Photography by Christian Gustavsson.
Lunchtime is busy at The Perch, where locals ordering healthy dishes occupy each table. The big playground outside is full of families with small children; towering over them are 40 oddly stacked shipping containers that contain hip boutiques, cool bars, and trendy start-ups.
My photographer/partner-in-crime Christian and I are eating outside on a big rooftop terrace. The sun is blazing and, had I not known better, I would’ve guessed we were in a hip enclave of Los Angeles or New York.
But this is downtown Las Vegas. Specifically, it’s Downtown Container Park, which was originally planned as a place where employees of online shoe and clothing shop Zappos could live and work. But the owner, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Tony Hsieh, has allowed the project to grow into a major re-development and revitalization project.
Now, thousands of local techies and entrepreneurs thrive in an area once filled with the well-worn motels and empty plots surrounding Fremont Street, one of Vegas’ original arteries. The area, which long lived in the shadow of the Strip's booming evolution, is already brimming with galleries, restaurants, and shops; soon, they'll be joined by brand-new condos.
The residents that are part of this flourishing development are still a bit astonished themselves. Among them is Andrea Harward, who was born and raised in Vegas. Now, she works with Downtown Project, which is the organization behind downtown Vegas’ recent makeover. “I remember when you never crossed 7th Street,” she jokes while leading us across that very street to check out VegeNation, which boasts a solely vegan menu. We continue to Oak & Ivy, a craft whiskey and cocktail bar, and then hit up Writer’s Block, the city’s only independent bookseller, publisher, and literacy educator. Not far down Fremont Street is Banger, a craft brewery.
Marlin Mareland Sr., sous chef at the Perch, agrees. “When I was growing up you never wanted to go downtown,” he says. “It was too rundown. It’s so different now. I even bring my kids.”
The desert metropolis of Las Vegas was founded in 1905. When gambling was legalized 26 years later, it drew fortune hunters, gangsters, and, subsequently, a constant stream of travellers and tourists. Most of the more than 42 million yearly visitors spend their time on the Strip, the famed 6.8km (4.2 mi) long stretch of casinos, hotels, and venues, where nothing is really real and neon-lit kitsch is elevated to religious heights.
But according to artist Alex Huerta, downtown Vegas is “the real Las Vegas.” His studio, PeaceNart, is about a five-minute drive (or 20-minute walk) from the Downtown Container Park, located in the southern wing of an artist collective known as Arts Factory, which is full of studios and galleries; more of the same is found across the street at Arts Square. The whole area, teeming with creativity, has been dubbed — appropriately — the Arts District, or 18b, due to the fact that it consists of 18 blocks. The door to Huerta’s studio has been open every day for the last eight years.
“I’m in the greatest city to take a gamble with my art because so much here is about betting,” Huerta says with a laugh. His gamble has paid off: Huerta’s paintings now sell for up to $5,000 USD apiece.
The Arts District was founded in 1998, but its recent boom in prosperity came in around a decade later, in the fallout of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. When plans for shopping malls and a large sports centre in the area fell through, creative locals started to set up in the abandoned buildings. As the new influx of artists, designers and other creative types added to the area’s cachet, investors took notice. The pedestrian-friendly Main Street is lined with antique shops, vintage boutiques, and quirky hangouts, such as ReBAR, which combines beer, booze, and specialty hot dogs with vintage and antique odds and ends for sale. Its owner, Derek Stonebarger, is the board president of the Las Vegas Arts District neighbourhood association.
And it’s not just bricks-and-mortar establishments that have helped the area build cultural cred. A monthly First Friday party celebrates the work of local artists, musicians, and restaurateurs, and since 2013 the area has hosted the massive Life is Beautiful music and art festival (performers have included Stevie Wonder, Mumford & Sons, and Kanye West).
Still, most tourists seem to stay around the Strip. But Jana Lynch, who runs local gallery Jana’s Red Room, says that’s a mixed blessing. “The last thing we want is for the Arts District to become more luxury galleries than living studios,” she says. “There’s not a lot of foot traffic yet, which is what we need, I hope more people will find out about our little secret.”
G Adventures runs a number of tours through the United States that visit Las Vegas. Whether you're looking to stay in Sin City or visit more of the western U.S., we can get you there. Check out our small group tours to the U.S. here.