BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | He’s “leaving Las Vegas” — not à la Nicolas Cage in the ’95 movie of the same name — but soon and in a U-Haul.
After decrying the 1 percent at Zuccotti Park at Occupy Wall Street in 2011, John Penley, a former news photographer and radical activist, found he was priced out of the East Village, his longtime home. So he headed back to his family stomping ground in North Carolina. Then, three years ago, after a dispute over their late parents’ house — in which Penley was living — his sister evicted him. So he next headed to Las Vegas, where he was able to snag a cheap apartment in a poor part of town — plus, another perk for the longtime pot activist, Nevada had legalized weed.
But now Penley, who is a Vietnam War-era veteran, is getting ready to pull up stakes yet again. What has him on the run this time is a giant flashing ball — an immense orb called the Sphere. A state-of-the-art immersive entertainment venue, the place is set to open this Fri., Sept. 29, with Irish super-rockers U2 kicking off a two-and-a-half-month residency. The Eagles are reportedly near to signing a deal to be the next megaband to play the round rock-atorium.
Located near the Vegas Strip, the new destination attraction is just two blocks from Penley’s home.
“I can throw a rock and hit the f—ing thing,” he said.
Penley’s neighborhood is called Paradise — but he thinks the Sphere is going to make it hell for working-class and lower-class residents.
The Sphere was conceived and built, at a cost of $2.3 billion, by James Dolan, the oft-criticized owner of the Knicks and Rangers and head of MSG Entertainment, which owns Madison Square Garden. Dolan hopes the literally eye-catching arena will revolutionize the live entertainment industry — and he plans to build more of them around the world. London is reportedly next on the list.
Like a planetarium on steroids, the Sphere features 17,600 seats, and is blanketed inside and out with video screens. Not only will it feature immersive sound “pinged” to each person’s individual seat, but, according to The New York Times, “Underground pipes will deliver blasts of air that can approximate wind, steam, raindrops or various smells, such as roses, forests or chocolate chip cookies.”
In a promo video touting the Sphere, the longtime creative director for U2 said, “The entire building is a speaker and video screen, inside and out. … It’s complete madness really — but we’d be mad not to [take the opportunity].”
On a much lesser scale, Dolan has employed cutting-edge tech at the Garden — though not at all to positive effect, in the view of his detractors, like notably Brad Hoylman-Sigal. The state senator, whose district contains the famed arena, has blasted the mogul for using facial-recognition technology to boot out Knick fans who criticize him or others who are suing him.
First illuminated in July, the Sphere generally has been getting rave reviews and lots of positive hype on social media. But for Penley, the basketball-shaped monolith is like a giant invading spaceship that has plopped down right in his neighborhood. In his view, there’s no question the structure will be as much of a gentrifying force in Vegas as the Barclays Center, which opened 11 years ago, has been in Downtown Brooklyn. In fact, he says the impact is already being felt.
He noted that his apartment complex, Siegel Suites, has raised the rents four times already this year — which, to a tenant from New York City, which has rent regulation, sounds incredible.
“Dude, there’s no housing protections in f—ing Nevada,” he explained.
The landlord has also told tenants they can no longer have chairs or potted plants outside of their apartments. Then, three weeks ago, chains were suddenly slapped outside the place’s front entrance — forcing tenants to take the long way in and out, through a parking lot, which is a more dangerous area, he noted.
“A lot of people have already moved away,” Penley said. “This area is mostly African American and Hispanic working-class families.”
In addition, a property manager who Penley described as particularly nasty was recently brought in, which the activist suspects was done to put pressure on the tenants and is another sign that change is afoot.
Personally, he plans to stay one more month, then rent a U-Haul truck and move to a friend’s place at an undisclosed location.
“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” he said. “I’m the only one here yelling about it. I’ve seen this happen before in the East Village. I don’t know if U2 knows this is happening. U2 is the tip of the spear — not the tip of the Sphere — already African American families are being driven out of their homes. Meanwhile, they’re paying U2 a million dollars a show.”
Tickets for the band’s “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere” shows are selling, at the high end, for upward of $7,000, and for a few hundred dollars at the low end.
Penley predicts the apartment complex’s owners, wanting to cash in on being in the Sphere’s exorbitant orbit, plan either to convert the existing roughly 150 units to luxury housing or just tear it all down and rebuild with gleaming new homes on the property.
Ironically, though, the place hasn’t been particularly well maintained up until now, he noted.
“Dude, the pool has never been opened since I moved in,” he said. “It’s a water trough for pigeons.”
Then again, he admits he chose to live there because no background check was required.
The former East Village rabble-rouser is not saying publicly where he’s going to move next because he fears reprisals for speaking out.
“The new mafia in Las Vegas is the real estate mafia,” he said.
Previously, his main fear was that he had put himself in the alt right’s crosshairs after raising the alarm about a Wikipedia-like page that some of its members had created called Antifa Watch. He was subsequently added to the page, but initially wasn’t otherwise harassed much by the group. But, after the Anti-Defamation League posted Penley’s photos of Nazis from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, he noted, “I went up on the Nazi death list.”
As for the Sphere, Penley said he should have seen it coming and had his “achtung, baby” moment earlier — but the construction was so slow going, it ultimately took him off guard.
But he said that, for their part, U2 — dubbed “the world’s biggest rock band” on their Sphere tour page — should definitely be aware of what they’re contributing to.
“U2 is helping the gentrification of a mostly low- and middle-income Black and Hispanic community with kids,” he said. “They’re supposedly down with the oppressed. We’re going to bear the brunt of thousands and thousands of tourists. Just getting into the 7-11 to get a soda around showtime is going to be impossible.
“A lot of the pot stores won’t deliver to this neighborhood,” Penley noted. “It’s actually more dangerous on the Strip — but they won’t say that. U2 would be afraid to perform in this neighborhood.”
Although he was leery at first about shooting photos of the Sphere at night due to safety concerns, thanks to a bit of encouragement by The Village Sun, Penley eventually ventured out and got some fantastic pictures of Dolan’s gargantuan globe.
He says he can read the writing on the Sphere, so to speak — and it’s telling him to split.
“I fought gentrification in New York — I had to move out of New York,” he said. “I had to leave Asheville — my sister evicted me out of the family house. I can read the writing on the wall — I don’t want to live in a place where there’s chains and locks on the entrances and exits.”
One potential upside of the whole situation is that — after posting a reader comment on the most recent New York Times article about the Sphere, expressing his fears about the gentrification the enormous orb will surely cause — his Facebook page has been flooded.
“I got 100 friend requests yesterday,” he said. “I think it’s related to the Sphere.”
Speaking of flooding, he also thinks the supercharged electric Sphere will be a huge energy drain, which won’t be helping the climate crisis.
So, he’ll soon be off on the road again, since, to paraphrase Bono, he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for” — or at least knows that, for him, it’s not living by the Sphere.