By Ray Stern
By New Times
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At night, from atop Tempe Butte, the high canopy of lush foliage over the historic Maple-Ash neighborhood near downtown Tempe blocks out the street lamps, creating a dark square in the grid of lights that appears to extend forever in all directions. On the sidewalks beneath that canopy, underground irrigation and trees imported more than half a century ago create the effect of a surreal arboretum, and cool the air in summer.
When I came to the Valley four years ago, I immediately moved into a house on Ash Avenue. I less lived in the area than hid from the rest of the Valley. My first impression of our baby metropolis was one of hostile, overwhelming anonymity -- a generic tape loop of franchises, strip malls and tract homes, where one municipality imperceptibly merges into the next.
I realize this wasn't an original observation, but landing in the middle of such vast urban sprawl felt like a brainwash. Retreating under the trees helped deprogram me at day's end. Under the trees, the houses are funky and distinctive, like most of the people who live in them.
For now, the Maple-Ash neighborhood largely remains a mosaic of students, musicians and all feathers of retirees and young people like me, who'd gone looking for a distinctive community in a city of homogeny. A neighborhood where you can take a stroll to the best record store in the Valley, a body piercing salon, a comic book store, Mill Avenue, the ASU campus and Sun Devil Stadium.
The corner Circle K is an inescapable evil, but at least it's across the street from Casey Moore's Oyster House, the Maple-Ash neighborhood's pearl.
Clearly, the best means to get to a bar, or rather the best to get home, is to walk (biking is a close second), and most of the regulars at Casey's are people who live nearby and take advantage of this simple yet rare luxury. As a result, Casey Moore's is the social nexus for the neighborhood.
Formerly known as Ninth and Ash, for the corner on which it sits, the tavern is a converted house, built in 1910 and reputed to be haunted. Its capacity is 112, and on weekend nights when the college crowd is out in force, the place is almost always packed by 10 p.m. Overflow customers hang out on the front porch and side patio.
Until about a year ago, they could also spend time in the grass on the bar's front lawn, which used to be the hottest place in Tempe to wind up for last call.
Today the lawn at Casey's is looking much healthier. It's roped off by yellow plastic flags in one of several concessions the tavern's owners have made recently to appease Tempe developer Steve Tseffos, who's trying to sell glorified tract homes down the street, and acts like he's out to get Casey Moore's.
Tseffos, the former spokesman for attorney general Grant Woods, has formally complained to the City of Tempe many times that Casey's is a disruptive force in the neighborhood. The tavern's owners accuse him of pulling strings at the state liquor control board to put Casey's in the cross hairs of undercover investigators.
Tseffos did not return several calls seeking an interview.
This may have been because they were placed while he was on vacation in Greece with his business partner Rob Carey, who also used to work for Grant Woods, and was considered the most powerful prosecutor in the state.
Or maybe because Tseffos vowed in 1993 never to speak with any New Times reporter again, after New Times suckered his boss into posing for a picture with an escaped prisoner who worked as a hot dog vendor outside the Madison Street Jail.
Tseffos and Carey resigned from the Attorney General's Office under a shared cloud of accusations of gambling and misappropriating funds, which turned out to be more of a politically motivated shit storm conjured up by Woods' archenemy, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.
In any case, Tseffos and Carey have since invested in beaucoup property inside the Maple-Ash neighborhood, and they've begun to redevelop it, starting with Ash Court (known in the neighborhood as "Cash Court").
Ash Court is on Ash Avenue, one block south of Casey Moore's. It consists of a selection of 12 slightly varied models of "neo-traditional homes," which means they look like a failed attempt to blend a dozen new, two-story homes that all look stamped by the same press into a neighborhood of old, funky, one-story houses.
The Ash Court abodes make you understand the influence growing up in the Valley had on Steven Spielberg. One can gleefully imagine Casey Moore's ghosts wreaking all manner of ghoulish havoc on Ash Court.
The houses there start at $185,000, which seems a bit high for a cluster of ticky-tacks built to abutt railroad tracks, where freight trains to and from Mexico rumble past at all hours.
County records show that five of the 12 units have been sold (this despite a sign out front which for nine months read "ONLY ONE LOT LEFT!" before being replaced in July by "CALL FOR INFORMATION").