Why the Mob Museum Matters

Sure, there will be a lot of pizzazz, but the new attraction will also tell an important story about who we are and where we’re headed.

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My integrity is at stake—and so is our community’s.

I have been involved with the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, better known as the Mob Museum, from the outset. Reversing the claim that Las Vegas blows up its past, the federal government would have been happy to level the old post office at Third Street and Stewart Avenue. Las Vegas officials, led by then-Mayor Oscar Goodman, wanted to protect the building. Under federal regulations, for the city to take it over, the building had to serve a cultural purpose, and Goodman thought of the Mob Museum.

On Feb. 14, that dream becomes reality, and it’s important to get it right, because this is part of our history, and it’s time we come to grips with it:

• Las Vegans long have had a complex that our founding fathers had rap sheets. We tend to forget the pilgrims and Puritans who settled Massachusetts were unpopular back home, and John Smith did time in European jails before reaching Jamestown.

Las Vegans often overreact to criticisms real and perceived (note how Goodman, among others, behaved stupidly in response to President Barack Obama not telling people not to visit Las Vegas). It’s understandable: Supposedly intelligent people have claimed that one in every eight women under 45 who lives here is a hooker (that doozy’s from former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm) and that casino workers live in hotels. We don’t distinguish enough between criticisms because the critics aren’t terribly distinguished, and because the attacks tend to inundate us.

Few outsiders and too few insiders even try to understand Las Vegas in depth. But if tourists and locals visit this museum, they will see Las Vegas acknowledging and analyzing the good and bad of its past, and how that past connects to other places and developments. Then they might even want to learn more than the museum can tell them.

• What happens here doesn’t really stay here. Organized crime, as the phrase suggests, was organized—a web of men and women involved in interconnected activities and histories throughout the world, flowing into and out of Las Vegas and Nevada. Understanding this helps us understand us.

The past two decades of growth, ending with the crash in 2007-08, have been mostly corporate-driven, yet the question Las Vegas experts are most commonly asked is whether the mob still rules—if, in fact, it ever did. These are the kinds of questions this museum can help answer by showing who comprised organized crime, who fought it and what happened.

• Las Vegas is a polyglot, 31 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American and more than 6 percent Asian, with significant numbers of Mormons and Jews. Its history includes opportunities unavailable to minorities elsewhere, and discrimination against (and by) some of the same minorities.

Organized crime has been related to ethnic and immigration history. Understanding its history helps us understand how America and Las Vegas have dealt—and not dealt—with our diversity.

• When Goodman was a defense attorney, he denied the mob’s existence. That led to a variety of community leaders and citizens claiming the museum would be a whitewash.

From the first meeting, Goodman told city officials, museum staff and board members that he wanted the museum to be fun, but above all he wanted one thing: “the truth.” His claims and mine (especially since I was paid for some of my work) might not convince you. Would it help to mention those involved include a respected former FBI agent (Ellen Knowlton), a legendary local TV journalist/historian who covered the mob (Bob Stoldal) and the curators of the International Spy Museum and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Dennis and Kathy Barrie)?

Yet Goodman’s request isn’t easily fulfilled. Not that there’s no such thing as the truth. But what constitutes being connected to the mob? I had a cousin who had to give up his gaming license over skimming at his hotel but denied any involvement, and a known Chicago mobster used to bounce me on his knee. If I have supped at the mob’s table, does that make me one of them? If so, where’s my skim money?

Further, Woody Allen put it best when he said organized crime spends little money on office supplies. They didn’t write down their plans or how they skimmed. A museum must be visual and tactile, but written sources for writing the mob’s history are rare—unless they are government sources, which tend to favor the government, and media accounts. The latter, like a lot of the popular culture the museum surveys, often glorified mobsters because they were interesting and good copy.

More crucially, to invoke A Few Good Men: Can we handle the truth? Some of our founding fathers deserved those rap sheets. Many longtime Las Vegans lament “the good old days” without stopping to ponder: A smaller town always seems safer; racial and gender discrimination were far more rampant; and money that should have gone into our civic coffers went elsewhere to underwrite other mob operations. That doesn’t make today perfect, but it means we need to think in a more nuanced way about yesterday.

Through interactive exhibits, displays, videos, photos and tightly edited text, that’s what the Mob Museum is supposed to help us do. If it succeeds at enhancing our understanding of the past, we all benefit. If it fails, the question will be how much of the failure rests with all of us.