Las Vegas was built by gangsters, and we celebrated those stories

The Las Vegas Strip.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times )

Nothing stays in Las Vegas. Nothing ever did.

When the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority launched its now-famous slogan — “What Happens Here, Stays Here in 2004, the region was climbing out of the shadows of 9/11, when tourism to the city slumped dramatically. The city had attempted to re-brand itself as a safe destination for families in the intervening years, but the fact was, no one came to Las Vegas to spend time with their families. People came to lose themselves, a simulacra of the American dream and the Wild West available to you within steps of disembarking from a flight — the slot machines and video poker stalls closer than the bathrooms at most gates — and only a few hundred yards over the state line as you came racing up Interstate 15. One dollar could be turned into thousands, millions, who knows, it was Las Vegas, anything could happen. You could change the entire course of your life with one bet, provided you believed in yourself and your luck.

Which of course is the ultimate hubris when you’re playing a rigged game of chance. The slogan promised a good time, but the wink and the nod was always more insidious, Las Vegas a town built by organized crime, abetted by violence, run by corrupt officials, its very roads and streets like a map to secret criminal behavior. Flamingo Road runs parallel to Sands Avenue, which runs parallel to Desert Inn Road and on and on, all of them running parallel to the criminals who paved them in the first place. Bugsy Siegel. Meyer Lansky. Moe Dalitz. You know their names because Omerta never really was a thing, no secrets are ever kept, no one ever stays quiet, but also because we started writing books and making movies about these guys, turning Las Vegas into the ultimate tourist cosplay experience, long before cosplay was a word. Locals started talking about how the place was better when the Mob was in charge, and in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” Bugsy Siegel was turned into Moe Greene and we all became Fredo, silk shirts and bad behavior.

Bugsy Siegel. Meyer Lansky. Moe Dalitz... We started writing books and making movies about these guys.

The corporations may have bought the casinos, made them feel more welcoming for a common person to lose their money in, but that doesn’t mean the place got safer. In the wake of Las Vegas turning into a killing field last Sunday, making it home now to the deadliest mass shooting in modern history — all from the window of a casino hotel — one wonders if Las Vegas will ever feel safe, or why we ever thought it was in the first place. A man with a gun in Las Vegas surprises no one.

The gangsters moved into the strip club business, pushed out further from the Strip, into the corner malls in the dodgy parts of town, away from the cameras. It was an open secret, the only thing that stayed in Las Vegas. Until tourists started getting stomped in parking lots by bouncers with criminal records longer than the famous crooks who used to run the town. And then it became a thing called Operation G-String, a corruption scandal that encompassed city officials, organized crime and the women earning 20 bucks a dance. The clubs got cleaned up. People went to prison. But not for long. They got out, got into real estate. Mortgage fraud. That sort of thing.


Though of course Las Vegas is more than the Strip. When I lived there from 1998 through 2000, I’d wake up and walk outside, pick up the Review-Journal on my driveway in Summerlin and nod at my neighbor coming home from her shift at the Bellagio, nod at my neighbor hustling his kids into the car to take them to school, normal life things, people also coming to Las Vegas to be whatever they were going to be regardless. But live there for just a few months and the undercurrent of darkness walks into your life. There’s always a hustle. “Her dining partners filled out keno slips for a dollar,” Charles Bock writes in “Beautiful Children,” his novel of Las Vegas. Just to have some action going. They kept an eye out for the ticket girl. They called Lorraine and the ticket girl and the waitress darling.” It’s an ethos. You can pretend to be those kinds of people. Eventually, you wake up, and you are who you are.

“In the desert dawn,” Vu Tran writes in his novel “Dragonfish,” “there was a lifelessness to the way the valley’s light fell across the Strip and how the shadows pooled beneath the hotels like melted paint … with buildings erected from every culture and time in history, every possible mood, and with no consistency save their garishness and size. In the daylight, everything looked faraway, out of reach. If people came here to lose themselves, did they ever come to find anything?”

In the daylight, everything looked faraway, out of reach. If people came here to lose themselves, did they ever come to find anything?

— Vu Tran, “Dragonfish”

Isn’t that the eternal question? If what happens in Las Vegas stays there, too often the compulsion is to find trouble. Not that Las Vegas hasn’t been prepared for it. It’s the home to an elite SWAT team, the casinos and airport have the best biometric facial recognition systems in the country, and it is generally one of the best surveilled cities in the world. But what does it matter how close you’re being watched when, throughout Nevada, it’s legal to bring a gun into a bar, into a casino — including the Mandalay Bay — or when there’s no waiting period to buy a gun of any caliber or automation, when you can easily purchase high-volume magazines? Most of Nevada is still the literal Wild West, the stretch between Las Vegas and Reno filled with desolate beauty and scrub cities in all directions. Make that run in your car sometime and you’ll understand the liberal gun laws; you may even appreciate them. But you may also understand how the cowboy slowly morphed into the gangster, how a desire to have your own plot of land with a view and no one pushing you around can mutate into something harsh and angry when society pushes back. And how when people enter the city limits of a town built to defraud them, they have the propensity to act unpredictably.

“A frequently asked question in Las Vegas,” Geoff Schumacher writes in “Sun, Sin and Suburbia,” his essential examination of the modern history of the city, “is ‘Do you like it here?’” Like many of us, Schumacher isn’t quite sure. I left Las Vegas quickly — I only lived there for two years — and in that way, my time there wasn’t all that unusual, as Las Vegas has long been marked by the rush of people coming and going.

But the place has infected me ever since. I saw things in that town that you wouldn’t believe, or maybe now you would. Stunning, sudden violence. Desperation. The jagged, other-worldly beauty of Red Rock Canyon. People gambling inside chain pharmacies, hooked to oxygen machines while smoking the cigarettes you saw them buy, along with their Lipitor and Coumadin. Everything looks like a con, everyone looks like the rube, which means so do you.

No one comes to Las Vegas to make it small, so it’s absurd to think that what happens in Las Vegas will ever stay there. Violence on a grand scale is both the living horror of America and the embodiment of our freedoms. If, as Hunter S. Thompson suggested in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the only final sin is stupidity, perhaps the question now is how much longer do we abide it.

Goldberg is the author, most recently, of the novel “Gangster Nation.”