It’s Friday evening in early summer, and the streets are alive. Booths filled with people selling drinks, food, jewellery, and other artisanal goods line the sidewalk as couples, families, and groups of teenagers wander the blocked-off roads. On one end of the street, a band of elementary school students performs a song. At another, high school students live paint on huge sheets of canvas. The scene feels like a snapshot of a dynamic city like Los Angeles, Toronto, or Vancouver. But this, perhaps surprisingly, is Las Vegas.
Taking place the first Friday of every month, this free open-air arts festival, called First Friday, is a chance for the community to gather in celebration of visual art, music, and culture (other American hubs such as Portland and Los Angeles do, in fact, hold similar events). Each month’s affair has a different theme, but they all emphasize the importance of nurturing local talent. The organization also conducts programs in schools, and gives budding performers the chance to take the stage during a First Friday. “There’s so much talent here,” says Corey Fagan, community relations manager for First Friday. “So many entertainers live in Las Vegas, and entertainers breed entertainers.” In a city seen as an escape, a place to visit but never to live, First Friday is a point for the home team. “Vegas is so transient,” she says. “It’s always all about the tourists, and this is about the locals.” People travel from all over the world to take in the pizzazz, the gaud, the luxury of Las Vegas. And those things have their place, undoubtedly; but the grimy reputation of Sin City as a destination for making mistakes is slowly washing away, revealing the burgeoning and vibrant community underneath that, it turns out, has always been there—it just lives off the strip.
The 18b Arts District, where First Friday takes place, is bookended with two giant paintbrushes that light up at night—an ode to the city’s flashiness, both embracing the infamous kitsch and cheekily reminding visitors that there are two sides to every gambling chip. Also open during First Friday is Art Square, a large space comprised of three remodelled buildings from the 1950s that houses art galleries, a video studio, artisan shops, an interior design firm, and a theatre. Nearby is the Arts Factory, a 50-year-old commercial warehouse that has played host to the galleries and studios of over 20 artists, including Alexander P. Huerta. Huerta, originally from California, never considered pursuing art until he found himself standing in front of Picasso’s Le Reve. One year later, in 1996, he bought his first art supplies and began to paint. “I never knew my life would be like this,” Huerta says now. “I’m just a dude who went to the store.” Today Huerta makes a living off of his art, and has had his studio, PeaceNart, for six years. He mentors young painters and often gives them their first show in his gallery space—his way of giving back to the community that let him not only realize his dream, but follow it.
There are two sides to every gambling chip.
Entertainment, not gambling, is the number one driver of tourism to Vegas, and beyond the spectacle of contortionists and pop stars is the live theatre, dance, and jazz found at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a stunning facility with multiple theatres that opened in 2012. “The Smith Center was built with the local community in mind but that’s not where it stops,” says Sara Gorgon, the center’s associate director of public relations and communications. Listening to the likes of Clint Holmes croon Billy Joel songs in the Cabaret Jazz club is as memorable for tourists as it is for residents.
The city’s culinary scene is also maturing, a trend seen across North America, but emphasized here, where any ingredient imaginable can be flown in fresh. Show-stopping Mexican is found at La Comida, a hip and open space run by executive chef Paloma Cuellar. Go for the delicious carnitas tacos and tuna tostadas, and stay for the six refreshing flavours of margaritas. Finish the evening at the Downtown Container Park, a cluster of repurposed shipping containers converted into restaurants, bars, and shops for budding entrepreneurs to try a hand at running a space. Grab a beer and listen to the live music, or simply sit and watch the people go by.
There is plenty to do and see in Las Vegas, an overwhelming amount (viewed best from above at the Mandarin Oriental’s Mandarin Bar, cocktail in hand), but not all of it is what would be expected by a first-time visitor or even a regular. Behind the curtain of smoke and slots is a city determined to prove itself, to cultivate a place where both tourists and locals can find inspiration, stimulation, and, perhaps, even redemption.
UPDATE, September 2018: the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas is turning into a Waldorf Astoria.