A revival is taking place in gritty downtown Las Vegas, far from the glittering pleasure palaces of the Strip. Now everything old is new again as artsy and adventurous Las vegans and visitors have reclaimed the 18-block area known as the Downtown Arts District.
“This area has always had low rents and attracted starving artists,” says Brian “Paco” Alvarez anthropologist and guide to the local scene. “Come with an open mind. Be shocked, Vegas has an art district.”
One of the hottest events downtown is the immersive theater show Particle Ink: Speed of Darkness. The show takes the audience on an interactive journey, as if walking through a living graphic novel, illuminating the struggle between light and darkness. The crowd walks through a gloomy former warehouse and interacts with dancers, ever-changing lighting effects and projected animated graphics and videos.
To me, this experience seemed like an exciting marriage between Cirque Du Soleil and the works of filmmaker Tim Burton. Producers call Particle Ink an “interdimensional imagination feat.” The show launched this spring and attracts a mix of savvy Las Vegans and visitors keen to venture off the Strip for a new experience.
You can get a taste of the ‘sprawling metaverse’ of particle ink in this clip from a TED Talk in April 2022 that was attended by 1400 people. But the current live version takes you on a mysterious, hypnotic journey into the dark. Tickets start at $59.
Jennifer Tuft, co-founder of Kaleidco, producers of Particle Ink, says the immersive show “is a journey of self-discovery told through interactive art, performance and augmented reality. But you don’t have to be a native of the tech world to enjoy it. There is no middleware [like AR helmets or goggles]You just experience the show as it opens your mind and heart.”
Kaleidco, a team of New York producers, were blown away by the talent of Las Vegas-based visual artist collective Light Poets. Particle Ink takes place in a once-abandoned warehouse at 918 S. Main Street, now called the LightHouse.
“We truly believe that Las Vegas is the emerging center for immersive entertainment. Our studio was there from the beginning,” says Tuft. Before discovering the Downtown Arts District, she says, “I really didn’t know this part of Las Vegas at all. But it’s like New York growing up – lots of creative people and energy.”
Actually, the original plan was to start in New York City, but after COVID, the group made a reassessment. The creators, the studio and the talent were already in town. So was a potential audience of over 2 million people.
Tuft says, “Speed of Dark was built for Las Vegas. We found this camp and the space felt right. You should come to Vegas to see this show, or go if you’re already in town!” She adds that the Downtown Arts District is proving to be a strong location. “The show is going really well; the community accepted us. We have expansion plans both inside and outside of Las Vegas. But Vegas seems like the place to be.”
Directly across the street at 921 S. Grandstands The English hotel, by hotelier and James Beard Award-winning chef Todd English. (Points and miles lovers will be pleased to learn that The English Hotel is also part of Marriott’s Tribute Portfolio group.) Opened earlier this year, the no-gambling boutique hotel has an upscale New York vibe.
Its restaurant, the Pepper Club, offers a sophisticated mix of Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine. The bar offers unique handcrafted cocktails, such as a delicious take on Vespers, James Bond’s favorite drink.
The restaurant and its gleaming bar have become a clubhouse of sorts for Arts District residents and a growing number of visitors. Much of the Particle Ink crowd stays, or at least drinks, at The English Hotel.
Paco Alvarez says the hotel is “a big roll of the dice” for investors. But he says it fits the downtown scene’s “edgy” vibe. “We don’t have many boutique hotels in the city.”
The English Hotel opened in early 2002. The 74-room hotel is full of artistic touches like geometric patterns and large black-and-white portraits in the rooms. The hotel notepads are black – so they come with pens that write in gold. The cozy lobby and lounge welcome you with coffee, iced water and tea. Unlike the Strip’s 5,000-room behemoths, The English Hotel is human-sized.
The hotel’s exterior is ringed with paintings, including some commemorating Keith Haring. (The entire 18-block Arts District is packed with murals and street sculptures.) It has a beautifully landscaped pool, a must when stepping out of an air-conditioned room on a 110-degree day.
One thing you won’t find at the millennial-friendly hotel with malt USB ports is a casino. But Fremont Street, home of The Golden Nugget and Las Vegas’ oldest casino, Bugsy Siegel’s El Cortez, is just a few blocks north.
I found the young staff extremely helpful when the tattooed flower arranger dropped her job to point me to Writer’s Block bookstore. When I got there (it was a balmy 112 degrees outside), it was a New York bookstore-quality store, packed with current literary works, graphic novels, and more.
Appropriate, The Pepper Club and Particle Ink: Speed of Darkness have created their own take on the classic Vegas dinner and a show. A four-course dinner show package is available for $120 per person, including taxes, gratuities, and show tickets. The four-course Prix Fix Dinner experience menu includes options like miso soup or salad, Taco Belle (teriyaki, short ribs, serrano chilies, spicy citrus salad), shrimp tempura, a 10-piece sashimi platter, short Ribs in teriyaki with black pepper and a dessert made from creme brulle. Reservations are required; Book here.
We were blown away by the innovation of ‘Particle Ink: Speed of Dark’ when we saw it and think it’s a great compliment to the unique experience we’re creating at Pepper Club,” said Todd English, Partner and Master Chef, English Hospitality Group. “
The artists’ quarter is not really accessible and is still a work in progress. But there is an exciting feeling in the air. Like Las Vegas itself, the Arts District is a mix of the rough, the dirty, and the sublime.