the Spice House Adult Cabaret … and historical markers commemorate some of the history that has left no traces such as the sites of the famous Johnson-Jeffries fight in 1910 and the Coney Island amusement park.
The RTC 4th Street/Prater Way History Project will result in new markers and monuments, the inclusion of historical information about surrounding areas in the design of bus shelters and terminals, a web exhibit, and inclusion in the Reno Historical App (managed by Special Collections) and the Sparks mobile app, managed by the Sparks Heritage Museum. One of the most valuable results, from a Special Collections point of view, is the gathering and preservation of the history of an area that has been neglected. We are pleased to be able to contribute some of our Special Collections photographs to the project and to incorporate some of the newly-collected information into the Reno Historical App. The stories of the places and people of 4th Street and Prater Way will enrich our collective local history. Another important aspect of the project is the enthusiastic community engagement in the history documentation, bringing new converts to the appreciation of the historical dimension of “place.”
The project collaborators who shared their model with a receptive national audience of history professionals were Alicia Barber, a well-known local author and historian and the project coordinator and Mella Harmon, an architectural historian and historic preservation specialist, both of whom have worked with UNR graduate students to research and document the buildings and businesses along the corridor and record the oral histories and photographs of stakeholders; Christina Leach, a planner for the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC); Cindy Ainsworth, a founding member of the Historic Reno Preservation Society and a researcher and advocate who has conducted regular tours of historic sites along 4th Street; and Karen Wikander, the director of the Online Nevada Encyclopedia, which will host the online exhibition of the history of a most interesting street. The public projects will be completed by the end of June.
For more information, see