Ten thousand miles into our exploratory tiny house road trip, we found ourselves in the infamous Sin City. Along with the dancing neon lights and innumerable casinos, downtown Vegas hosts many bustling small businesses, especially at the magnificent Container Park, countless brightly colored murals and seen strolling down streets are locals and tourists alike, even families. The splendid picture of downtown revitalization. Not that long ago this area of Vegas was practically a wasteland.
Christian and I were busy taking in the sights when we caught a glimpse of something truly out of the ordinary, a tiny house community!
Llamalopolis – as some people refer to it – is a tiny house on wheels and Airstream village in the Fremont East District, in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. Lovingly referred to as the “Airstream Park” by its residents. In the fall of 2014 it was just another vacant, run-down lot. Long ago it had been an RV park and still retained some of its infrastructure like hook-ups, though in disrepair.
Along came a visionary by the name of Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos and founder of The Downtown Project. He was looking for a new place to call home, and just so happened he owned a combined total of 33 Tumbleweeds and Airstreams. An idea came to him to park all of these at the old RV park to conduct a community experiment.
In the fall of 2014, Tony invited 30 friends to stay at the lot for two weeks to explore ideas on how to create a functioning, sustainable community. This was a simple community setup on what was just an empty paved lot, but it was soon brought to life by this group of creative thinkers. During their stay, they would all gather around the fire to cook, share ideas and listen to music. They explored design concepts for the optimal community layout, what amenities were most needed, and enjoyed each other’s company. Tony and several others were loving this simple, connected lifestyle. After a couple of nights, they knew that they wanted to stay for good. For Tony, an extraordinarily successful man, this would become his full-time residence.
A vibrant and definitely unique urban tiny house community model has since organically evolved to best meet the needs of its residents. While the structure of the community has deliberately been molded to foster daily spontaneous social encounters. Tony calls these collisions.
We entered Llamalopolis through a llama decorated gate. Immediately we found ourselves in an enchanting semi-covered tunnel covered with twinkling lights and lined with trees. Later we learned this recycled element came from a local Christmas display. We could just make out the tiny homes in the background, and could clearly smell the nearby alpaca pin. The tunnel opens up to the “living room”; an outdoor shared common space centered around two fire pits and a stage.
Christian and I certainly didn’t know what to expect when we came for a visit. We were delightfully surprised by how to down-to-earth the residents are. They come from varied professional and socioeconomic backgrounds, including both full-time and part-time residents. Many of the residents are working downtown professionals, and a few are digital nomads that work from home or travel heavily for work.
It was wonderful to have neighbors. They proved to be fun, kind, and fascinating folks. Cue a few tiny house, house parties and much storytelling around the fire.
The community itself felt like a big, warm family including a wide assortment of animals (chickens, alpacas, dogs and cats).
Regarding the structure of the community, the shared common areas act as an extension of living space for each resident and their respective sleek Airstream or cozy Tumbleweed tiny house, which all face toward these spaces. Each tiny home has power, water (city water) and sewer hook-ups. The “living room” includes shared “green” space (artificial turf) with chairs, tables, a giant bed swing, fire pits and a stage. The stage features a projector with Apple TV with a community iPad attached for playing music or outdoor movies. A large Airstream bus with rooftop deck sits in the back, offering a chill hangout spot and great views of downtown, the community stage and neighboring bar/music venue, The Bunkhouse. Two large, mobile canopies serve to provide shade or rain cover above the seating areas.
The entire community is enclosed by five foot high concrete wall. This helps maintain a sense of safety; especially important because it’s home to the most famous local Vegas celebrity, Tony. We found the wall also helps foster a connected community feel.
The shared community facilities include a kitchen, laundry room, and indoor office/lounge space. This indoor space they found is key for encouraging social interaction during the scorching summer heat.
The entire park is WiFi enabled; perfect for working outdoors. Use of all these shared facilities is included with the cost of rent along with utilities, though there is a community “piggy bank” for beer money contributions.
All residents and guests come through one main entrance (the trippy covered tunnel); this strengthens the community vibe by increasing the number of spontaneous social collisions. Parking is in a nearby satellite lot. There is a exit gate that can be unlocked for cars, trucks or tiny homes to enter as needed.
Several empty Airstreams and tiny houses are considered “crash pads” and are available to guests of residents as short term rentals. Potential residents must be recommended via word-of-mouth by current residents. There is a one week trial period for new residents. This is to determine fit by both parties, current residents and potential newcomer.
Llamalopolis has a point person, the “park ranger” or community manager. He manages the park, handles scheduling, fields requests from residents, oversees maintenance, troubleshoots interpersonal or technical issues, and more. The park ranger and residents communicate within one another through Slack, a messaging app for teams or groups. For example, someone made dumplings to share, he or she messages an open invite to the group. There is a security, maintenance and cleaning staff that keep the park operational and in tip-top shape. Residents help keep things clean and orderly as well.
The style and vibe of the community is reminiscent of Burning Man. This festival, known for its emphasis on community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance, made a lasting impression on Tony and a handful of residents. The air at Llamalopolis is often filled with music and smoke from the fire pits that are always burning once the sun goes down. Spontaneous conversations and impromptu potlucks are common organic community building occurrences.
The night we arrived an unplanned potluck feast came together. Daniel & Ranielle (@biglifetinyhouse) had planned to make lettuce wraps to share, while Tony had a craving for chicken and ordered extra to share, and on her way home and unaware of the other food happenings, Jess ordered pizzas to share. Residents all wandered to the living room for food and conversation. Leftovers were put in the community kitchen to be shared with any residents who missed out. Thoughtful and kind, as usual.
We learned that there’s an emphasis on residents making contributions to the community. These contributions are based around each individual’s natural gifts, abilities and interests, not on a traditional chore list. For instance, resident Daniel Park is a professional musician, and often contributes music for the enjoyment of his neighbors. Daniel also organizes the bi-monthly Open Air Sessions. Friends of residents, Zappos and The Downtown Project come out to enjoy a lively open mic night in the Llamalopolis living room. You never know who will stop by for a surprise jam session, like the lead singer of Imagine Dragons.
As we got to know our temporary neighbors, we were intrigued to learn that many of them are introverts. Resident Krissee remarked that she loved people, but left to her our own introverted tendencies, she wouldn’t go out of her way interact with others. The spontaneous daily collisions between Krissee and her neighbors help her maintain a healthy sense of well-being. Living at Llamalopolis is a perfect opportunity for her to enjoy her neighbors’ company, while always having the option to retreat to her private, cozy tiny home.
For Tony, living here isn’t about living small at all. In fact, he said this is the biggest home he has ever lived in. Tony’s life is outside of his tiny home, or his “bedroom”. His community life is essential to feeling part of something more meaningful, a more alive way of life.
We ended up staying for two weeks and couldn’t have felt more welcomed or more at home. I never expected to feel that way in downtown Vegas, of all places.
Llamalopolis is continually evolving and now has the goal of achieving net zero energy.
Can this community model be replicated? You bet! Abandoned or dilapidated urban RV parks can be transformed into vibrant intentional communities. What’s needed, besides quality tiny homes? Start-up capital, creative thinkers and engaged community members.
Would you want to live in this kind of community? Share your thoughts below.
by Alexis Stephens
All Photos Copyright Tiny House Expedition