Defiant mayor hopes to rejuvenate his ailing city by celebrating the Mafia's role in its creation
Las Vegas, the desert city with an insatiable thirst for reinvention, is turning to some old friends to reboot its faltering economy: the Mob.
Building projects have stalled up and down the Strip, unheard of in a town where the sound of explosions on worn-out casino sites was as commonplace as gunfire, when the old constantly made way for the new. Now, as credit and the gambling nerve of the hotel bosses dry up simultaneously, the town invented by Bugsy Siegel in the Forties is going back to its dubious past for inspiration.
Work has started on a $50m museum that will open in the spring of 2010 celebrating the Mafia's links with the gambling capital of the world. It is an initiative that excites the mayor, Oscar Goodman, but dismays others weary of the city's historical association with organised crime.
Goodman is more than a mayor. He is a celebrity in a city that lives and dies on fame. He knew Frank Sinatra. He knew John F Kennedy. He knew Marilyn Monroe. This is a town and a civic administration that was as comfortable with the Mob and its attendant guest list as it was with the certainty of another sunny day.
Goodman told The Observer the project was 'as cool as it gets', dismissing suggestions that it might not be universally popular, given the nature of the Mob's activities.
The museum has been the subject of controversy since it was announced in October. 'The Mob museum and media try to romanticise these monsters for money,' wrote a blogger on the Las Vegas Review Journal's website. 'These romantic characters are really just lunatics and degenerates who preyed off society. If Las Vegas wants a museum, build one to commemorate the victims, not the criminals.' There is no denying, though, that exploiting the fascination with gangsters here is a profitable exercise. On a two-and-half-hour, $70 'Mob Tour of Las Vegas' last week, Vinny the guide said that even real-life hoodlums come to have a look.
'Three weeks ago,' he said, 'we had Henry Hill, who is in and out of witness protection, and was played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. He was pretty stewed. But he loved it.'
Goodman said: 'Nobody's given me an opinion other than they like it. You want a watercolour museum? You want a porcelain museum?' A robust populist who mines his colourful past as a prop in his political shtick, Goodman is in his third and final term, a Democrat approved by eight out of 10 voters in a city that is an unashamed cathedral to capitalism.
Goodman is no ordinary civic leader. As he is occasionally reminded, over three decades he acted as counsel for some of the country's most notorious mobsters, men who built and ran Las Vegas. His clients included Frank 'Lefty' Rosenthal and Anthony 'Tony the Ant' Spilotro, whose barely disguised doppelgangers were portrayed by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in the eerily accurate 1995 movie Casino (in which Goodman had a walk-on part).
And, no, he did not find his own 'Mob history' an embarrassment. 'What? To defend people, and protect their constitutional rights, and make sure that the government doesn't take advantage of them? You find that offensive? That's the reason we left England. OK?
'I don't care whether it is or it isn't [popular]. I care that there are people going in there and spending a lot of money and the city of Las Vegas is getting the fees and the concession money and making a fortune. It's going to be phenomenal. It's going to bring hundreds of thousands of people into our downtown.'
It might be stretching it to say Goodman 'knows where the bodies are buried' in anything other than a metaphorical sense, but he does know how to generate money. And the city that has been his home since he moved to Nevada from Philadelphia in the Sixties as a public defender has rarely needed his entrepreneurial instincts more than now.
Statistics released last week make grim reading: visitor numbers are down 10 per cent, year on year, to 2.9 million in September; room rates have been slashed by 21 per cent as tou6rist numbers dwindle; hotel occupancy is 84.3 per cent, down 7 per cent; across Nevada, gambling revenue dropped 5.4 per cent to just over $1bn; and on the Strip the take was a mere $525.5m for the month, down 5.17 per cent.
Those are numbers of dollars lost by Mr and Mrs Wisconsin at the slot machines, as well as the high-rollers at the baccarat tables. Las Vegas wins because it is full of losers. 'Life is a risk,' said Goodman. 'When I have my drink tonight, I'm risking it may be my last.'
The Mob Museum has been his pet project since he was elected in 1999. He got the idea from an unusual source: the old Post Office down the street from City Hall. It was in that building in 1950 that Senator Estes Kefauver conducted the Nevada leg of his famous inquiry into organised crime, butting up against the intransigence of witnesses unbothered by official scrutiny.
'We hired the folks who are doing the Spy Museum in Washington DC,' Goodman said. 'When you go in there you're going to be mugged, you're going to be booked, you're going to have your Miranda rights [the 'right to remain silent' legislation] given to you. And who knows if you'll ever get out? Because we're going to have machine-guns there, which will be provided by the FBI.'
(Credit: The Guardian)
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