In the Belly of the Beast

It may be a dark, dank dive. But rockers, skaters and skinheads call it home. Now, the last real bar in downtown Tempe is on the eve of destruction.

Six East Lounge. "The Beast." People in Tempe have called it that since the late '70s, when it was still a biker bar. Today, it's easy to see--and smell--why the nickname stuck. When you walk in, rancid piss and cleaning chemicals mingle with whiskey, smoke and a musty, old-house smell to create a dank eau de 6E strong enough to flare your nostrils. Regulars say you know the Beast has its claws in you when that first noxious whiff yields a pleasurable reaction, like shrugging off a weight, or the sweet relief of coming home.

The interior of 6 East is not for the squeamish. The walls are covered with a combination of cheap wood paneling and decaying wallpaper that may have been orange at one time, featuring a decorative wrought-iron pattern popular 20 years ago. The carpeting is so matted it feels like concrete.

Stand at the front door, and you face the long side of an L-shaped bar with about 15 stools. To your right is a line of six booths with wobbly tables. The tabletops, like the wood paneling, are a mosaic of graffiti, presumably carved with knives. In the back of the bar are corner alcoves with shelves, two pool tables in remarkably good condition, a jukebox and an Elvira, Mistress of the Dark pinball machine. There used to be two bullet holes in the front wall, just beyond the last booth, but they were covered a few months ago.

The bar was named after its address--6 East Seventh Street in downtown Tempe, spitting distance from Mill Avenue. 6 East is only a short walk from Fat Tuesday, Uno's, the Crocodile Cafe and the other flashy franchises that have taken over Mill Avenue. But in spirit, it's a world apart. It is seedy, cheap and locally owned. It does not take credit cards.

"Think of all the other Mill Avenue bars as these big, clean, corporate rocks," says 6 East regular Martin Montofano, 30. "6 East is the bar for people who like to pick up the rock and watch the centipedes crawling around. It's also the bar for the centipedes."

About seven years ago, 6 East began a transition from biker bar to a sort of United Nations for disenfranchised youth in Tempe. Its reputation is not sterling. People who speak knowingly of 6 East use the words "whirlpool," "vortex" and "black hole" with striking frequency. They speak of the bar like it's crack--a wicked good time, but addicting and dangerous. A few will actually warn you never to go there, or, if you're already inside, to leave before it's too late.

Depending on whom you ask, 6 East is either a creepy dive bar full of junkies or a big, gnarly middle finger to the rest of fascist downtown Tempe. A freak show where they serve drinks, or a spiritual proving ground. A stronghold for the dark side of the force, or a place of perverse camaraderie.

But whatever else it may be, the Beast is also on the verge of extinction. The City of Tempe is going to put it down. But not because of its scruffy image. 6 East just happens to be in the way.

According to plans for the "Seventh Street and Mill Project," 6 East is now the future site of an underground parking garage and "artisan's court" of retail spaces topped with luxury condos. Ted Claassen, one of the developers hired by Tempe to implement those plans, says construction will begin next spring or early summer.

"Getting rid of 6 East is just another step in Tempe's idiotic obsession to become another Scottsdale," says co-owner David Iman. "Well, one Scottsdale's enough. They're just going to knock this building down and build a bigger one that looks just like all the other buildings on Mill Avenue."

Built in 1963, the building at 6 East Seventh Street was a "Ham Bun" restaurant before it was a bar. There's still an old sandwich board in a narrow hallway between the bar and the storeroom: "Iced Tea .15; Ham Bun .55; Chili .25 & .45; Budweiser on tap .25; Apple Pie .25."

According to county records, a liquor license was transferred to the location in 1970 for a business called "6 East, A Meeting Place." The bar went through four sets of owners before Iman and Ed Whitmann, both longtime residents of Tempe, purchased it in 1981. "No one ever changed the name or any of that crap," says Iman. "It's always been a neighborhood place. We don't raise our prices for the Fiesta Bowl. 6 East is 6 East is 6 East. It's just always been a bar. The last real bar in downtown Tempe."

Iman and Whitmann have been friends since the '70s, when they were both regulars at Perry's, a hard-drinking bar on Mill Avenue. Perry's is the Spaghetti Company now.

"6 East is still an old neighborhood bar, but a lot of the old neighborhood is gone," says Whitmann, who first moved to Tempe in 1959. "When this place became a bar, there were all these trailers and run-down little shack houses just across the street on Mill. They went all the way from University to Second Street. Well, when Tempe got its first chunk of redevelopment money, I think it was in the mid-'70s, they started buying out all those homes. And it just progressed from there.

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