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Sphere and Loathing in Las Vegas: Ex-East Village activist fears gigantic ‘gentrifying’ orb

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.

(Photo by John Penley)
(Photo by John Penley)

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 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.”

(Photo by John Penley)
(Photo by John Penley)

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.

(Photo by John Penley)
(Photo by John Penley)

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 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.”

(Photo by John Penley)
An ad for the video game Mortal Kombat on the Sphere. The globe’s exterior is a lucrative billboard. (Photo by John Penley)

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,” he quipped. “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.

(Photo by John Penley)
(Photo by John Penley)

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.

The former East Village activist predicts the 7-11 — not to mention the McDonald’s and local pot dispensary — will be overrun by concertgoers from the Sphere. (Photo by John Penley)
John Penley, left, and prankster Vermin Supreme at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012. (Courtesy John Penley)

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.

The Sphere before it started showing electronic imagery. (Photo by John Penley)
(Photo by John Penley)

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.


  1. John Penley John Penley October 2, 2023

    Out of the hundreds of articles about James Dolan, U2 and the Las Vegas Sphere opening, Lincoln Anderson of The Village Sun is the only reporter IN THE WORLD with the honesty and guts to write and publish a critical article that is truthful and tells the damage Dolan is doing to a predominantly low- and middle-income African American and Hispanic neighborhood. Right now chains and locks are still on the entrances and exits to my apartment complex and the parking lots are the only way in and out. This happened right before the Sphere opened and I can only pray that nothing causes me and my neighbors to have to get out in a hurry, and also EMS and Fire could be delayed if they needed to get in to the Twain IV area at Siegel Suites.

  2. Joanie Fritz Zosike Joanie Fritz Zosike October 1, 2023

    This is what I have to say–as I duck from all the mud-slinging going on in this column of comments. I am not a squatter and I’m kind of a tame radical anarchist. I was a longtime actor with The Living Theatre and a War Tax Resister, and did stuff in the peace and justice movement. I write a mean radical streak. Subversion glistens on my pen. So to say… So enough mud-slinging. Leave the man alone, already!

    John Penley has always been one of my Loisaida heroes and okay, so he’s not doing this and didn’t participate in that — but maybe doncha think he deserves a bit of rest after slogging it out in the pits all these years? He is of an age. That’s not to put you down, John. I still admire all you did for the Lower East side and on the side of history in this ragged land we call home. I regret that there are such strong, acrid feelings amongst you and past comrades.

    But as Julian Beck said, and I paraphrase wildly, once you step out of the Chorus to individuate yourself, you put yourself into the role of Prometheus. Slings and arrows are generally forthcoming.

    You were a positive force in the day, even if I didn’t always agree with your strategies or tactics. And if you have recently dissed people, and even if it was our beloved Chino Garcia (who is above reproach, as far as I’m concerned) you dissed — well, we all badmouth people and sometimes that gets out of control. Anger pukes on itself and it only smells worse as it gathers momentum. So the lesson here is, Don’t speak about the absent, it is unjust (as George Washington paraphrased it from the Jesuits). Easier to keep one’s nose clean that way.

    Wishing you fair winds, Penley. I hope you find a place to land safely and happily. And a final life lesson — try and leave any rancor behind. It does no one any good, least of all yourself. We want to enter and exit this life with clean hearts. That’s what I have to say. Peace, brother.

  3. John Penley John Penley September 28, 2023

    Here is some breaking BAD news for U2 and Dolan’s Sphere, which opened last Friday… He says a need for higher wages is a good reason for union members to strike, but does not want to be in the city when it happens.

    “Tourists will say, ‘I’m not going that week, I’ll cancel my flight and I’ll cancel my bookings,'” he said.

    This is from me… a Culinary Strike would also mean that the Teamsters would not cross their picket lines and the whole tourist industry here would be shut down. Guess what this would mean for U2 and Dolan’s big sphere? The Culinary Union just voted to go on strike yesterday, so stay tuned this could be wild and I will be out on the Strip taking photos and supporting the striking and totally underpaid Union workers here. Vegas is a very expensive place now and has one of the largest foreclosure rates in the whole country, so this Strike is completely justified and Dolan must be s—ting a brick about it. Will U2 cross Vegas picket lines and play while a citywide strike is in process?

  4. John Penley John Penley September 28, 2023

    Attention Troll Mr. Brown and any others……….I am more than happy for anyone who posts things against me who use their real name to say anything they want except accuse me of crimes with no proof that I did not commit and as you know I always use my name because I am not a coward like you . I suspect you are a cop or a landlord or whatever but you put Lincoln in a bad position because for example my attorney and some Anons asked me about a lawsuit or internet work against Lincoln [my attorney said for free] to identify you and I said no because I don’t want to cause Lincoln any trouble because he is a fantastic journalist when he wants to be and I really appreciate this article. So anyway Mr. Brown if you ever want to meet in TSP and debate or fight me I will return for that anytime baby !!

  5. John Penley John Penley September 26, 2023

    Note to Mr Coward Brown…Siobhan grew up in the neighborhood and her father had a barber shop on St. Marks for many years. If you want to take this up personally anytime baby and soon I will get your email. Only chicken s–t crybabies do not use their real names to attack people. I always use mine.

