How Reno is Telling a Better Story

I look out the window of my Westlook apartment as poolside sunbathers soak in high-altitude UV rays. It’s a hot summer day here in Reno, and this complex where I live, part of Mayor Schieve’s “Blight Busted” plan, sits on a West 4th Street site formerly occupied by dilapidated motels. Now there’s a luxury apartment complex with cabanas and shuffleboard. It’s been quite the turnaround.    


reno sunset 2    

I’m new to Westlook, but a lifelong Renoite. I was born at St. Mary’s, and graduated from Galena HS and UNR. My junior prom dinner was takeout from Pub n’ Sub. I still occasionally call the GSR the Hilton, probably because I hit my head pretty hard on the halfpipe at the short-lived indoor skate park on Keystone in ‘96 or ‘97, I can’t remember. And my mercury levels are at near lethal proportions from ingesting all the sushi I can eat.


Reno isn’t just my home. It’s my blood type.


But to be honest, I grew up with the biggest little embarrassment about my hometown. As many of us who were raised here can attest, our city’s infamous reputation as a binge-drinking, divorce-doling, slot-cranking desert destination with discount strippers and health code defying buffets didn’t foster a sense of civic pride. It’s no mystery why Reno 911 had eight seasons worth of material. Even The Muppets roasted us. We were such an easy target.


Yet the city has been transforming. Rapidly. And not only is Reno getting better, it’s telling a better story.


This is about that.    


reno arch 2    


I walk from my apartment to my car as a sudden Washoe Zephyr arrives, its gusts shaking the trees and ushering in a torrent of rain. An umbrella is launched into the sky like a hot air balloon as the formerly undisturbed sunbathers scramble for safety. They seem surprised that summer can be aggressively overthrown by fall within the span of five minutes in Reno. They must have just relocated from the Bay Area. They’ll learn… in time.


My new neighbors are convenient proof that the word has gotten out that Reno is a desirable place to live. They’re young. And they chose to move here. For the longest time, telling an outsider “I’m from Reno” would be met with either “Is that near Las Vegas?” or “I’m sorry.” It’s hard to say which response hurts worse. “I’m sorry” was completely understandable, though. This city earned a reputation for its sordid antics. I mean, there used to be a prominent local social club whose initiates had to carry a chicken around town for several days, take it from bar to bar to get it intoxicated, then, and I need you to brace yourself for what’s coming next, bite the living chicken’s head off. This is not a legend. History is written by the winners. In Reno’s case, that’s not the chickens. But the explosive economic revitalization, as well as the influx of new residents, is progressing Reno’s culture. The city is not what it once was.    


Mural Map Product 38    


Raindrops patter on my windshield as I begin driving towards the city center. I’m headed out to follow Mabble’s Mural Maps and drop them off at local businesses. With clean, hand-drawn illustrations and background info on the artists, the maps depict routes for enjoying the public works that have been beautifying the MidTown, Riverwalk, and Downtown districts. And I’m embarking on a self-guided tour to soak in the public art installations that represent Reno’s transformation.


I park my car in the city center to begin following the Downtown Mural Map. “Mommy, why doesn’t Reno have a normal downtown like all the other cities?” I asked when I was a child. Mommy had no answer. There was a time when just thinking about the urban ashtray that was downtown Reno could cause emphysema. The district used to be nothing but a mecca for stab-happy bikers and gruff geriatrics who spent their entire visit complaining that the price of Ham ‘n’ Eggs at the ‘Neva had skyrocketed from $0.99 to $1.99. Johnny Cash famously sang about shooting a man in Reno. It’s amazing he was able to stop at one.


But now, as I walk north on Virginia towards the arch, I take notice of the former Harrah’s Casino which is being renovated into a non-gaming, mixed-use property with retail, office, and living space. On the other side of the street is Whitney Peak, which is also no longer a rundown casino. The shift from a gaming-dominated economy to a more diversified one has triggered a swift evolution of downtown. Sure, there are still some lingering blinking lights and seedy motels, but it is remarkable how far this area has come in such a short amount of time.


The murals are painted proof of downtown’s renaissance (or Reno-ssance, as chuckling dads like to say). They are majestic in this neighborhood, especially the 15,000 sq. ft. ground mural called “Locomotion” which sits over the train tracks just north of the arch. My favorite piece, though, is “Go West” by Erik Burke, Nanook, and Nick Mann because, when you stand on a nearby red X on the sidewalk, the mural’s trees align with the Silver Legacy.


While it’s always going to be tourism-centered, downtown’s makeover is bringing with it a change in the type of tourists it attracts. And, because of that, the image of downtown Reno is changing too—for the better.  



  go west mural downtown    


I now head south to follow the route depicted in the Riverwalk Mural Map, which zigzags across several bridges on the Truckee. People from out east laugh that we call the Truckee a river. But we laugh at what they call mountains, so we’re even.


