There is a revival happening in gritty downtown Las Vegas, far from the glitzy pleasure palaces of the Strip. Now everything old is new again, as artistic and adventurous Las Vegans and visitors have reconquered the 18-block area known as the Downtown Arts District.
“That area has always had low rents and attracted starving artists,” says Bryan “Paco” Alvarez, an anthropologist and tour guide to the local scene. “Come with an open mind. Be shocked Vegas has an arts district.”
One of the hottest events in downtown is the immersive theatrical show Particle Ink: Speed of Dark. The show takes the audience on an interactive journey, like walking through a living graphic novel, illuminating the struggle between light and dark. The crowd walks through a gritty former warehouse, interacting with dancers, ever-changing light effects, and projected animated graphics and video.
To me, the experience seemed like an exhilarating marriage between Cirque Du Soleil and the works of filmmaker Tim Burton. The producers call Particle Ink an “interdimensional performance of imagination.” The show launched this spring and is drawing a mixture of savvy Las Vegans and visitors happy to leave the Strip for a new experience.
You can get a taste of the ‘sprawling metaverse’ of Particle Ink in this clip from an April 2022 TED Talk attended by 1400 people. But the current live version takes you on a mysterious, hypnotic journey in the dark. Tickets start at $59.
Producer Jennifer Tuft says the immersive show “is a journey of self-discovery, told through interactive art, performance and augmented reality. But you don’t need to be a native of the tech world to enjoy it. There’s no middleware, you just experience the show as it opens your mind and heart.” Showgoers interact with AR (augmented reality) elements, but without the need for goggles, helmets, or cables.
It was put together by Kaleidco, a team of New York producers wowed by the talent of Las Vegas-based visual artist collective the Light Poets. Particle Ink plays a once-abandoned warehouse at 918 S. Main Street now called the LightHouse.
“We really feel Las Vegas is the emerging immersive entertainment hub. Our studio was there from the very beginning,” says Jennifer Tuft, co-founder of Kaleidco. Before she discovered the Downtown Arts District, she says, “I really never knew this part of Las Vegas at all. But it’s like NY when I was growing up—a lot of creative people and energy.”
In fact, the original plan had been to launch in New York City, but after COVID the group reassessed. The creators, the studio, and the talent, like performers who’ve worked with Cirque du Soleil, 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 warehouse 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 a strong location. “The show is doing really well; the community has taken us in. We do have plans for expansion both inside Las Vegas and outside. But Vegas feels like exactly the right place.”
Directly across the street at 921 S. Main stands The English Hotel, from hotelier and James Beard Award-winning Chef Todd English. Opened earlier this year, the boutique non-gaming hotel has an upscale, New York vibe.
Its restaurant, the Pepper Club, offers a sophisticated blend of Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine. The bar offers unique handcrafted cocktails, such as a delicious variant of the Vesper, James Bond’s favorite drink.
The restaurant and its gleaming bar have become something of a clubhouse for Arts Districts 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, including Todd English, a developer, and, yes, Marriott. But he says its fits the “edgy” vibe of the downtown scene. “We don’t have a lot of boutique hotels in the city.”
The English Hotel, opened earlier in 2002. The 74-room hotel is full of artistic touches like geometric patterns and big 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 and iced water and tea. Unlike the 5000-room behemoths of the Strip, The English Hotel is on human scale.
The hotel exterior is ringed with paintings, including some reminiscent of Keith Haring. (The whole 18-block Arts District is packed with murals and street sculpture.) It has a nicely landscaped pool, a must if you’re leaving an air-conditioned room on a 110-degree day.
One thing you won’t find at the millennial-friendly hotel, complete with malt-USB ports, is a casino. But Fremont Street, home of The Golden Nugget and Las Vegas’s oldest casino, the Bugsy Siegel-founded El Cortez, is just a few blocks north.
I found the young staff extremely helpful, as the tattooed floral arranger dropped what she was doing to point me toward the Writer’s Block bookstore. When I got there (it was a balmy 112 degrees out there) it was a shop of New York bookstore quality, packed with current literary work, graphic novels and more.
Fittingly, The Pepper Club and Particle Ink: Speed of Dark have developed their own spin on the classic Vegas ‘dinner and a show.’ A four-course dinner-show package available for $120 per person, including tax, gratuities and show tickets. The four-course prix-fixe dinner experience menu includes choices like miso soup or salad, taco belle (teriyaki, short ribs, serrano chilis, spicy citrus slaw), shrimp tempura, a 10-piece sashimi platter, short ribs in black pepper teriyaki and a dessert of crème 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 one-of-a-kind experience we’re creating at The Pepper Club,” said Todd English, partner and master chef, English Hospitality Group. “
The arts district is not really walkable and is still something of a work in progress. But there’s an exciting feeling in the air. Like Las Vegas itself, the arts district is a mixture of the rough, the grimy and the sublime.