  6. Aron Kay Aron Kay September 26, 2023

    John Penley happens to be a longtime comrade in the struggle for fair housing, weed and peace and justice!!
    John has taken his participation to a crescendo when it came to anti-nuke and Central America issues…
    He did take lumps fighting Nazis in Charlottesville….Therefore we all got lumps from the Nazi Scum.

    • Mr.Brown Mr.Brown September 26, 2023

      I think I hear the theme song from the “Twilight Zone”.

  7. Mr.Brown Mr.Brown September 25, 2023

    Decades of direct action?… You mean direct bs… Thank you for running away Penley!… You must have local media there in Las Vegas you can fool.

  8. DuchessofNYC DuchessofNYC September 25, 2023

    What have you done, Ms. Stephenson? Rubber boot guy is the illustrious presidential candidate Vermin Supreme.

    • Marilyn Stevenson Marilyn Stevenson September 25, 2023

      That’s good for a chuckle, maybe the comedy improv, but how many nuclear warheads were mothballed once they saw the rubber boot?

      Where were these guys during the Soho rezoning, for any of NYU’s attacks on the community, or on the East River Park demolition? Did they call out Carlina Rivera, Erik Bottcher or Corey Johnson for sleeping with developers?

      BTW, it was the article that called this guy an activist, 5 times.

  9. Mr.Brown Mr.Brown September 24, 2023

    Ms. Stevenson…your words are spot on!…thank you.

  10. Marilyn Stevenson Marilyn Stevenson September 24, 2023

    Glad to see the erudite Mr. Penley’s reply comes down to “g f yourself.” Why not stay in LV, organize the people and fight against the expected new development? That would take some actual work … like learning the local housing and zoning laws, lobbying politicians and making convincing arguments to the local media, because the forces of evil will claim your neighborhood is a wasteland and they need the land to save their city.

    Or, as billionaire developers in NYC say, “We need the land for affordable housing of the poor people we displaced.” (except they don’t tell you that our local politicians often set the affordable range for those making over $100,000.) So the poor people become migrants in their own country.

    But above all, stop camping out with a guy who wears a rubber boot on his head … that’s certainly done a lot to stop nuclear proliferation.

    • Elijah Elijah September 25, 2023

      The guy with the rubber boot on his head has likely done more than you can even think of. From making educational films (Learning With Vermin) to exposé of the Republican mindset (Vote Jesus: The Chronicles of Ken Stevenson) to running for president multiple times.

      But based on your limited knowledge of activism I’m not surprised you don’t know Vermin Supreme.

      Nor with that limited definition of activism would you recognize Mr Penley’s work. But forget what he has done, you’re telling him to do more. After nearly years as a street level activist documenting the fight against gentrification in the lower east side you think he should just buck up and try the liberal model of modest reforms through the system. Decades of direct action won multiple reforms in New York but no that’s worthless, he should try to fight from inside the system, that’s what you’re saying yes?

      How about letting the man retire. He didn’t run away, he was forced out of NYC after decades of fighting greedy capitalists who won the fight there. You can’t rent an apartment in the Village as a worker, let alone an elder on social security.

      Instead of attacking the man for not working with a system that has been shown to not care over and over, you should celebrate a man who against all odds stood up to the giants of real estate and unfortunately lost.

      Now, like so many who never stood up, he has lost the will to keep fighting, and he deserves his peace. Sadly, even in retirement John finds himself being screwed over for more profit and he has to keep on moving because the world does not care any more than you do.

      • Mr.Brown Mr.Brown September 25, 2023


    • laya laya September 27, 2023

      You know so little about what you speak. John and the boot guy have paid their dues. You dont know what it was like on the front lines of the nuclear movement, or any other cause, in the 1990s. Some of our brothers and sisters gave their lives to fight for the end to nuclear testing in Nevada, went to jail for feeding people, had guns in their faces while protesting for Native rights, and more! John is an elder now, his body doesnt always do what its told anymore and still he does what he can to create awareness, shares water with the homeless when its hot, even though he is always broke. We are a hardcore family of activists who say things like GFY.

  11. Marilyn Stevenson Marilyn Stevenson September 24, 2023

    Dude, this guy’s not an activist, he’s a ten-minute noisemaker. Occupy Wall Street was nothing but a diversion. These are not the people who daily do the hard work of organizing, pushing legislation, opposing bad development (and being able to explain why). Seems like instead of fighting for a cause, a neighborhood or even against a landlord, he keeps running away. That’s his choice, but is that a story?

    • John Penley John Penley September 24, 2023

      I did a year in Federal Prison for protesting against Nuclear Weapons in South Carolina and I get death threats from Nazis and the KKK here in Vegas because of my published photos from Charlottesville and I have a photo archive in NYU Library. Anywway, g f yourself, Marilyn. You know absolutely nothing about me. Google me and see.

    • Siobhan Siobhan September 24, 2023

      John Penley is a brilliant organizer, who stayed in NYC for many years fighting for rights for the underdog and bringing awareness to many overlooked, dire situations locally and nationally. It is called journalism and is responsible for making many changes in legislation improving all aspects of peoples lives. Do you not know how our world works? Your comment is so myopic.

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