Resurrecting the Bohemian ghosts of the parkway

Resurrecting the Bohemian ghosts of the parkway
Maryland Parkway street sign.

By Willie Puchert

LAS VEGAS — Maryland Parkway is a street east of the Las Vegas Strip, which has a block across the from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) campus that in the 1990s was lined with record stores, cafés, shops, bars and restaurants, most of which are gone today.

Over a span of a decade which began in the late ‘80s a group of artists, poets, musicians and DJs developed an arts scene there only to disappear by the year 2000 in true “boom and bust” style. Writer, producer and director PJ Perez, a UNLV graduate, released a documentary last year that tells the story of those heady days in “Parkway of Broken Dreams.”

Bored with Reno and wanting a change of scenery, I decided to transfer from University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) to UNLV in 1995 and lived, worked and studied at the epicenter of this Las Vegas cultural phenomenon. Some of my friends who were fellow students are participants in this documentary. Because I adopted punk and goth identities in my high school years, had worked for a few Reno radio stations and attended a weekly poetry gathering that would meet in an older Sparks home called Kerouac’s (named for the famous Beatnik) in the early ‘90s, I felt at home.

“Parkway of Broken Dreams” paints a very good picture of the Bohemian utopia I was surrounded by during my UNLV college experience.

The documentary’s artwork faces north on Maryland Parkway with the UNLV Flora Dugan Humanities Building on the left, the Promenade Center (now demolished) on the right and the Stratosphere Tower in the background. This was a familiar view of mine almost daily as I crossed the street to go on campus.

The documentary tells the story of UNLV’s community radio station, KUNV, which was in a neighboring room of the Moyer Student Union to the Rebel Yell Student Newspaper office where I worked my first semester.

Much like the “Bottom 40” show that aired on KUNR helped to influence Reno’s punk and new wave scene around the same time, KUNV’s Rock Avenue served a similar purpose. Alternative weeklies were in their infancy back then, so the radio station really helped to promote shows and events by the DJs compiling flyers and reading them over the air.

Downstairs from another job where I worked at the Promenade Center Kinko’s across from UNLV at 4440 Maryland Parkway (where many of those said flyers were printed and copied) was the Café Espresso Roma. It served as the Mecca for aspiring poets much like the City Lights Book Store scene in the San Francisco North Beach Area was in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is where my friend Andy Hall, one of the regulars there and who is featured in the documentary, found his literary voice from the weekly poetry jams. The documentary explores all of the poetry and performance art that were staples there every Thursday night.

To the north of the same side of Maryland at the corner of East Flamingo Avenue, was a Tower Records which was next door to a Buffalo Exchange, two other components of a thriving arts and music scene and reminiscent of the Haight/Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco that I had previously frequented to shop before moving to Las Vegas.

To the south of the same side of Maryland at the corner of East Harmon Avenue, was my favorite coffee shop, Café Copioh. The dark, gently lit interior with vintage furniture was a favorite of the Gothic crowd and its stage hosted the occasional local alternative bands. One of the first gigs The Killers played was at Café Copioh.

Other record stores in the university area credited in the documentary to be influential were Benway Bop and The Underground. Art galleries in the area such as the Contemporary Arts Collective featured avant-garde exhibitions.

The documentary explains the roots and early years of the Maryland Parkway heyday before I arrived and, in retrospect, I figure I was there as it peaked and began its downward slide. 

By the time I was in my final semester at UNLV in the Spring of 1998 preparing to graduate, news spread of changes at KUNV, which had undergone new management. The Rock Avenue Show which promoted the scene went dark only to be replaced with “Smooth Jazz,” which was intended to attract “a more viable audience.”

The documentary infers that Rock Avenue’s demise was the beginning of the end with the aforementioned coffee shops closing by the year 2000. Radio stations with a corporate alternative and modern rock format like The Edge 103.5 FM (the Las Vegas version of Reno’s 96.5 KRZQ of that era) contributed, steering listeners away from KUNV.

The documentary also points to the growth of the internet and social media making people more introspective and less social as contributing to the decline. It mentions the Cyber City Café, also located in the university area, where one could use the computers to use the internet or check e-mail, as an example.

With coffee shops like Starbucks moving into the UNLV student union, there was also no need for students to leave campus for the coffee shop experience.

All of the principals of the documentary point to that nostalgic era as having a huge impact in either developing their talent or their careers. While many of those buildings are gone, the film offers that one of the legacies it leaves is behind is the burgeoning Las Vegas Arts District in the downtown area.

Perez sums up the Maryland Parkway experience in a quote featured in an Oct. 21, 2021 article in the UNLV Scarlet & Gray student newspaper:

“We all had the same experience even if we were experiencing different facets of it at the same time, so there’s this interconnectivity between these people who’ve never even met…What made this thing special for so many people is that there was this interconnectivity that we had, without even realizing it.”

Parkway of Broken Dreams has received accolades since its 2021 release including winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Silver State Film Festival and the 10 Degrees Hotter Award for Documentary Feature at the Valley Film Festival. It was also an official selection of the Las Vegas International Film & Screenwriting Festival.

You may purchase a DVD and find viewings at the documentary’s website and view it for free (with commercial interruptions of course) at the streaming service Tubi TV.

Willie Puchert is a Reno graphic designer, a former journalist and a UNLV alumnus with a Bachelor’s degree from the Greenspun School of Communications.