How Life Is Beautiful Could (or Should) Change Las Vegas

The upcoming Downtown festival is the kind of event that forever shifts a city’s cultural weather patterns. Here’s our forecast …

Life is Beautiful Back in the 1990s, I had a dream that Las Vegas could host a World’s Fair. It seemed easy enough to get there. All we had to do was tear down some five to eight blocks of streets and buildings around the Stratosphere Tower (including the attendant hotel) and rebuild the area as a cultural exposition, with pavilions devoted to art and emerging ideas. There would be stages for music, pop-up restaurants, lots of grass and foliage—and the best part would be that we’d get to keep many of those upgrades after Samsung and the Kingdom of Norway rolled up their tents and went home.

I got this wild idea after visiting Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual music, arts and culture festival, for the first time in 1997. Bumbershoot is held at the 74-acre Seattle Center, which was the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. After that fair ended, the city got Seattle Center—the Space Needle, Pacific Science Center and lots of rolling lawns that are perfectly suited to temporary music stages. Without Seattle Center, Bumbershoot would not exist … and without the Seattle World’s Fair, there would be no Seattle Center. It all made sense to me.

On October 26-27, Downtown Las Vegas hosts Life Is Beautiful, its own arts, music, food and cultural festival. It’s happening in the heart of the city, on city streets; no special event space was constructed to present it, and no Downtown residents have been permanently relocated to accommodate it. Over the course of two days, the Fremont East Entertainment District will simply be converted into festival grounds, with stages for music, pop-up dining spots and pavilions devoted to art. It is its own World’s Fair.

This begs the question: What will Life Is Beautiful do for Las Vegas in the long run? What should it do? It’s easy to look at Seattle Center’s cultural institutions, civic attractions and park space, and take it as a blueprint, but Downtown—and Las Vegas as a whole—won’t be easily transformed. There are deep grooves cut into this city, both literal and figurative, and if any benefits are to flow from Life Is Beautiful, they’ll have to conform to what’s already here, what’s already been done. Still, I can easily imagine at least seven ways that this town could and should be changed by Life Is Beautiful—and the best part is that the Stratosphere’s hotel gets to stay exactly where it is.

It will result in some lasting physical improvements to Downtown.

 Life Is Beautiful’s street-art program will bring several new murals to currently unadorned walls. A portion of the former Western Hotel that wasn’t up to code was demolished, making room for the festival’s Culinary Village and removing an dilapidated eyesore in one fell swoop. And Life Is Beautiful staffers tell me that the “Llama Lot”—the festival area across from Atomic Liquors at Fremont and Ninth streets—will remain as a paved lot after the festival, with all the power and data hookups needed to plug in another stage at a moment’s notice. Considering the crazy number of events that took place on Fremont Street this year—including the Mint 400 Tech Inspection, the Zappos Vendor Party and Punk Rock Bowling—it’s safe to assume that a large event space in the Fremont East district will get a lot of use even before Life Is Beautiful 2014 rolls around.

It will serve as a kind of Downtown sampler platter.

I work on Fremont Street—my office is inside Emergency Arts, ground floor—and it’s easy for me to forget sometimes that there are people in this town who haven’t been down to Fremont East enough times to, you know, get kinda sick of the place, as I do more often than I care to admit. In fact, I’d wager that there are people reading these words who haven’t been down to Fremont East at all, ever … and Life Is Beautiful, with its heady promises of celebrity chefs, Beck and Cirque du Soleil lite, will provide your first taste of this emerging neighborhood.

Virtually all of Downtown’s big bar stars—Atomic Liquors, Commonwealth, Insert Coin(s), Fremont Country Club, Beauty Bar, you name it—are located within the festival’s footprint, and many of them are serving as Life Is Beautiful venues, so if you don’t know Fremont East yet, you’re about to get a graduate course in it. That’s kind of the idea. Festival founder Rehan Choudhry said as much at a recent neighborhood meeting: “The purpose of this festival is to bring influential and high-spending people to our community.” And you, too.

On the melancholy side, it could be another nail in the coffin for Cashman Field.

Hate to say it, but it’s true. When news of Life Is Beautiful first broke a year ago, I thought that Cashman seemed a likely place to host it; after all, it’s hosted concerts before. (I saw Metallica there in 1998.) And there’s ample precedent for holding sprawling music festivals in Vegas stadiums; Lollapalooza came to Sam Boyd Stadium in 1994, and the late, lamented Vegoose was held on the grassy fields north of that stadium from 2005 to 2007. But Life Is Beautiful decided to go another, less traditional route—and that choice, coupled with the Las Vegas 51s’ apparent desire to decamp for a still-nonexistent stadium in Summerlin, leaves Cashman Field looking forgotten and diminished.

Downtown Las Vegas Life is BeautifulIt will affect local and national perception of Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, for good or ill.

Strictly speaking, Life Is Beautiful is not a Downtown Project, er, project. Rehan Choudhry’s Aurelian Marketing Group, Joey Vanas’ MAKTUB Marketing and San Francisco-based production company Another Planet Entertainment are partnering with the Downtown Project to put on the festival; Hsieh’s name is the smallest on the door, operationally speaking. But then again, Life Is Beautiful is happening on land owned by the Downtown Project, and to many outsiders, Hsieh is the sole architect of Downtown’s rebirth. (Simply Google “Hsieh Vegas” and you’ll find stories in Forbes, Business Insider, The New York Times and more. Do the same with Choudhry’s name—“Choudhry Vegas”—and you get a handful of local stories, including some from this very publication, and Choudhry’s Facebook page.) If this thing proves to be a fiasco (and my fingers are crossed that it doesn’t), Hsieh’s name will undoubtedly supersede Choudhry’s in the national press. The same might happen if the festival is a smash hit, but I don’t think Choudhry will mind that so much.

