The Case for Casey's

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").

One of the occupied houses -- Ash Court One -- belongs to Dan Durrenberger, vice president of the public relations firm that recently helped a group of citizens drive a Wal-Mart out of Chandler.

Durrenberger's also a good friend to Steve Tseffos, and another business partner. Tseffos bought Durrenberger's old house as part of the deal for Ash Court One. Working the media is a key tool of Durrenberger's trade, and one he recently employed to Tseffos' advantage in the August 6 edition of the Arizona Republic's Tempe community section, where Durrenberger's picture and name appeared above a column that smeared Casey's. It was headlined: "Tempe tavern has sprung a leak, neighbors contend."

In it, Durrenberger said the Maple-Ash neighborhood has become "a victim of the bar's runaway success."

"There is something about the telephone poles along Ash Avenue that induces spontaneous urination among Casey Moore's clientele," Durrenberger wrote. "Personal observation reveals they routinely mistake these poles for toilets."

He went on to say that unnamed residents in the Maple-Ash neighborhood are demanding that Casey's voluntarily cut back its business.

"What neighbors want is restraint. They want a fundamental change in attitude. They want Casey Moore's to operate responsibly. They want patrons to stop urinating in front yards. They want them to stop throwing bottles on the sidewalks. They want harassing cat calls to stop."

Durrenberger failed to detail who these neighbors were or give an estimate of their numbers.

"There are other elements to this melodrama," he continued. "The internal intrigue that brought the bar to the attention of state liquor officials. The prospect of fines for liquor violations. These and other loose ends are best left for a future column."

Durrenberger's piece closed with a direct threat to David Arkules, one of Casey's three owners: "Arkules should mend his bar's ways. Because in the long run, success will provide little immunity from the array of forces being meticulously assembled to solve his problems for him."

Durrenberger obviously considers himself one of those forces. The common wisdom around Casey Moore's is that it may be Durrenberger's mouth moving, but it's Steve Tseffos' hand up his ass that's manning the controls.

Durrenberger described the Maple-Ash area as "a quiet neighborhood." Granted, that's a relative judgment. But this much is objective fact: Walk around that 'hood on a weekend afternoon and it often sounds like there's a live band practicing in at least one house every two blocks.

Furthermore, the Maple-Ash area is famous as a place to party hop from house to house, and for good reason. Durrenberger blaming Casey's for beer bottles in front of his house on Sunday morning is outrageous, when they could have easily been discarded by a posse of revelers making their way from one house party to the next.

But then how the hell should Durrenberger know? He only moved to the neighborhood in July, and he lives in Ash Court One, which is like stamping "Dork" on your forehead. (Tseffos has lived on Maple Avenue for many years.)

As to the accusation in Durrenberger's column that Casey's is run irresponsibly, it's worth noting that the bar has been cited for just two liquor-law violations in the last five years -- once for selling liquor on credit, and once for allowing an intoxicated person to remain on the premises.

By comparison, Tseffos and Carey used to own a frat-boy bar near ASU called the Dash Inn, which racked up 17 violations in half as much time, until the state forced them to sell the bar.

Casey's got busted the second time (the one for allowing a drunk person to remain inside the bar) the night of July 29, when an undercover agent cited the bar for serving a beer to a man the investigator said was clearly intoxicated. He turned out to be a state treasury department employee out with friends for his bachelor party.

Gavin Rutledge, co-owner of Casey Moore's, admits the man was drunk, and shouldn't have been served a beer. He says he had no problem paying the $500 fine. But he fears that, just as Durrenberger alluded to in his column, Tseffos is meticulously maneuvering behind the scenes to make the bar a target for selective enforcement.

"This is not about beer bottles," says Rutledge. "It's about Casey Moore's not fitting into the vision a developer has for this neighborhood. Unfortunately for us, it's a developer with a lot of political power, who can make our life harder with a few phone calls."

Rutledge says that soon after construction began on Ash Court last May, Tseffos began to complain about the bar to city officials. Three months ago, zoning officers informed Casey's owners that an addition to the bar's side patio appears to violate an ordinance by a few hundred square feet, and will have to be reviewed.

A recent Thursday night found Rutledge answering questions as he furiously wiped serving trays to accommodate the jostling-room-only crowd. There were another 100 people outside, and Rutledge continued an interview as he walked the bar's perimeter. He chastised the three bouncers at the bar's entrance to move imbibers farther back into the bar's brick courtyard, away from the street.

This may have been primarily for my benefit, although the ropes blocking access to the lawn were not, nor the speed bumps in the parking lot or any of the other olive branches Casey's owners have held out. In recent months, they've hired laborers to pick up cigarette butts and beer bottles every Saturday and Sunday morning for two blocks in every direction, which includes Ash Court. Owners have ordered bartenders and servers to cut people off more quickly.

Also, customers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are now forced to leave through the side patio instead of directly onto Ash Avenue, an effort to discourage foot traffic in the neighborhood.

Rutledge admits the tactic is not even close to fail-safe, but points out that anyone who moves to the Maple-Ash area has to know they're moving close to a popular bar, and all the noise that comes with it.

"You don't move into a house next to a golf course and not expect the occasional ball through your window," he says.

"I'm jumping through more hoops than most trained circus animals to try and be a good neighbor," Rutledge says. "So far, the only result is [Tseffos] is still against us, and this place isn't as much fun as it used to be."

Business is down 20 percent over last year, he says. "We're not doing so well."

Rutledge says he has met with Tseffos, who he calls "a little Napoleon," and that the developer has given him a simple choice: Agree to close down the bar every night at 11 p.m., or get shut down, permanently.

"He doesn't seem to doubt he can hurt us," Rutledge says. "I'm starting not to doubt it, too."

People who have been to Tseffos' house say he has a scale model of the Maple-Ash neighborhood as it would appear under his master plan. They say it shows most of the neighborhood's northern end rezoned for retail use and high-density housing like Ash Court. The Casey Moore's house is still there, but the parking lot has become a housing development.

Before I moved out of Tempe in early August, I noticed that madness seemed to have been loosed on the Valley's college town, the kind that convinces people to lay the character of Tempe across the altar of progress and hack away at its heart.

This madness has raised rents on Mill Avenue so high even McDonald's couldn't last long without a drive-through window. It has induced the city to spend $100 million on the Tempe Town Lake, and to pave over the last block of grass on Mill Avenue so developers could replace it with a Gap, an Abercrombie & Fitch, and a P.F. Chang's.

Judging by Ash Court, Tseffos suffers severely from the madness. Hopefully, it has not spread so far as to make inevitable the destruction of Tempe's greatest neighborhood, or its greatest neighborhood bar.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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