I love Vegas: the messy drunks, ersatz cityscapes, cigarette smoke, even the douchey bros and packs of shrieking sorority girls are strangely familiar and reassuring. All of it just means I'm near blackjack, fancy meals, gay pool parties, and Cirque de Soleil. But it's easy to forget that people power this adult Disneyland; that a real city exists beyond the neon and plastic.
Maybe that's why Downtown Vegas fascinates me, since it's the closest thing to a real city that Las Vegas, home to 2 million souls, can claim. I'm not the only one interested in this once-thriving, long-derelict, now-back-from-the-dead collection of densely-packed casinos, high-rises, and restaurants. Led by Zappos' young CEO Tony Hsieh, which relocated his shoe empire to the city center, the area is now seeing new investment, development, and young residents. A nascent art scene is headquartered in a downtown hospital-turned-JCPenney-turned-coffeehouse/art gallery. A mini-Coachella debuted in downtown last year, winning praise for its organization and street art. A cultural district is establishing itself around the gorgeous Smith Center, which in September debuts the first performance of Kinky Boots outside Broadway.
My boyfriend is not a Vegas fan. He doesn't gamble, barely drinks, and house music gives him migraines. So, I lured him to downtown with a promise of a different Vegas experience, complete with a Book of Mormon matinee at the Smith. We stayed at the cabana suites of the 73-year-old El Cortez, the city's longest operating casino. Recently renovated to look like a Miami Beach resort, the cabana suites are across the street from the actual El Cortez, with its mix of seniors and hipsters (more of the former for now) playing poker and slots. A room key is required to enter the lobby of the suites, which is staffed by a 24-hour attendant and filled with a mega-TV, plush coaches, and constantly-rotating bowls of fruit and candy. Decorated in black, white, and turquoise, the actual rooms are imminently comfortable, with a huge bed we had trouble getting out of every morning. Our view over Ogden Avenue provided a clear view of the curious, but mostly sad, gamblers making their way into the El Cortez; we couldn't help but guess at their stories.
We didn't spend much time in the room, with the lights and music beckoning. Unlike the half-mile of crowds and elevated sidewalks separating Strip hotels from Las Vegas Boulevard, downtown's pleasures are always easily accessible. We made a habit of stopping at The Beat coffeehouse, which occupies the ground-floor of the aforementioned former hospital, now known as the Emergency Arts Center. The coffeehouse is surrounded by a record shop and performance space, while a tiny burlesque museum sits across the agave and soy milk. Above, several floors of galleries and shops occupy old examination rooms, and the whole space holds some of that antiseptic hospital odor.
Passing meticulous murals of zombies and lost souls on nearly every downtown building, we ambled to the city's container park. Guarded by a praying mantis that spits fire (a remnant of the Life is Beautiful music festival), dozens of giant storage containers are now filled with burlesque boutiques, barber shops, and a BBQ place described by fans as the best in the west. Climb to the third floor for dramatic views of the Las Vegas valley and desert mountains, and peer down at the giant playground or watch the live music that's a regular feature. A dark tunnel connecting two sides of the park is a perfect makeout spot.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts is a bit removed from the action on Ogden and Fremont. We planned on walking to the show, but the heat and a chronic inability to be on time to anything forced us to drive. After nearly locking the keys in the car, we started to race for the front door, but a Smith Center golf cart picked us up so we wouldn't have to break a sweat. There was enough time to take in the two-year-old arts center, which holds a jazz club and two theaters. Architect David Schwarz designed the Smith to recreate elements of the nearby Hoover Dam, creating an homage to 1920s Art Deco that's stunning, not schmaltzy. The grounds are pristine, the lobby massive and the show packed. Robbie and I took pictures in front of The Smith's winged god, which decorates a stairwell landing and mimics the Dam's angelic guardians. Inside, the main theater is as grandiose as Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are staged.