If you live in or even visit Las Vegas, it’s undoubtedly a phrase you’ve heard dozens of times: “Things were better when the mob ran Vegas.”
And they say it with a straight face.
Of course they don’t mean the murders, the loan sharking, the racketeering and all the other things that come along with the mob. They mean the attention to the customer, the comps they used to get without even asking, the great table game rules, and the general elegance of the surroundings in a Las Vegas casino.
Probably some of those memories got softer and more benevolent over time. But of course they didn’t see the skimming of millions of dollars that went to organized crime for its other nefarious activities. I doubt they took note of the treatment of the players who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay their markers that were so generously granted. The regulators who looked the other way while some of these illicit events went on under their noses. And anyone afflicted with a gambling problem had nowhere to go for help, and would usually be abused until the last penny was squeezed from his or her account.
The Mob Museum in Downtown Las Vegas has become a big tourist attraction in town, and actually plays into the nostalgia for that era. While the museum doesn’t whitewash what happened in those days, it does sensationalize it and emphasizes the colorful and larger-than-life characters who “ran” the town at that time.
The popularity of the book and movie Casino (and Nick Pileggi’s book is better than Martin Scorsese’s movie) has cemented the stereotypes of the era—the glamorous showrooms where high rollers are escorted to front-row booths; the degenerate gamblers looking for one last score; the gaming control board member whose brother is the sheriff; the control of the casino by the Kansas City mob; and all the other vignettes that were prominent parts of the story.
But the most egregious parts of the tale—the violence, burglaries and illegal activities—were not that exaggerated. In the terrific autobiography by the Vegas mobster Frank Cullotta and Dennis Griffin (Cullotta, published in 2007 by Huntington Press), murder was always a consideration. In the robbery of a jewelry store in Vegas, Cullotta’s henchman kills the owner of the store on a whim even though he was cooperative. The level of violence described in the book makes the violence in Casino seem mild.
Remember, however, that Casino was set in the 1980s, the same time period described in Cullotta. The days of the mob were slipping away, but they weren’t letting go easily. They really had no choice, however, because Nevadans had finally had enough. Suddenly the rules and regulations of the gaming regulators had some teeth. The gaming law was amended to allow corporations to participate in gaming, bringing in important and sensible business practices that the mobsters never grasped.
Today, gaming in Nevada is a respected industry—so respected that it has spread across the nation, because Nevada finally had the guts to kick out the mobsters that had held sway on an industry that created jobs, attracted visitors from around the world, and paid taxes like any other successful business. These new businesses were encouraged to develop a corporate social responsibility that today is a hallmark of casino companies.
And since the corporations were permitted in the game, Vegas has boomed. From a population in the 1980s of approximately 450,000, today’s metropolitan Las Vegas area is home to almost 3 million people.
So no. Vegas was not better when the mob ran it. Vegas has grown and gotten better in many different ways. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but it has become a city that is home for families, for diverse communities, and for people who reject the methods of the mobsters who built the city.
Your nostalgia for the “good old days” is just that. It’s a memory in a rearview mirror that we can put behind us and build a better Las Vegas for the future generations.