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Las Vegas

What vice will save Vegas?

Richard Abowitz,  Feb 03, 2009

Pick your vice: mobsters or hookers.

So far the two most publicized efforts to fix the plummeting Las Vegas tourism count (and therefore economy) are the plans for a mob museum downtown as well as the proposal to legalize prostitution in Vegas. Should we pay tribute to vice of the past or legalize a new vice in the future?

I am opposed to one and think the other idea worth a serious study.

Despite the national derision the idea of a mob museum caused, a status report in the Las Vegas Sun today notes that the project is already set to receive over $3.6 million in federal grants. There are also a near equal amount in state and local grants. So the taxpayers are already in the mix when, according to the Sun, a "mob-museum-contracted designer spent $12,450 to purchase four artifacts from the blockbuster HBO series 'The Sopranos.' Included among the items was the black leather jacket, knit shirt and black slacks Tony Soprano wore in one of the series’ final episodes." And this has what to do with the history of the mob in Vegas?

As this purchase makes clear, what is being created is a tourist attraction, and everyone involved seems to be pushing it as a form of economic stimulus. In fact, even the bad press, according to the Sun article, Mayor Oscar Goodman argued was worth $7 million in free publicity for the project.

But is there any reason organized crime should have a museum to study and curate exhibits as if this admittedly interesting history were an academic field in need of study or a period of such significance that a museum is required? In fact, the history of the mob in cities like Chicago is both richer and longer than the time organized crime had major influence over the Strip.

Again, I have no objections to casinos building this sort of thing if they think it will draw tourists. In fact, they must think it will, as an executive at MGM-Mirage is on the board behind the museum. The resorts have plenty of casinos that can house garments worn in "The Sopranos." And the resorts would at least call the thing an attraction and not a museum.

Museums with taxpayer funding should have more to offer tourists than a memorial to vice, particularly in this town with these characters like Spilatro and Siegel. Mobsters were not Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando; they were thugs, bullies, extortionists, murderers and much worse. They terrorized people to maintain power and control, and to this day the full extent of their crimes in Vegas are unknown in many ways. Not that I suspect the mob museum will be dedicated to study the unknowns. There is no way a project such as the mob museum will escape glamorizing the members as romantic outlaw figures. Vegas has a soft spot for doing that anyway. And even in offering the views of law enforcement, as an organizer claims in the article they plan to do with equal fervor, implies that there are two sides of an argument being represented when in fact there in only one. When it comes to the mob in Vegas there were good guys and bad guys in this story. Yes, there were a lot of people who had to play footsie with mobsters to get by, but I mean the real hardcore mobsters, some of whom were Goodman's clients back in the day when he was a defense attorney.

There was a lot of courage, backbone and conviction offered by law enforcement, politicians and others, including journalists, determined to run the mob out of town. They are the real heroes. Even the name "mob museum" does a disservice to history regardless of whether the exhibits are historically accurate. And for taxpayer money to be used to create a monument to these people whom the government spent so many years and dollars fighting is bizarre in the extreme.

The other idea for helping the sinking tax revenues of Vegas is to legalize prostitution here. Like the mob museum, Mayor Oscar Goodman has shown support for this too. But not everyone is jumping on this bandwagon. The Review-Journal's popular columnist John L. Smith thinks legalized prostitution in Vegas could happen, yet he comes out strongly against the idea today in a column, writing: "It's about as morally backward an idea as I've heard. It's the depth of desperation -- even in a recession."

I do not agree. For one thing prostitution is already legal across most of Nevada, including right across the county line (less than an hour from Vegas). So thanks to our tourists, the brothels like Chicken Ranch have been a healthy contributor to the tax base of Nye County, the beneficiary of having the county line nearest Vegas. Further, so many tourists already think prostitution is legal here, the fact of it finally being true will hardly do damage to the image of Vegas. It could also put some pimps out of work. Finally, Vegas is consistently listed as a center for child prostitution, and perhaps a legalized and well-regulated system will help weed out the underage. Again, we are talking merely about studying the idea and its consequences for good and bad.

I am not saying I am in favor of legalizing prostitution in Vegas. I am just saying that the idea is no less morally bankrupt than a mob museum. And it would generate tax revenue right away rather than cost taxpayer money to build.

Of course, a serious discussion of the merits of legalizing prostitution or a museum to the mob would not be happening in any other city but Vegas. But we are a town built on gambling, meant largely for adults to enjoy. And with prostitution, Nevada is the only state in the union with legal prostitutes already. That fact alone sort of makes the question of "Why not in Vegas?" worth asking.

What vice will save Vegas?
Chicken Ranch booth in Vegas at the 2007 Adult Entertainment Expo / Photograph by Sarah Gerke

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