It will make the City of Las Vegas easier to work with in staging large-scale events.

Choudhry has said that most first-time festival planners think in terms of first-year problems. But the massive scale of the festival, with all its diverse programming components and multiple moving parts, is something else entirely: “We’re planning a year five festival for the first time out,” he says.

In other words: Life Is Beautiful is a moon shot, launched even before we have a space program. And every step that the festival takes with the City of Las Vegas to keep this thing from blowing up on the pad—securing the necessary permits, figuring out the logistical issues of closing off 15 city blocks for two days—is a step that the City will never have to take again. After Life Is Beautiful, two-block street festivals and five-block-long parades will be a piece of cake.

It will announce to some reluctant touring bands that Vegas has come of age as a concert town.

A few years back, someone asked me why Bruce Springsteen only paid a couple of visits to Las Vegas in the early 2000s and then skipped our city on subsequent tours. I asked my friend Eric Maloney, who’s done back-of-house work on a bunch of concerts in Chicago and Seattle, and even once worked a Springsteen show at Comiskey Park. What he said about The Boss and Las Vegas is probably true of a lot of touring bands: “Vegas is a bitch for a routed tour on the ground. There are too many drive days and small markets with no radio between Vegas and the nearest hub of markets, and the city is also a bitch for a fly-in, fly-out regional run for the same reason.”

Now, Las Vegas isn’t the live-music desert some make it out to be. The Beatles played here in their heyday, as did the Doors; Nirvana and Elliott Smith both played sparsely attended shows here on their way up the ladder. But when you look at national tour schedules, it’s tough not to feel slighted. Seemingly, the superstar bands only pencil us in when they want to spend their day off at the tables, and many midsize indie bands skip us entirely.

(The reasons for the midsize bands avoiding Vegas seem to vary, and are more personal than those of your Springsteens and the like. Just today, I saw a text from a well-known New York musician who lamented Las Vegas’ acute lack of freestanding midsize venues, such as the soon-to-be revitalized Huntridge Theater. Sure, we have Vinyl, the Pearl and the Boulevard Pool, but playing in a casino is not for everyone. I remember a Wilco show at the House of Blues where lead singer Jeff Tweedy raged against the comped customers standing around the bar, who were being annoyingly chatty: “Everyone must be doing well in Vegas tonight, to pay for a show and not listen to it.”)

Now, I can’t say for certain what kind of message Life Is Beautiful will send to touring acts reluctant to play here. But—if it’s successful—I can guess that it won’t hurt our cause. We’re pouring a lot of time, money and resources into a festival that doesn’t have any gaming component whatsoever. We are doing this for the bands (and the chefs and artists and lecturers), and that’s got to resonate with musicians who still hold an archaic notion of this place, despite the visits from the Beatles and Nirvana and, yes, Bruce Springsteen. Life Is Beautiful is Las Vegas inviting live music into its home, without the insulation of a stadium …  and we’re not even making an effort to direct the fans of these bands to the tables. That might engender us some trust from touring bands in the future.Fremont East Life is Beautiful

Life Is Beautiful will fire a warning shot over the Strip.

“When I first came to town I tried to figure out how to do a music festival on the Strip, and I quickly realized it wasn’t possible,” Choudhry says. “There’s just no connectivity between the resorts, and no easy way for you and I to walk three minutes from this room”—he indicated my office at Emergency Arts—“to a headliner stage in just three minutes.”

Downtown Las Vegas is being rebuilt with connectivity in mind. Everything is linked together, and nothing is out of reach. One of these days, try walking from the casino at The Mirage to the casino “next door” at Caesars Palace inside of 15 minutes. It’s a slog, a commute—and as enormous as the two properties are, something as compact as Life Is Beautiful would never fit between them. The Strip simply isn’t built that way, which may be why both Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts are now building urban, pedestrian-scale shopping and dining centers out on the Strip. But even if MGM’s planned “park” and Caesars’ soon-to-open Linq are successful, they’re not built for anything like Life Is Beautiful. This is a real city festival, and it requires a real cityscape to come off the right way.

* * *

Life Is Beautiful is not the World’s Fair I dreamed of. But if I could have imagined a live-music festival happening on the streets of Las Vegas, I might have put that first dream aside and put my stock in the other. I couldn’t see it back then, because the Strip doesn’t belong to us, and I couldn’t imagine the tourists letting us have the run of the place for two days. But Downtown is ours. That’s our will at work, putting art on gallery walls in the 18b Arts District, putting beer in glasses at the Atomic and putting Beck and the Killers to work on Fremont Street.

Life Is Beautiful belongs to Las Vegas and Las Vegans. We willed it to happen over the course of decades. And despite the headaches and expense associated with it right now, it will change this city in the long run. Part of me wishes I could skip ahead 10 years to find out if we eventually get a Seattle Center out of this thing. It would be beautiful, indeed.

Geoff Carter is a senior writer for Vegas Seven and the editor of its sister website,