Reno started as nothing but a bridge, and as I cross the sleekly redesigned one on Virginia Street I think of the fabled divorcees who once stood here and tossed their wedding rings into the river (this legend is true and I refuse to believe otherwise). Right now, the Truckee is a late-summer trickle, crossable even without a man-made overpass. So it’s mind-blowing to think about how much water poured from it during the great flood of ‘97. Unlike the biblical deluge, our flood didn’t wipe out civilization as we know it. But it’s a perfect marker of before and after. Since the flood, Reno/Sparks has gone through urban puberty, effectively doubling in size and adding “big city” amenities like AAA baseball. Artown, with nearby Wingfield Park as its epicenter, has seen its attendance rise from 30,000 in pre-flood 1996 to over 300,000 today. Maybe the flood was the cataclysmic catalyst of Reno’s rebirth. Maybe not. All I can say is, Reno is substantially better on the other side of it.


There are only a handful of murals in the Riverwalk district (although the cartoonish and playful pieces at West Street Market are probably my favorite in town). So I decided to take a break from walking and find a seat along the river in front of the Reno Artist Lofts. As I recline on the concrete step, I look out at the Palladio, a luxury condominium complex where the historic Mapes once stood. The Mapes was the first high-rise casino/hotel in Reno—architecturally amazing, but poorly constructed and eventually uninhabitable. There was a fight to preserve it, but in the end the real estate was too prime to be occupied by a boarded-up relic. Maybe the lesson is that sometimes we have to let go of cherished pieces of our past because they weren’t built to support our future. That might be sappy, but it’s a necessary truth in life. As Reno evolves, it’s finding the balance between preserving the good parts of its history while building for the next chapter.    



Mural Map Jan 22 8    


I double back along the river to Virginia, then head south towards Mabble’s office on California en route to follow the MidTown Mural Map.


I remember when MidTown was colloquially known by locals as “Dirty Reno” because it was nothing but a row of dive bars, seedy motels, sex shops, and grosser sex shops on repeat until Vassar. Now, it is home to specialty coffee, boutique merchants, trendy restaurants, and bars without Tuaca-stained shag carpet. In addition to MidTown’s row of hip purveyors, it’s home to the highest number of murals in Reno, which has eclipsed triple digits (Mabble’s map features roughly a quarter of them). MidTown used to offend the eyes. Now it attracts them. This was unthinkable even twenty years ago.


As I follow the map, I take special note of a mural by Erik Burke on the side of the Ponderosa building that depicts John Muir catching a pinecone. As I cross the street to get closer to it, I feel the movement of an oncoming car breaking to a sudden halt. I’m wearing a backpack and carrying a map so the driver probably thinks I’m a tourist when, in fact, I’m just dumb. And thirsty. So I use my new lease on life to grab a drink at the Bubble Tea Statio Cafe, where I assume a sex shop once stood.  



  Mural Map Jan 22 174    


As a creative agency, we at Mabble do branding (and rebranding) work on a daily basis for our clients. A brand is the way an audience thinks and feels about an entity—whether that’s a product, company, or, in Reno’s case, a city. Brands are perceptions. Reno’s urban transformation has been remarkable, and my meandering mural tour was an immersive experience of how far along the city has come. But it has taken a concerted effort to reshape public opinion about the city—what you think and feel about Reno is influenced by the story you believe about it. In other words, Reno needed to be rebranded to shake its old image and tell a new story to the world.


In 2017, the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority reframed Reno as a destination brand, highlighting the cultural transformation and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure that our region possesses. I like to imagine the marketing meeting went something like this:


Exec #1: The cost of ham ‘n’ eggs has skyrocketed. Our slots are not as loose as they once were. And we need to figure out how to stop being the butt of Muppet jokes. It’s time for a new branding strategy.


Exec #2, looking out the window, over the burgeoning downtown skyline nestled beneath the majestic snow-capped Sierras which cradle the most beautiful lake in the world, illuminated by a surrealistic pastel sunset: What if we highlight *gestures broadly at everything*


Exec #1: Jackpot.


In reality, effective rebranding involves far more of a sophisticated analysis. It requires a deep assessment of core identity—who you are, what your strengths/weaknesses are, what you stand for—to tell a better story about why you exist. In 2016, Reno officials hired the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to audit Reno’s Virginia St. corridor, from UNR to Virginia Lake, and offer strategies for the future. ULI’s vision for the future of Reno’s brand was built on three pillars:

  • Outdoor lifestyle
  • Arts and culture
  • Science and technology


Reno already offered these attractive features. It’s not like Tahoe was discovered in 2016. But the rebranding process enabled the city to see that it had specific strengths to lean into, which would help it tell a better story to the world. In other words, Reno was rebranded aspirationally, focusing on what we are becoming rather than what we were. And we are continually living into this new Reno brand in authentically Reno ways.


Now, Reno is consistently featured on lists of good places to live and visit, including recently being ranked by U.S. News & Review at #9 in quality of life. Sure, these lists don’t carry any objective authority, but it’s nice to get mentioned in these things rather than be fodder for Fozzie Bear. Reno’s rebranding is telling the story of a prospering outdoor gateway with a thriving culture, rather than a cheap Vegas alternative, and it’s changing the way the world sees us.


I used to be embarrassed to be from here. But I’m not anymore. I’m proud of my hometown. Because Reno is not only getting better, it’s finally telling a better story.    


For more on how Mabble can help your business tell a better story for your brand, follow this link.