The First Year of the Rest of Our ‘Life’

Life Is Beautiful passed its first test: Nothing big went wrong—and plenty of small things went right.

Photo by Geoff Carter

Photo by Geoff Carter

For me, the Life Is Beautiful festival began several days early, when muralists from all over the world began painting (and, in the case of Portuguese street artist Vhils, carving) their art upon previously inert Downtown walls. Everywhere I turned, there was a cherry picker with an artist on it, making art of abandoned motels, the El Cortez parking structure and–thank heavens—the previously bland east faces of Emergency Arts and Commonwealth. Seeing those walls brought to life was nearly as exciting to me as any live music I saw at the festival.

It didn’t end with paint, either. Over the course of a week, Atomic Liquors more than tripled the size of its patio, and the cracked foundation of the demolished Ambassador Motel was transformed into a ready-made events space. And one of my biggest pet peeves about the Fremont East Entertainment District—those frayed, jaundiced “Fremont East” banners, the ones that showed Oscar Goodman in terrifying close-up—were replaced with new banners displaying platitudes about … cats. I think that’s awesome, but I’m a cat person, so your opinion may differ.

For me, those things alone made Life Is Beautiful a success. The festival itself was, you know, a festival: Great live music (Cults, Vampire Weekend, Living Colour, Jurassic 5 and Childish Gambino were standouts for me), rib-sticking street food (the Culinary Village has pretty much reset the bar for other such music and arts festivals—why bother with corn dogs when you’ve got Nobu and Honey Salt serving up small bites?) and lots and lots and lots of walking. But maybe the best thing I can say about the festival is that I wasn’t terribly annoyed by anything.

Let me unpack that last thing, because it’s not at all faint praise: Events like Life Is Beautiful are often judged not by their merits, but by their failures—delayed sets, food shortages and long lines. I experienced none of that, and, let me tell you, I was looking for it. And the complaints I heard from friends were minimal, many of them related to the sound mix. (For every Vampire Weekend that sounded crisp and warm and perfect, there was a Killers, all muddied bass and unnecessary feedback.) They also said that the view from the VIP areas wasn’t great … not terrible, but not great. And someone said that the ATMs went out for a time, but I saw no evidence of that. At no point did the annoyances come close to trumping the fun.

And there were many things about Life Is Beautiful that I flat-out loved, aside from the street art. One of them could spell a sea change in Las Vegas planning: The Secret Garden, a pop-up green space behind the El Cortez Cabana Suites, was a perfect example of the types of “pocket parks” that Downtown sorely needs.

With its fountain, potted trees, benches, flowers and grass sod (laid atop concrete; it was pressed flat by the middle of the first day), the Secret Garden showed what such a park could do for Downtown if done right. I visited it often, lying down on the grass, chatting casually with friends and marveling at its relative stillness and tranquility, and I fervently wished it were permanent. Maybe it could be, in a way: Late Saturday I ran into Rae Lathrop of the Outside Las Vegas Foundation, the nonprofit that is working to get a hiking/biking trail created around the entire Valley, and she effused about Secret Garden, saying she could simply use a photograph of it to sell developers and city officials on the idea of pocket parks.

The two-day festival racked up more than 60,000 admissions, but it’s too early to gauge its overall financial and cultural impact. In search of anecdotal evidence, I spoke to two neighborhood business owners at the festival. One said, without irony, “I’m having my best sales day ever.” Another said, “This is a wonderful thing that’s good for everyone,” making quotation mark gestures with his hands. Yikes. For some folks, life is never beautiful enough.

Maybe the world-weariness of certain Downtowners’ reaction—OK, of my reaction—has to do with the Life Is Beautiful saturation we’ve lived with for the past several months. And the massive expectations, too. But looked at through a realistic lens, the festival was a clear-cut success: The area was beautified, people came out in numbers and had a good time, and nothing caught fire.

Believe me, none of those things was certain going into this.