I've been friends with Dr. Michael Green since the beginning of the Classic Las Vegas project back in 2003. Over the years, he has been my go-to resource when I have questions about Las Vegas history. Though we both were growing up in Las Vegas at roughly the same time (back in the day as they say), our paths didn't cross until many years later.
Dr. Mike teaches Southern Nevada history at the College of Southern Nevada. You may also know him through his writing. He is often asked by various media outlets to write about Las Vegas then and now. He also writes the wonderful Nevada Yesterdays series for K-NPR. He has a passion for politics as well. He conducted the published oral history of lawyer Ralph Denton, A Liberal Conscience: Ralph Denton, Nevadan, and co-wrote (with fellow historian and author, Eugene Moehring) Las Vegas: A Centennial History.
Preservationists and historians work together to save our history and I wanted to spotlight a few of them in this series as well.
I had a great time talking with Dr. Mike and appreciate that he was able to fit me into his busy schedule!
CLV Blog: How did you become interested in Southern Nevada history and what spurred you to become a teacher?
Green: I didn’t decide to become a history professor until my junior year in college. I had been a reporter at The Valley Times while going to UNLV and majoring in history, and when the paper closed, I decided I wanted to pursue something different. But I had had a lot of teachers I liked and respected, and I think it always was in the back of my head that teaching would be a great thing to do. As for what I study and why southern Nevada’s history matters to me, I can blame a few people and events.
My dad was a dealer at the Stardust and personally fired by (Frank) Lefty Rosenthal, and then at The Valley Times I had more encounters with the people who thought they ruled the town; I think this quasi-connection made me want to know more about how things became the way they were here. Being a reporter made me realize that so much of what was happening flowed from what had happened. My adviser at UNLV, Ralph Roske, did Las Vegas history and I worked with him on a book project and a family history, and all of that made me more aware of the many currents and undercurrents in this area, and interested in knowing more about them. Friendships with people like Mary Lou Foley and the Denton family, with their long roots in southern Nevada, enhanced my interest in local history, too.
CLV Blog: What is the most interesting historical fact you have found and why?
Green: I hope I haven’t found it yet! I don’t know that I have found any particular fact that stands out so much as that I have certainly learned a lot. That, in turn, makes me want to learn more, and realize how little I know. Indeed, maybe the most interesting historical fact I have found in Las Vegas is how hard it is to know the facts. The mob didn’t write things down. The town has grown in an era when people used the telephone more than the letters of old and the internet of today. And there are so many people around who share their memories and thus enhance our history—and confound the history when their memories contradict one another. And because so many of the people who built Las Vegas or their immediate descendants are still around, sometimes I think the most interesting historical facts are the ones that we are well advised not to tell … yet.
CLV Blog: Talk a bit about your job at The Valley Times, who was Bob Brown and why he is important to LV history?
Green: At The Valley Times, I started as a reporter and worked as an editor. I was there from April 1982 until it closed in June 1984 and learned a great deal about journalism and about myself. I did a little of everything, including standing in the composing room and doing layout when that had to be done. Honestly, I think if the paper and Bob Brown hadn’t died, most of us would still be working there! It was that incredible an experience.
Bob Brown came to Las Vegas to edit the Review-Journal in 1961. The paper was losing ground to the Sun. The fire that destroyed the Sun building in 1963 certainly hurt the Sun, but Bob improved the R-J greatly. He quit in 1964 over politics: the publisher, Don Reynolds, wanted him to support Senator Howard Cannon’s reelection and Bob backed his opponent, Paul Laxalt; when Lyndon Johnson apparently (I am being nice with the modifier, because I am 99.999999% sure it happened) threatened Reynolds’s radio and TV licenses, Reynolds ordered all-out pro-Cannon coverage. Bob was in advertising for a while and worked at some other papers before buying The North Las Vegas Valley Times in 1973 from Adam Yacenda, another great friend, mentor, and character. Bob turned the paper into a Las Vegas daily; he once told me that he couldn’t survive just serving North Las Vegas. He hired a great team of reporters and editors. Ned Day was the greatest and most famous reporter for his coverage of the mob, among other things, but the paper had an all-star lineup. Bruce Hasley, the managing editor, is still the best all-around journalist I ever worked with (and I have had the privilege of working in various ways with some very good ones out here).
