Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

June 8, 2011

Mob myopia

Posted by daveschwartz

Other people have already discussed the LA Times piece that featured "vintage Vegas" attractions, but I want to focus on a very narrow part of the set-up for the list of attractions, particularly this quote:

"It was better in the old days when the mob was still here," said Aiko Shono, a 35-year resident of Sin City. "Everyone had a job, everyone was friendly [and] people were not rude." (read full story here)

Coupled with longtime Golden Steer server Fernando Camacho's description of Anthony Spilotro holding court at his private booth ("Anybody who came through that door had to kneel and kiss his ring"), it creates quite a disconnect.

On one hand, it was an earthly paradise of full employment and universal civility. On the other, grown men had to literally kneel and grovel before a man whose only claim to power was his brutality. Demanding that kind of servility of his underlings shows a side of Spilotro that makes it difficult to consider his reign an enlightened one; after all, there was a reason General Zod (he of the cool accent and kneeling fetish) was the villain in Superman II.

Besides my knee-jerk revulsion towards the spectacle of retainers being forced to publicly abase themselves before self-appointed mob kingpins, I'm amazed that a journalist would take claims that "things were better when the mob ran the city" at face value. The woman who he quotes on the superiority of mob-era Vegas was about seven years old when Boyd Gaming took over the Stardust, the most convenient reckoning of the end of the mafia imperium in Vegas. What makes her an expert on when Las Vegas was better? She wasn't in the job market then, and when you're in first grade people are generally pretty polite to you whether they've made their bones or not.

I'm sure the small business owners who mafiosi like Spilotro preyed on have a much different view. Having your shop burglarized, being shaken down for protection money--these don't make the kind of warm-and-fuzzy memories that are the low-hanging fruit of "I remember when" Vegas stories.

When you look at the track record of Spilotro and his associates--murder, extortion, and grand theft for starters--you don't really see the work of nice guys intent on building a better city.

I'm not going to claim that I was keeping an eye on things in the Dunes soft count or sitting in the Sands steam room divvying up sphere of influence, but in my considered opinion--based on historical evidence including law enforcement files and interviews with many people who were active in the gaming industry when the mob was supposedly running everything--things might have been better for a few people--namely, those at the top--but weren't so good across the board.

For one, if you happened to be black you wouldn't even be allowed inside a Strip or Downtown casino until 1960, a point that's often lost in the nostalgic backwash. And if you weren't juiced in you could have a hard time getting ahead. There were just as many petty rivalries as there are today, just as many good people passed over for promotion and less-talented but better-connected schemers who got ahead.

It's also worth saying that most of us wouldn't have been on the inside, splitting up the skim and enjoying the run of the Strip--we'd have been the people organized crime was terrorizing to maintain its grip on power.

That's why it irks me when people just nod their heads and agree whenever they hear old-timers--or even newcomers--reminiscing about how much better things were when the mob ran Vegas. It's just a complete lack of critical thinking and basic logic--by definition, organized crime's power rests on the threat of brute force and is an affront to the idea of rule of law. Bobby Kennedy attacked it as an "enemy within" that rivaled the threat of communism, and it's unfortunate that, just like the very real presence of Soviet-funded organizations on American soil in the postwar period has been minimized by the US's ultimate triumph in the Cold War, the menace that organized crime posed to average Las Vegans has been airbrushed away and replaced by a cartoon history where the mob had no victims.

Unfortunately, there's the perception that laundered mob memories are profitable. Between the Mob Experience at the Tropicana, the forthcoming publicly-funded Mob Museum, or even the El Cortez using the likeness of Bugsy Siegel in its 70th anniversary promotions,championing a mobbed-up past is becoming common. Back in 1965, publicly embracing known organized crime figures would have cost you your gaming license (it cost Frank Sinatra his). Today, there's even a Godfather-themed slot machine in Las Vegas casinos. That movie (well, the sequel, but lets not split hairs) depicts the ongoing corruption of public officials by organized crime interests. You've got to wonder if people in the industry have a wicked sense of historical irony, or they're not really looking at the message they're sending out. It's OK to celebrate white collar criminals and embezzlers in the past? Even though you're paying tribute to notorious rule-breakers, we're still supposed to believe that your own business practices are above reproach?

Organized crime, which, contrary to the final scene of Casino, is still with us today, is no laughing matter, and celebrating its past excesses while turning a blind eye to its current ravages strikes me as the worst kind of myopia. It's one thing to remember and even laud the work of men and women who, though they worked in the old regime, weren't defined by violence the way out-and-out mafiosi like Spilotro were. It's another to surrender our history entirely to the carte blanche glorification of organized crime, particularly when there are plenty of people still around who can tell us just what was going on back then.

It's not that we should forget that episode in our history--it's that we're doing a disservice to those who lived through it by remembering it incorrectly.


Read archived comments (6 so far)
June 8, 2011 1:42 PM Posted by parchedearth

Not so different than pirates being popularized and monetized by Disney. I'm sure they weren't very humorous in real life either. Or what about the torture chambers in the Tower of London as a tourist attraction. After the cold war, many were surprised that some Russians still viewed Lenin and Stalin with fondness. I think its just part of human nature to remember the good and forget at least some of the bad.

June 8, 2011 7:22 PM Posted by Jeff in OKC

I think the lady quoted is described as a 35 year resident, not 35 year old. I get from reading further in the story that she hasn't lived in Las Vegas for over 10 years.
I think the period most commonly described as "When The Mob Ran Vegas" is really the 1960s and 70s, which, in the memory of us aging baby boomers, are the prime years. We were clueless to reality and most of us refuse to understand the grown up pressures of the time.

June 9, 2011 7:50 AM Posted by jinx

Very nice retort to the US Today story and I couldn't agree more. As with Parchedearth's outstanding comparison to glorified pirates, we probably need a South Park episode to show the absurdity of how "great" mob times were.

June 10, 2011 12:46 PM Posted by Phil

Better service, better entertainment, more class. Its hard to quantify other than conversations among fellow Vegas residents/travelers and message board comments, but the longing for that environment that the mob created slowly grows every year. As a former professional musician in my younger days, I played in joints owned by the mob in Cleveland and nobody ran better places than those guys. Sure the "boys" were brutal and I could only imagine what they would do to the club crowd these days, but that was always handled back room and never visible to the public. Now such obscene behavior is a rite of passage in Vegas. Certainly you can't agree with all the mob's activities, but when it comes to running a hotel, nobody did it better.

June 11, 2011 5:47 AM Posted by 2baddeyes

I think the idea that the mob ran things better was only seen by the tourists.i started coming to las vegas in 1967. at that time i made a paltry $65.00 a week. but i could come to las vegas and see the shows, dine cheaply, and still have money to gamble. al the tables not only gave free drinks but also free cigarettes. if you came to have fun and kept your nose clean nobody bothered you. that is a very different view than the people who worked here had. i think that is the what notion meant.

June 12, 2011 5:03 AM Posted by Paolo

It's largely a nostalgia for the past, like parchedearth said. People remember the good and forget the bad. I once remarked that it would have been cool to be alive during the 50's, until a friend reminded me that it would have only been nice if I were white. For everyone else, it probably wasn't so great. Great analysis, Dave.