|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|I liked this dusty model rum runner, combined with Mimi’s commentary drawing a direct line from these boats to World War II PT boats and Kennedy’s wartime heroism.
I arrived at the Museum of the American Gangster predisposed to dislike it. A small, threadbare operation by the sound of it, two modest rooms over a nautically-themed absinthe-specialist dive bar on St. Marks Place (with a fancy take-out-window sandwich shop embedded in it). Combine that premise with a steep $20 admission charge and it seemed sketchy — like the execrable Ground Zero Museum Workshop, a ploy to separate gullible museum-goers from their hard-earned cash.
And, yup, it’s that.
But it’s not just that. It’s also Mimi, the guide on the Sunday shortly before New Year’s when I took my tour. Mimi who gave a rather astonishing, 105-minute, note-free, free-associative, and fascinating history of the entire American project, from colonization through today, as viewed through the lens of organized crime and from the unapologetic perspective of a smart, funny, middle-aged, super-liberal, Jewish New Yorker.
I realize that description contains a fair amount of redundancy.
What I Saw at the Gangster Museum
The Gangster Museum is indeed basically two rooms, the size of a starter New York apartment (which in a past life it probably was). Very much of the Science Fair variety of exhibition: lots of photos, reproduction documents, and wall text with a few artifacts (old bottles, models, some bullets from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre…Tommy gun) to liven things up.
You can only visit on a tour — no wandering in off the street. For the first chunk of it, covering the early history of organized crime and booze and America, there are thankfully seats. The second part is about standing and peering at pictures on the walls. There’s not much of any time for self-guided exploration, but then again, there’s not much to explore.
The space is, to put it kindly, disheveled. A desk in at the front of the first room serves as the office, with various bits that should probably be thrown out or tidied up, just kind of out there. If you need a restroom break, visit the dive bar on the ground floor.
Eventually, the tour takes you down to said dive bar, which was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and which also now houses the old St Mark’s Theater, installed after the Prohibition days. Then you put on somewhat sketchy hard hats (are these things sanitized between visitors?) and go down to the basement, which is even sketchier, and gives you a great view into what the basement of an East Village apartment building that also contains a dive bar and trendy sandwich shop looks like. Cluttered with utility pipes and ducts and wires and conduits dangerously everywhere.
In the Prohibition days, the organized criminal who ran the enterprise kept his office down there, and you can see what the space is like today. It didn’t add much.
What I Heard at the Gangster Museum
I’m not going to try to reconstruct the Gangster Museum spiel from my notes. You need to hear it firsthand. Some highlights of what we covered, though:
- The triangle slave trade
- Women’s rights and the dawn of Prohibition
- Southern plantations as Auschwitz
- Rum Runners and Kennedy’s WWII Heroics
- Prescription Booze
- The Dawn of the Cocktail
- The Chemist Wars as Extrajudicial Killing — or “Assisted Suicide”
- Prohibition was just for the poor
And then we finally got to gangsters. This review is already long enough but two of my particular favorite quotes from the gangster part were:
- Arnold Rothstein (real gangster): “I think we can do crime better.”
- Omar Little (fictional gangster): “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
We rolled right over our allotted tour time and still barely had time for the history of the building. As it was Mimi turned away a guy who arrived for the 2:30 tour — sent him to the bar for a hot apple cider, because she wasn’t finished with us yet.
We learned of lost safes, buried in concrete. The speakeasy turned theater, the lost office, the whole building an “improvised explosive device” should the Feds come knocking. Escape tunnels and expired Italian dinners (locked in said safes).
I can’t even.
There was a whole heck of a lot left out. No real conversation about organized crime post-Prohibition, or certainly not post-WWII.
Nothing about the potentially awesome, deep topic of organized crime in popular culture. Though Mimi did talk about the ways that early gangsters masterfully manipulated their images in popular culture — at least until their extralegal activities got too bloody or grandiose for their generosity or outsized personalities to balance.
I left exhausted and excited in a way I hardly expected from a two-room, threadbare, quasi-museum.
Is The Museum of the American Gangster a Hit?
Rarely in the course of my museum project have I found myself so stymied by the bottom line. Generally, it’s an easy “go” or “don’t go.” Or a “go if you’re into so-and-so topic.” The Museum of the American Gangster isn’t a good museum — it’s not worth it if you approach it as one, even if you’re into organized crime.
But think of this place, instead, as a theatrical experience. Your reaction to it will completely depend on your guide and whether you click with that person. I can only speak for Mimi, who reminded me why I love this city in all its quirky, passionate, fascinating diversity.
Note also that there’s a Groupon deal seemingly always available that gets you in two-for-one. Do that. Even for Mimi, I have trouble recommending spending $20 on the Gangster Museum.
|80 Saint Marks Place, Manhattan (near First Avenue)
|General Admission: $20, check website for guided tour times. Note, check Groupon for a 2 for one deal.
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