He was, at least to me, an incredibly kind and patient man. He had a wealth of knowledge and he shared what he could of it. Bob was a good and decent man who did some not-so-good things. Bob never had the money to make the paper what he and the rest of us wanted it to be, and this meant that he had to pull back at times on some coverage and, sadly, he got in bed with Argent on the skimming for the Midwestern crime families to get money for The Valley Times. That makes him important in an unfortunate way, by showing how the mob had extended its influence into the broader community. But he’s also important for pushing for coverage of gaming and organized crime when the rest of the media here weren’t digging nearly so deeply, for in-depth political coverage, and for being an important behind-the-scenes player. He should be in the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame as an editor and a publisher of great significance to journalism and history, and it’s a blot on that organization that he is not in there.
I also know that I owe him a lot. I had a wonderful high school government teacher, Phil Cook (a native himself), who insisted that I enter a Rotary speech contest. I spoke on journalism, since I wanted to pursue that career. Bob was a regular at Rotary and heard me, thought he detected something, and told me to call him. I did and he hired me. I shudder to think how my life might have turned out if I hadn’t been speaking and he hadn’t been there that day.
CLV Blog: What's your favorite Las Vegas history subject and why.
Green: I have so many! One is journalism, from the crazies with the first paper in town (the Las Vegas Times) and Pop Squires to the Cahlans and, especially, Hank Greenspun. Another is politics, broadly speaking—not just who we elect, but how it affects our daily lives and how we affect it. But my favorite, I think, is the history of organized crime here. I am very involved with the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (The Mob Museum), and I have learned a lot working on that. It’s a fascinating story that takes into account everything from ethnicity to the power of the state (both the nation-state and the state of Nevada). It’s just a marvelously broad and interesting topic.
CLV Blog: What's the biggest obstacle to overcome in preserving Las Vegas history and why.
Green: This is always a tough one, but let me go back to graduate school. Columbia has a wonderful urban historian named Kenneth Jackson who gave a lecture when I was a student there. He said that New York City was a “winner” while Boston and Philadelphia were “losers.” Why? Because New York City was constantly rebuilding while Boston and Philadelphia emphasized their past—they aren’t looking to the future. Things may have changed since he said that 25 years ago, and I can’t say I agreed with him then or agree with him now. But it made me think, and it helps explain Las Vegas. It’s a young city, both in terms of its existence and in terms of its population, in a lot of ways. And looking forward, as we tend to do, often means forgetting to look back.
Two other problems with preserving Las Vegas history have become less so over the years. One of these is the number of newcomers, which the recession has caused to level off (it also reduced the knocking down of old buildings). A significant number of newer arrivals retain ties to wherever they came from, and don’t have the interest in getting involved here. This isn’t unusual, given the growth of the Sunbelt, the decline of the Rust Belt, and that there is a long history of people migrating to a country or region and not developing much of an attachment to it. But we need to promote that attachment.
The other problem that has gotten better is that we often don’t notice the need to preserve something until it’s gone. The 1907 icehouse burned a quarter of a century ago. Those of us who have been around long enough still look back at that and mutter to ourselves. Now, we have a vibrant downtown community (not just in Las Vegas, but in Henderson and Boulder City; it seems to be less true in North Las Vegas) that sees a future in the past. To put it another way, if you had told me 20 years ago that we would have the Mob Museum, the Springs Preserve, a new Nevada State Museum, the Neon Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Mormon Fort complete with a visitors center, and the work that David Van Zanten talked about in his interview going on, all downtown or close to it, I would have thought you were nuts. And that isn’t meant to ignore those outside of downtown like the Atomic Testing Museum, the Clark County Museum (a jewel that not enough people visit), and both the Hoover Dam Visitors Center and the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum. We have a lot of history being studied here, and it’s a growth industry.
As Preservation Month begins to wind down, in the days ahead we will be spotlighting: Brian "Paco" Alvarez- local preservationist and cultural historian, Clark County Museum director (and "Pawn Stars" regular) Mark Hall Patton, Karan Feder- costume and clothing historian preservationist, Joel Rosales photographer/historian of LostandfoundVegas, Clay Heximer-historian and preservationist for Paradise Palms and Heidi Swank- executive director of the Nevada Preservation Foundation.
So keep checking back because we have some great people coming up!
Remember- "history is what binds us to our community"!