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Arriving in 2011: The Perfect Museum for Las Vegas

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Las Vegas is a city of all sorts of wonders. And I mean that. Some are natural -- Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire -- and some were created by people -- The Strip and Hoover Dam. Falling into the latter group are museums.

The thing about the museums in Las Vegas is that, while they're not necessarily repositories for great art created here (like the Cairo Museum) or of great art collections amassed here (like the Getty in Los Angeles), they have a unique "only in Las Vegas" flavor. Among these are the Springs Preserve, a living desert nature laboratory/classroom that is singular in the Mojave region. There's also the Atomic Testing Museum, commemorating the glory days of bomb testing. We also have the Neon Boneyard museum where all of those amazing neon signs that lit up The Strip are laid to rest. Coming soon -- early 2011, to be exact -- is the latest only-in-Las Vegas cultural offering, the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.


Today, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman -- appropriately dressed in a dark pin stripe suit and straw fedora -- and other officials held a press conference to announce the kickoff of construction and the acquisition of a very special artifact that will hold a place of pride in the museum's collection.

Not incidentally, the very site of the museum has a bit of mob-related history of its own. Built as a post office and courthouse during the federal construction boom of the 1930s, the building was one of the sites where Senator Estes Kefauver held his hearings into organized crime in the 1950s. The courthouse was the site of of numerous mob trials. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places with, Goodman explained, the proviso that it be used to house a museum.

Goodman says other types of museums were considered but, in the end, the realization that "when you mention Eliot Ness, The Sopranos or Casino, people perk up. They've memorized the history of the mob."

Of all the places associated with organized crime the two that stand out are Chicago and Las Vegas. Chicago's mob heyday was in the 1930s; Las Vegas' more recent. As an outsider I get the sense that, unlike Chicago which would like to forget the era, Las Vegas kind of revels in its history.

Need proof? There is a street named in honor of Ben Siegel (Bugsy Siegel Circle) in Las Vegas. Don 't know of any Capone Avenue in Chicago. The previous career of our incumbent mayor -- an attorney defending alleged mobsters -- who played himself doing his job in the movie Casino is no secret. He loves to talk about those days.

So, the Museum is being built. Artifacts are coming from all over. The chair of the project is Ellen Knowlton, former agent-in-charge of the FBI's Las Vegas office. She working with her former employer (can't call them "bosses," can I?) on gathering artifacts.

Even Goodman is taking a walk down his personal memory lane for mementos of his career. One item he's donating is the briefcase he carried when he went out of town to defend a client. "When I left," he says, "it was empty. When I came back it was full of green."

So, what is the mob artifact announced today that was the point of this press conference? It is the gen-u-wine brick wall that made its way into history on February 14, 1929, when four gunmen posing as law enforcement officers broke into a warehouse at 2122 Clark Street in Chicago, lined up and gunned down members of George "Bugs" Moran's mob. No one was ever convicted and the crime -- the St. Valentine's Day Massacre -- remains officially unsolved.

The wall, purchased when the warehouse was demolished by a Canadian restaurateur, was taken apart and each brick numbered, shipped to Canada, reassembled anddisplayed in his place of business. It was acquired by the Museum from his family.

2009-08-04-Picture1.png The only negative I can find in this entire endeavor is the logo (above). At least a half-dozen people at today's press conference asked why the word mob" was crossed out. A city PR guy, clearly used to the question explained, "It's meant to be like those FBI reports released to the public. You know, where names are blacked out?" He hesitated, then noted, "It wasn't my idea." But that's a minor point.

If you visit the Museum -- and if it's anything of the quality of Las Vegas' other unique museums, you probably should -- you will be, in Goodman's words, "mugged, booked, printed and Mirandized" -- before you visit the displays and go to the gift shop. As the good Mayor noted, "I'd like to remind those who criticize us for 'glorifying' the mob, law enforcement won."

Sounds good to me. I look forward to its opening.