Downtown Las Vegas is on the up

Museums dedicated to neon and mobsters, new bars, and a cultural centre – Chris Coplans on the reinvention of Sin City

Tilting my fedora at a rakish angle, I affect a gangster pose and swagger into the Mob Museum in Las Vegas. I'm greeted by Oscar Goodman, the former mayor of Vegas, who dreamt up the whole idea. I'd first met Oscar at a reception in London, flanked by two leggy Vegas showgirls. Back then, he had told the assembled guests: "I used to be the mayor. Before that, I was the lawyer to the mob. And now, I sleep with the mayor." (The current mayor is Oscar's wife, Carolyn Goodman.)

A sprightly 73-year-old, Oscar looks very much the suave mob mouthpiece. At the museum's grand opening, on St Valentine's Day last year, he had worn a sharp suit, handmade in Bogota by a tailor who specialised in bullet-proof lining. It was a prudent move, given that shortly after, someone tried to gun him down.

In fact, the attempted hit took place in a fictional episode of TV's CSI, in which Goodman guest-starred as himself, where the plot revolved around the opening of the Mob Museum. I'm hoping life won't imitate art.

The museum, which successfully blends popular culture and history, is the cornerstone of an impressive, if wildly ambitious, $350m (£233m) Downtown Project, led by Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos online apparel. He describes the project as an urban experiment to build "the most community-focused large city in the world" in Downtown Las Vegas, by investing in property, small businesses and tech start-ups.

Already, the green shoots are sprouting. There's a hipster club here, a bohemian café there, arty boutiques and First Friday, a community-based street arts and performance evening, held, yes, on the first Friday of each month. You can even get mobbed up and plan a hit with like-minded wise guys at the Mob Bar, a block away from the museum.

The museum is housed in one of Vegas's few remaining historic buildings, a handsome old courthouse, where, appropriately enough, hosted the Kefauver Senate committee hearings on organised crime back in the early 1950s. It's laid out as much as possible in chronological order, starting on the top floor.

There are photographs (don't miss The Mob's Greatest Hits wall), video testimonials, films and interactive exhibits such as a deafening machine gun. The second floor opens on to the refurbished courtroom where Oscar defended various mob gods, including Vinnie "The Animal" Ferrara who allegedly committed 26 murders.

Elsewhere, you can be photographed in a line-up, just like a con or a perp. En route, you meet some real charmers, including Leo "The Lips" Moceri, Vincent "The Chin" Gigante and Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro. The museum does its best not to glorify organised crime, but violence was inevitably the modus operandi of the Mob.

I later enjoyed a "Spilotro-style skirt steak" modelled after a meal Goodman ate with The Ant during Spilotro's trial for the murder of Billy McCarthy. We're at Oscar's latest venture, Beef, Booze and Broads at the Plaza, one of the city's most opulent, glamorous steakhouses.

Vegas did good by this Jewish boy from Philly, who arrived in 1964 with just $87 in his pocket. After a stint in the DA's office, Oscar started defending reputed mobsters in 1966, telling me that he worked by the principle: "If there's a fee, there's a remedy."

Oscar, who once suggested every man should get a lap dance "to help the economy", also represented such mob heavyweights as accountant Meyer Lansky, who ran with Charlie "Lucky" Luciano and Vegas pioneer Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. His memoir, Being Oscar, is out in June.

The Mob Museum is one of a number of attractions that have opened recently as part of the Vegas's Downtown renaissance. Its metamorphosis from a sleepy little desert cowtown to "the entertainment capital of the world" started in the Freemont Street area in the early 1940s, with hotels such as El Cortez, which Siegel and Lansky bought in 1945 and whose tag line is still "Where locals come to play."

Siegel – immortalised by Warren Beatty in the film Bugsy – then invested in a new site seven miles away and built the Flamingo Hotel & Casino, named after his girlfriend, whose nickname was Flamingo. It opened in December 1946 and the now famous Las Vegas "Strip" was born (although Siegel was whacked soon after it opened). As the Strip prospered, Downtown's glitter faded, becoming little more than a pit stop for budget and tour-bus America.

All that is changing. The heart of the new Downtown is the Freemont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall peppered with casinos, shops, concerts and a stunning light show. You can even rise above "Glitter Gulch"– a zipwire below the 90ft vaulted canopy. And if it's neon you want, then over 150 classic Vegas signs are now housed in the Neon Boneyard on North Las Vegas Boulevard – relics of Sin City's fascinating timeline.

A few blocks away in Symphony Park, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts is a sumptuous Art Deco masterpiece, inspired by another Nevada architectural tour de force, the Hoover Dam. It opened in 2010 and has already become a major southwest cultural venue.

As current mayor, Carolyn Goodman, told me, "There is an infectious energy about Downtown where we have young people opening new clubs, bars and restaurants. It really has taken on a life of its own."

It's the ultimate desert mirage, a glittering pleasure dome that revels in the infamous tagline: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

It might stay in Vegas, but Vegas never stays still.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3849; offers four nights at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino from £715pp, with Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick. BA (0844 493 0787; flies from Gatwick and Heathrow.

Seeing there

Mob Museum (001 702 229 2734;; $19.95/£13). Neon Museum (001 702 387 6366;; $18/£12). Smith Center (001 702 749 2000;

More information Images by Chris Coplans at

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003