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Wells Avenue: A neighborhood rich in history and multiculturalism (4 of 4)


By Maria Palma and Abby Ocampo

What’s happening on Wells? Is Wells Avenue changing its face? Is the district becoming gentrified? This is the fourth article of a four-part series focused on the Wells Avenue area and what neighbors, business owners and experts have to say about how the area is evolving.

Walking down Wells Avenue feels different. It is one of Reno’s most multicultural neighborhoods, now noted for its Latino and Hispanic influences. Visiting Wells is a reminder of the importance of preserving ethnic groups, mom-and-pop stores and a sense of community and neighborliness. 

Wells is an active community, with churches, health services, schools, bars, hair salons, grocery stores and theaters. While it is still a mid-sized area of the city, residents have most types of amenities and meeting places available to them.

For a tourist, it may not be the first attraction on the list to visit, but, without a doubt, Wells has proven itself a hidden gem, rich in culture and history. The history of the area shows it has always been changing.

The Wells Addition

The Wells Avenue neighborhood contains some of the oldest homes in the city of Reno south of the Truckee River.

Like the rest of the Great Basin, the Truckee Meadows was occupied by Indigenous people for about 10,000 years — Washoe, Northern Paiute and the Martis people — and the area started to become the neighborhood it is now more than a century ago in Reno’s formative years.

According to the Wells Avenue Merchants, the neighborhood was first developed around 1900. After the death of O. Sheldon Wells in 1900, his son-in-law Samuel Wheeler managed Wells’ estate. In 1905, Wells’ estate was approved to be subdivided into the Wells Addition. With the Wells Addition came Wells Avenue, which established the eastern boundary of Reno and also extended Cheney Street as its southern boundary. 

“Basically, Wells Avenue started out as a residential street starting about 1900,” said Reno realtor Barrie Lynn.

The architect Charles Burke purchased and subdivided adjacent ranch land by 1907. Burke was 19 at the time.

The neighborhood started to grow. Trolley service was extended to Wells in 1909, which increased access and created a connection for Wells Avenue residents to other parts of Reno. 

Growth of Reno map, from 1868 to 1928. Wells Avenue, highlighted in the darker yellow rectangle, has the same route today.

The area became more commercial when the Lincoln Highway was connected to Wells Avenue. U.S. Route 40, the Lincoln Highway, helped boost commerce in the Reno area.

“The area experienced its first major surge of traffic along the highway in 1915, as hundreds of motor tourists passed through on their way to attend the Panama Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco,” the Fourth and Prater website by Reno historian Alicia Barber notes. “With the passage of the first Federal Aid Road Act in 1916 and the formation of the state highway department, the road between Reno and Sparks was improved.”

“If you can imagine, after World War II when people were driving more across country, especially across Highway 40, there was a major interchange at Virginia and Fourth streets, so cars had to come across Highway 40 on Fourth Street, and then down Virginia Street. There was gridlock,” Lynn added.

Changes continued. Wells Avenue went from primarily residential to becoming a commercial corridor when the Lincoln Highway was connected to Wells Avenue.

The Alameda-Wells Avenue Bridge, which crossed the Truckee River, was built in the late 1930s. It was replaced as the Wells Avenue Overpass in 1968, according to Historic Reno.

“They connected Wells Avenue to Fourth Street, which was a lifeline for it,” Lynn said. “Suddenly, now, Wells Avenue became a secondary north-south corridor. Up until the 1940s, it was just a residential street.

The increased demand for services created by Lincoln Highway travelers resulted in the conversion of former residences to businesses and new commercial development. 

“Gas stations popped up on every corner,” Lynn added. “All of the little houses were converted into shops or grocery stores, and then some smaller commercial buildings were infill.”

Wells Avenue to this day is a mix of commercial and residential structures. Residences, however, are far less common, despite the area originally developed for residential purposes. There was an influx of Italians into the area, followed eventually by the Irish and, later, Latinos.

City of Reno staff installed boulders under the Wells Avenue Overpass to prevent people experiencing homelessness from camping there. A massive homeless encampment at the site was razed in March of 2021. The area is now fenced to prevent people from camping there. Image Bob Conrad / This Is Reno.

Historic preservation

After many years of community leaders’ efforts, the Wells Avenue neighborhood became a conservation district in 2013, the second in the city along with the Powning District, a neighborhood southwest of downtown. Lynn helped spearhead the effort.

The project in 2007 was called on Downtown Makeover the “Wells Avenue Bungalow District.”

The Wells Conservation District became reality in 2013. A conservation district provides for a method of achieving preservation without the regulations of a traditional historic district approach. 

The conservation district is a local designation. It was approved by the Reno City Council and the Regional Planning Commission.

“The Wells Avenue area is recognized as being an area of historic resources,” a City of Reno staff report reported at the time. “The establishment of the Wells Avenue Neighborhood Conservation District will recognize the architectural and cultural past of the Wells Avenue area.”

Today, eight years after the designation, Wells Avenue continues to change. Some residents have left, some have stayed and new people have arrived. 

Emblematic businesses have disappeared, such as Rapscallion, which was in business for more than 30 years. The restaurant closed during the pandemic in 2020. Such absences leave a sense of nostalgia for those who treasure memories there. Other buildings have changed facades so much that it is difficult to recognize them from how they used to look. 

But if there’s one thing Wells has always been known for, it’s the neighborhood’s timeless sense of community and hospitality even as the area continues to evolve. 

No matter race or income, everyone who arrives there seems to be welcomed. It was what a lot of business owners and residences consider a perfect place to call home.

The stronghold today, Lynn said, “is blue-collar landlords. Wells Avenue has been a brand since the 1940s. The diversity is really the strength. For 70 years it has adapted.”

Historic Wells Avenue. Image courtesy of Barry Lynn.

Read the whole series

Wells Avenue is one of the most popular and picturesque neighborhoods in the city of Reno. It is known as a great place to see art murals, visit small Latino and Hispanic restaurants, salons, tattoo parlors, clothing and pet stores. Over the past few years, Wells Avenue has seen numerous new businesses flourish and has also begun to see its share of housing problems similar to those affecting neighborhoods in other parts of the country. 

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