Desert Rats' Take on Coachella

The Festival's Impact on the Local Community

WORDS BY: PAOLA FERNANDEZ
PHOTOS BY: EDUARDO L. CRUZ

About 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles sits the Coachella Valley. Blue mountains surround the 10 desert cities, and thousands of palm trees sway in the hot, dry breeze. Among the cities is Palm Springs, a tourist destination known for its modernist architecture and LGBT resorts. Several miles to the east, the city of Indio hosts the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (or Coachella Fest). For two weekends in April, bands of diverse musical genres take hold of monumental stages on the Empire Polo Club grounds. A brightly-lit ferris wheel, awe-inspiring sculptures and art installations often complete the festival’s atmosphere.

What thousands of festival goers might not realize is the great impact their thrilling getaway has on the local communities of the Coachella Valley.

In late 2015, 23-year-old Cathedral City native and comic book aficionado Adrian Cuevas opened his business. Interstellar Comic Books & Collectibles is located in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, which is one of the most frequented tourist areas in the Coachella Valley. Despite the strip’s popularity, during the first few months of being open, his business was not bringing in a great amount of profit. That is until Coachella Fest goers arrived money in hand. “It resulted in one of my best months in sales,” Cuevas said. “The festival brings worldwide recognition to the Coachella Valley during a good time of the year – in the spring – before the valley gets sleepy, slow and hot in the summer,” he said.

According to the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP), in 2016, upwards of $403 million in revenue will directly benefit the local communities of the Coachella Valley. The CVEP released a similar statement in 2012 saying that Coachella Fest attendees spent approximately $204 million during their visit.

The festival not only stimulates the local economy, but also has great involvement with the local arts scene. The Tachevah Block Party is an annual free concert organized by the Palm Springs local newspaper, The Desert Sun, and usually takes place a week before Coachella Fest. It often features one of the mainstream artists from Coachella Fest as the headliner, and it showcases independent bands from throughout Southern California as well as local talent.

“Tachevah is aimed to get the millennial generation together to enjoy and explore local music primarily, as well as mainstream artists,” said Denise Figueroa, engagement editor for The Desert Sun.  “Paul Tollett, the president of Goldenvoice, (the company that produces Coachella Fest) has looked at Tachevah year after year to give one of the local artists a spotlight on a Coachella stage."

Last year, the band Brightener from Palm Springs got the opportunity to play during the first weekend of Coachella Fest 2016. “Coachella many times presents indie unknown artists to the public, which I think helps the local music scene be exposed with curiosity,” Figueroa said. “Same goes for art. Local artists have been put on a platform year after year exposing them to the community and beyond.”

Bianca Sosa, 22, has lived in the sleepy town of Cathedral City for her entire life. She works at La Quinta Resort & Club, just a 15-minute drive away from her home. She is also a student at her local community college. Despite the increasingly high cost of Coachella Fest tickets, from 2012 to 2016, Sosa was able to shell out the money and make the 20-minute drive to Indio for the festival.

“Any concert with one artist will cost you $100, and maybe they’ll have one opening act,” Sosa said. “It’s like 200-plus artists, so technically it’s a steal!”

In the first years of the festival, between 1999 through 2001, ticket prices varied from $50 to $65, and the events took place over the course of one weekend. Since then, founder Paul Tollett and Goldenvoice have expanded the event to two consecutive weekends, and ticket prices have increased more than 500 percent to a current price range of $399 to $899. The jump in cost has not discouraged audiences. In 2016, approximately 99,000 people per day attended the festival.

Sosa did not let the chaos of sharing her local community with many festival goers from around the world discourage her. She had something many of them did not – a homefield advantage.

“I like that the festival is local. It’s convenient for me driving wise,” Sosa said. “I know which grocery stores to go to and at what time they won't be too crowded, which streets to take going home, and exactly what time to leave to the festival when there isn't a huge line at check out, or if there is traffic getting in.”

Aside from having the opportunity to see some of her favorite musical acts live, one of her favorite aspects of the festival is being able to interact with people from different parts of the world and getting a taste of their culture within her local community.

“I've met people from Australia, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and they've all told me that they love coming back every year,” Sosa said.

Not all Coachella Valley locals are completely on board with the idea of having a festival invade their backyard. Rebecca Grantham is a full-time substitute teacher for Coachella Valley Unified School District and Palm Springs Unified School District. She currently resides in Palm Desert and has lived in the Coachella Valley for 30 years. Unlike Sosa, the festival has never sparked her interest, and the unaffordable ticket prices along with the huge crowds of people have further discouraged Grantham from attending. Although she is not interested in the spectacle of the festival, Grantham is not completely indifferent to its effect on her local community.

“Given the amount of arrests due to drugs and alcohol, you have to wonder if it's safe for the surrounding neighborhoods,” Grantham said.

According to a press release from the Indio Police Department, there was a total of 142 arrests during the second weekend of Coachella Fest 2016. It cited that 17 of those arrests were made for public intoxication, 81 for illegal possession of a controlled substance, 35 for alcohol-related violations, and the rest were for arrest warrants, resisting peace officers, trespassing and vehicle-code violations.

On April 15, 2016, during the first weekend of the festival, the Indio Police Department registered a vehicle and pedestrian collision. 18-year-old festival goer Michala Freeland was struck by a vehicle while crossing a major intersection illegally and died upon collision.

Grantham said she believes the festival not only results in increased danger for the community, but that it can be a serious inconvenience for residents of areas surrounding the festival grounds.

“It’s an interruption in the normal routine of residents who are trying to sleep but live too close to the polo grounds,” she said. She also said that her personal experiences and interactions with attendees have not been positive. “The festival goers I've come across at the bookstore or in previous jobs are rude and demanding,” Grantham said. “These people come into our desert and treat it like a playground.”

While not all residents enjoy having to share their space with thousands of music enthusiasts, the positive effects of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival might outweigh the negatives. It looks as though the young and bohemian will continue to flock to Coachella Fest every year for as long as the city of Indio will host the festival. Residents of the surrounding cities might just have to sacrifice two weekends a year in exchange for millions of dollars benefitting the local community and worldwide recognition.