Life is about to get ugly for some of the people who live and worship in downtown Las Vegas.
Setup began last week for the upcoming Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival, which has alienated more than a few of its neighbors over the past two years. Among them is Shanetta Gilmer, 42, who said she felt trapped when preparations began for last year’s event.
“They just completely blocked us off as if nobody lived here at all,” she said. “And I feel as if, you know, I know how things work. We’re low-income people, OK? They just didn’t take us into consideration.”
Gilmer lives at Parsons Place, a three-story building that provides transitional housing to 57 adults at Stewart Avenue and Seventh Street. It serves people who moved from shelters or were “near homeless.” Rent for the studio units ranges from $375 to $420 a month.
But those who live and work at Parsons Place aren’t the only ones who have a beef with the Life Is Beautiful festival, which is expected to draw 80,000 attendees during the three-day event, which starts Friday. Amistad Christiana Church, located at 901 Stewart Ave., filed a federal lawsuit in late July that accused the festival and the city of Las Vegas of violating its First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.
“Their concern about the well-being of the residents in that poor neighborhood is virtually nonexistent,” said attorney Allen Lichtenstein, who represents the church.
Dozens of people came to support the church during a court hearing Thursday, when it sought an injunction to stop the festival from drowning out its Saturday and Sunday services. U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon denied the request and dismissed the lawsuit, but Lichtenstein said he plans to appeal the judge’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gordon determined that the city did not commit a constitutional violation by issuing Life Is Beautiful a permit for the festival. In addition, according to his order, neither the city nor the festival took any action “to prohibit, regulate, or coerce Amistad’s religious beliefs or practices.”
Lichtenstein predicts a reversal of the judge’s decision but not in time to affect this year’s festival.
No free passes
The disputes surrounding Life Is Beautiful came after failed attempts at compromise.
Michelle Villero, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of Southern Nevada Inc., said the festival appeased Parsons Place residents the first two years by giving them general admission passes. That won’t happen this year.
Villero said she “was floored” by what she was told at an Aug. 11 meeting with Eve Cohen, managing director of Life Is Beautiful, and her staff.
“They advised me that the residents will not have access to the festival,” Villero said.
Instead, the festival will provide a golf cart to help get residents in and out of the building. The explanation for the change: Parsons Place will not be in the festival’s “footprint” this year.
“They keep saying that we’re not part of the footprint,” Villero said. “The stage is down the block. We’re part of the footprint.”
When contacted about the concerns of Parsons Place residents last week, Cohen said only, “I’m not going to have any comment on that.”
Gilmer said she wasn’t bothered much by Life Is Beautiful during its first year, when it lasted only two days.
“But last year it got bigger, and that’s really where the problem came in,” she said.
Gilmer said the festival started putting up fences and bringing in security officers days before the event began and before the residents received the wristbands that gave them free access.
“So when we were coming out of our building, maybe to go to the store or something like that, they were basically saying to us, ‘You can’t be here,'” she said.
Gilmer said they had the same problem when they tried to return to the building. She recalled a security officer threatening to call the police on her. She told him, “Look, I’m going home. You cannot stop me from going home.'”
But Gilmer said the difficulties subsided once the festival began. Residents were given an opening in the fence to pass through, as well as the wristbands to access the event.
“People have things that they have to do,” Gilmer said. “It’s not just about: ‘Let’s go have fun.’ You know, we have to get in and out of our building. It was like we were prisoners here, and it wasn’t appreciated. I didn’t appreciate it.”
Villero said Parsons Place also had to deal with festival-goers trying to access the building’s restrooms and overfilling its dumpsters. In addition, program director Bryiant Williams and the handful of residents with cars had a hard time finding parking spaces.
Three-day passes for the festival are on sale for $255 and not within the budgets of Parsons Place residents.
In August, festival founder Rehan Choudhry gave 3,000 UNLV freshmen free passes to the event.
“How is it that they can sit across the street from us and not allow us to have access to the inside of the festival? I mean, I just think that’s the least they can do for the low-income individuals that are living here,” Williams said. “I think it would make life much more enjoyable for them, if they were only allowed to gain entrance.”
Villero said she doesn’t think Life Is Beautiful is a bad event; she just thinks it should be held at a different location.
“I can tell you that for the last three years it’s been a challenge,” she said.
Church services in doubt
In court on Thursday, Lichtenstein said the Amistad Christiana Church isn’t trying to get rid of the festival; rather, it is seeking accommodations so the churches and residents in the area “can have peaceful enjoyment of their property.”
According to Amistad’s lawsuit, the church and festival attempted “to work out means of coexisting, without requiring the cancellation of regular church services.”
Last year, according to the document, the parties reached an agreement to have the services moved to Cashman Field, “only to have Life Is Beautiful cancel the agreement and offer no alternative.”
Lichtenstein said the festival proposed moving the services this year but did not present a viable venue.
Chicago attorney Timothy Epstein, who represents Life Is Beautiful, said the festival agreed this year to make no noise before noon Sunday “to allow churches to be able to have traditional Sunday services.” In the past, sound checks took place before noon on Sundays at the festival.
Amistad Christiana Church holds services between 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays, although it has agreed to start its morning service at 9 a.m. on the Sunday of the festival.
At last week’s court hearing, Epstein argued that canceling any of the Saturday or Sunday night performances would put the festival in breach of contract with artists, sponsors and ticket-holders. Artists are scheduled to perform at the festival until 1 a.m.
“There are millions of dollars at stake here,” the lawyer said.
He said the festival lost a significant amount of money its first two years and is due to lose money again this year.
“This particular festival is about investment in downtown,” he said.
The pantry shelves at Parsons Place were nearly bare Tuesday, but Williams said he would make sure they are filled before the festival begins. Residents are allowed to take whatever food they need from the pantry, and Williams wants to have supplies ready for those who have trouble getting out to the store next weekend.
Gilmer had a similar plan.
“I guess I have to go stock up like I’m going into my foxhole or something, and just hole up for a week,” she said.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710. Follow her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.